Rays’ Garrett Whitley on the rise thanks to a push from unlikely source

Bowling Green Hot Rods left fielder Garrett Whitley (24) at Bowling Green Ball Park (Photo Credit: Steve Roberts/Bowling Green Hot Rods).

Feature Photo: Garrett Whitley, OF, Rays
(Photo by Steve Roberts/Bowling Green Hot Rods)


Outfielder Garrett Whitley, the Tampa Bay Rays’ first-round choice (#13 overall) in the 2015 MLB Draft, had an unlikely ally pushing him to jump to professional baseball from his small high school in upstate New York.

As a high school junior, Whitley had committed to play baseball for Wake Forest University under head coach Tom Walter, but as it became clear that Whitley’s draft stock was rising, his soon-to-be college coach gave him some advice.

“When it all started to blow up, he would come to my house and talk to me, and one time that spring [in 2015], he told me, ‘If you’re going to go where you’re projected to go, I don’t want you to come to school here,’” Whitley said. “I hear a lot about college coaches pressuring guys, but Coach Walter was in my corner, and that made it easy for me.”

Walter remembers the conversation vividly.

Walter knew, as did Whitley’s family, that to be picked early in the first round would mean a life-changing contract. Walter had a plan in place for how he would work with Whitley if he did come to Wake Forest, but by the time that conversation took place that June, Whitley had already rocketed up the draft board, and seemingly out of nowhere.

“I went up and visited a few days before the draft and had dinner at their table,” Walter said. “The whole family was there, and we talked about it [the draft], and I flat out said, ‘If you get drafted in the top 20 picks, it’s a no-brainer.’”

Niskayuna High School (Niskayuna, NY), Whitley’s alma mater, has just one other pro alum from its ranks – Dick Sims (SS/OF, Yankees, Reds 1961-1964), who had a non-illustrious career in the low minors. According to Whitley, the level of competition he faced in high school does not compete with other areas of the country.

“In high school, I didn’t really face pitchers throwing 90 or anything like that,” Whitley said. “But we played good baseball for New York. There’s obviously a difference between that and California or Georgia.”

Whitley wasn’t even particularly active on the showcase circuit, playing only local summer travel ball. Getting noticed enough by professional scouts meant he needed a bit of good fortune and timing.

“A local college team, Siena College, recruited me and offered me a scholarship,” Whitley said, adding that they did so based on seeing him with his summer travel team before his junior year in high school. “I don’t think they ever expected me to go there, but one of the coaches happened to know a scout in the area and told him about me.”

At the same time, Whitley had grabbed the attention of one of the hitting coaches at Wake Forest, who passed his name on to Walter. The following summer, however, Whitley’s stock would shoot up even higher.

Whitley went to a July 2014 Area Code Games tryout in Syracuse during the summer before his senior year, where he impressed enough to be invited to the 2014 Area Code Games, held in Long Beach, Calif., that August.

“Everything kind of blew up right there,” Whitley said. “All the scouts say, ‘If you’re good, they’ll find you,’ and I guess that’s kind of what happened. This whole world is small, and there’s a lot of good people in it, so when you make a certain connection, it gets around, and with a little bit of luck and hard work, you wind up getting seen.

Whitley had committed to Wake Forest in the summer of 2013, but his trajectory changed with the Area Code invite.

“He was not on the [national] travel ball circuit, so no one was aware of how talented he was,” Walter said.

Whitley, who scored 2250 on the three-part SAT (where 2400 is the max, putting him in the 99th percentile) as a junior, had plenty of options besides baseball. But after being selected with the 13th-overall pick by the Rays a year later, Whitley chose to go pro, signing for a bonus of $2.9 million. During his pro debut season, he spent 30 games with the Rays’ Rookie-level GCL Rays affiliate in Florida before getting a brief 12-game taste of the Short-Season A New York-Penn League, where he hit .143 for the Hudson Valley Renegades.

“I had a lot of stuff to catch up on,” Whitley said of his pro debut season. “First it was the velo, and then it was dealing with the breaking balls. For a while during my first season, I was in my head so much that [my swing] didn’t even look like the swing that had gotten me to where I was.”

Garrett Whitley, Tampa Bay Rays, Rays prospects

Bowling Green Hot Rods left fielder Garrett Whitley (24) at Bowling Green Ballpark April 29, 2017 (Photo by (Steve Roberts/Bowling Green Hot Rods).

Whitley said that he got so out of sorts with his approach at the plate during his first pro season that he was missing pitches he used to crush. He said ultimately solving this problem became a matter of self-belief.

“You have to be confident in yourself. You’re here for a reason,” Whitley said. “Comfort is the big thing. Once I got used to the pitching and got my mind wrapped around that, it started to click and became a lot easier.

Some of this boost in confidence has come from having the chance to face major league pitchers in spring training and when they are on rehab assignments and having success against them.

“I feel like I can hit any pitcher on earth as long as I stick to my approach and have confidence in myself to do what I can do,” Whitley said.

Whitley’s success has come gradually. He played exclusively in the New York-Penn League last season, where he slashed .266/.356/.379 in 65 games with Hudson Valley. This year, Whitley jumped up to to his first full season of pro ball, where he is currently slashing .256/.367/.435 for Class A Bowling Green in the Midwest League.

Whitley’s development at the plate will require patience given his lack of exposure to challenging pitching in high school, but he has other exciting tools that are already on display. His speed on the basepaths makes him a tough out even on some routine plays and he has an above-average arm in the outfield, where he is playing all three positions. Whitley’s potential for plus power at the plate makes it worth waiting on the approach to develop. Twenty-seven of his 73 hits this season are for extra bases, including 11 home runs, so his power potential has been on display more consistently this year. It’s also worth keeping in mind that Whitley has played in two pitcher-friendly leagues the past two seasons.

Whitley’s .790 OPS is nearly 90 points higher than the league average for the Midwest League. Given that he is still just 20 years old, there is reason to be optimistic about Whitley’s progress this season. Even if he never hits for high average, he will still likely hit for power and extra bases, all while drawing walks at a high rate – his .367 on-base percentage this year is more than 100 points above his batting average (.256), and it’s a testament to his rapidly improving pitch recognition and plate discipline – and providing steady defense and some speed on the basepaths, where he’s 15-for-18 on stolen base attempts this year.

Whitley has the right mindset to handle the inevitable ups and downs of minor league baseball, and he still texts with Walter, especially when he has struggled. The Wake Forest coach says he offers encouragement, but Whitley is more ready for these challenges than even he might realize.

“One of the reasons he went so high in the draft was his maturity,” Walter said. “He was much different than your average 18 year old. Most of them can only see the trees, and they can’t see the big picture. Garrett sees the big picture.”