Thursday, September 7, 2017

Getting to Know Astros/Hooks RHP Forrest Whitley

During my August trip to Corpus Christi, I had the opportunity to not only interview one of the Astros top prospects, I also had a chance to chat with him, watch his interactions with teammates and just generally see how he goes about his day. Unfortunately, the timing didn't work out for me to actually see RHP Forrest Whitley pitch. But I'd seen him before -- last season in Greeneville. Yes, the Astros 2016 first round pick ended last season in rookie ball and ended this season at AA, not exactly the normal trajectory for a high school signing. But it is not exactly surprising given what Whitley has accomplished in 2017.

Forrest Whitley - August 2017
Photo by Jayne Hansen

Through three levels of full season teams, Whitley compiled a 2.83 ERA and a 1.213 WHIP through 23 appearances (18 starts). In 92.1 innings of work, he walked 34 batters while striking out a whopping 143. Although he only pitched 14.2 innings at his last stop in Corpus, he was very successful in his brief time at the level -- 1.84 ERA, 0.818 WHIP, 4 walks, 26 strikeouts. He will turn 20 next week.

I had been told that Whitley might be a bit quiet, but nothing could be farther from the truth. The disconnect appears to lie in Whitley's reticence to speak out unless he's personally addressed, an attribute that is probably a good thing for someone his age in this business. "I'll talk when spoken to. I'll talk a lot when spoken to. I'm not much of an instigator of conversation so people may think I'm quiet," said Whitley. But we ended up talking quite a bit, both on and off the record and I found him to be personable, attentive and thoughtful in his answers.

As is usually the case with pitchers, I wanted to find out more about Whitley's pitch repertoire. He throws a fastball that sits between 93 and 97, a low 90's cutter, a slider, curveball and changeup. As to which pitches are working best for him right now, he told me, "Most of my outings, I'll throw all five pitches, but three will really be working so it's kind of just day-to-day on what's working. Some days it's the fastball and the slider and the changeup. Some days it's the fastball, cutter and slider. It's very rare for me to have all five pitches working. Sometimes it will be two that are working and I've succeeded. But if there was one really consistent pitch that has been pretty much there for me all year and last year, it would be the changeup. That pitch has really come a long way for me and it's been a huge weapon this season. And then the cutter's right behind that. The curveball and slider -- they're good pitches and they can be wipeout pitches but the consistency of those pitches needs to improve."

Whitley continued, "When I was younger, I threw more pitches. I threw like seven or eight pitches. I wasn't always a hard thrower growing up so for me to get guys out, I'd have to throw a lot of pitches. That's when I was 13 or 14. Then when I was 15, the velocity came and I had all those pitches so it was kind of pick and choose which ones were the best and that's kind of followed me up to this level."

Asked to give a scouting report on himself, Whitley said, "I feel like, from what I've heard this season (from) guys that are charting in the stands (and) have heard scouts talk about me, they like how much I mix up my pitches. I don't really get into a whole lot of predictable scenarios because I throw so many pitches. And I think that's huge. It's something that's going to be big for me throughout my whole career. Some things I can improve on, I guess, would be mechanically. There's some aspects mechanically that I need to improve on, not necessarily for velocity, but more for health down the line. And that's something that I'm going to be always tinkering with throughout my career because I want to pitch injury-free as long as I possibly can, stay in this game as long as I possibly can without having to miss a year with an injury."

As far as intangibles go, Whitley told me, "I feel like I can focus in really hard times. I feel like when the game is supposed to speed up the most is when I slow it down. I'll get nerves sometimes before a game or during a game, but I'm able to talk to myself and calm myself down pretty good. I feel like upstairs I have it together pretty well. Obviously there's still some stuff to work on and improve on, but right now, I feel like for my age, I do a pretty good job."

Whitley's 6'7" frame is relatively thin, but that wasn't always the case. "For how slender I am now, I used to be a big guy. I used to be 265 pounds, but I lost all the weight senior year and I just kept on most of the muscle and (have) put on muscle since then. I've always been kind of a large kid up until senior year. There's definitely aspects of the strength component that I'd like to add. I feel like that's the same for anyone."

While discussing Whitley's rapid trajectory up through the system, he said, "It's definitely cool. I'm extremely thankful to this organization, that they have the confidence in me, the trust in me to go this fast through the organization. I feel like I've done a pretty good job of showing them what I've got in each level. It's been a really fun year."

Now that Whitley has a second pro season under his belt, I wondered what advice he would have for a top draft pick, particularly one signing out of high school. His answered surprised me somewhat because it was not something I'd heard from other top picks, and I found it a little sad. When he first signed, Whitley found that some people were determined to give him a hard time. "That's just how it is. Everybody gets it, but when you have a status or a name or you're valuable to the organization; for example, if you're a high pick and got a lot of money, you're going to be constantly messed with every day. The thing is you've just got to go with it and give it back. That took me a while to learn and once I finally gave it back, (I realized) OK, this is easy. I know how to deal with this."

On a lighter note, he also warned that one needs to get used to hearing a lot of Latin music and to learn Spanish. Whitley started the season with the Low A Quad Cities team which had a very heavy Latin presence and he benefited from speaking the language. "I've been speaking Spanish for 13 years now. My parents put me in a Spanish immersion program when I was in elementary school," said Whitley. He continued with courses through middle school and high school and acknowledged, "It really helped me. Senior year, I didn't take Spanish because I was done but I wish I would have found a way to speak Spanish because that year of not speaking Spanish, I completely lost it. I could understand it, but I could never really get anything out (other than) the basics. But now, speaking it every day with the guys -- it's been helpful. Relearning it makes it a lot easier to communicate with these guys that don't speak English."

We segued to talking about some of Whitley's teammates during the season. When asked who in the system had a pitch he'd like to steal, he responded that, although he's pretty confident in his own pitch arsenal, he would love to have Jorge Alcala's fastball. "He sits 99 to 103. He can really throw it. He's got an incredible fastball. There's a couple other guys. Trent Thornton's offspeed pitches are really good. I saw him in Spring Training and his slider and curveball are really, really good."

As far as which hitter he'd least like to face, Whitley responded without hesitation, "Yordan Alvarez. Best hitter in the system. I faced him in Spring Training four times, walked him all four times. And I walked five guys in Spring Training so he had 80% of my walks. He is such a physical presence in the box and he knows how to hit. He's very young too. It's really impressive. He's just constantly putting balls in play. Every ball he makes contact with is just absolutely murdered. He's just one of those guys that's kind of like a sure fire, going to be a stud in the big leagues for me. So that's one guy. Another guy would be Kyle Tucker. If he was right-handed, he would be my nightmare just because he's constantly putting the ball where the infielders aren't. Hitting the ball hard too. For whatever reason, I just handle lefties a little bit better which is not usual being right-handed. Yeah, if there was such a thing as a right-handed Kyle Tucker, it would be a nightmare."

I wanted to know something about Whitley that most people might not know and after a meandering conversation, it came down not to some hidden interest or talent, but rather who he is and how he got there. With a Texas pedigree, he understands the stereotypes out there but he doesn't fit them. "Where I'm from, like specifically San Antonio and Alamo Heights, it's just like vast stretches of personalities. I'm just a conglomeration of all the people I've been around."

For those who have read my interviews over the years, you know that I like to leave the reader with my impression of a player in case it doesn't come through in the player's words. And my impression of Whitley is that of a smart, vibrant, charming, charismatic young man -- very, very confident but not too cocky, mindful of others and the impression he makes upon them and very comfortable in his own skin. He is very much alive and enjoying life in a way that only a 19-year old with the world in front of him can.

Thank you for your time, Forrest. I'll see you next year!

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The gang over at the Lima Time Time podcast with help from Timothy de Block of Crawfish Boxes fame are putting on a 24-hour podcast/livecast to raise money for Hurricane Harvey relief. They already have a ton of announced guests lined up and some unannounced ones as well (as in yours truly). They will be broadcasting from 7 pm CST Friday the 8th until 7 pm CST Saturday the 9th. (Personally, I'd tune in around 4:00 am when James and Patrick start getting delirious.) The details can be found here. And you can start the donations rolling ahead of time by clicking on the link below.

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