The last time I wrote for this site, the season was likely, but still speculative. Clearly the MLB seemed to be running the show by the seat of their pants and with no actual plan, which increased the chances of it getting unceremoniously cancelled. And yet here I sit, a few days later, and the season has officially started. One series is now in the books. I guess this is really happening.
Yesterday, the Cardinals proved once and for all that they will not go 60-0, which is surely a shocking development to all. I feel like this has been ingrained in me since I first became a fan, but the goal is to win series, and the Cardinals did that, so the first weekend was a success. Yesterday was not. It was an all-around disappointment: bad offense, bad starting pitching, a not super impressive outing by the bullpen. These things usually lead to a loss, and spoiler alert, that did in fact happen.
So I thought I’d spend the first post in the 2020 MLB season talking about the one bright side of yesterday’s game: Kodi Whitley. Well that’s a bit unfair to Junior Fernandez, who had a virtually identical pitching line to Whitley, right down to the pitches and strikes thrown. But we’ve all seen Junior Fernandez pitch already and we haven’t seen Whitley, at least against MLB competition during the regular season, so Whitley gets the nod.
I am entering well-trod territory at this point. He was talked about a lot over the offseason, and during spring training. The since departed from VEB Ben Clemens talked about him way back in November, Blake Newberry announced him as a sleeper in February, and A.E. Schafer mentioned him just last week as a likely bullpen option for 2020. I probably won’t be the last person to talk about Whitley this season, so I’d like to start a refresher course of sorts. Who is Kodi Whitley?
Whitley was born in North Carolina, attended a North Carolina high school, and went to college at the University of Mount Olive, which is located in North Carolina. The University of Mount Olive was and is a Division II level baseball school, so he was not much of a prospect coming out of high school. In his freshman year of college, he earned Conference Carolinas Freshman of the Year, starting 10 games with a 2.74 ERA.
He was not particularly likely to catch the Cardinals attention with this team though. The Cardinals do their homework and certainly pay attention to the Mount Olives of the college baseball world, but I believe he was actually noticed in the summer league he played in for his first two summers in college, the Coastal Plain League. The CPL is a wood bat league that recruits college players. Alumni of this league include Ryan Zimmerman, Chris Taylor, Greg Holland, Todd Wellemeyer, and current Cardinal Tyler Webb.
Whitley joined the Fayetville Swampdogs, who have existed since 2001 and have had eight former MLB players, including Mark Reynolds, David Aardsma, and Carter Capps. In the summer between his sophomore and junior years, he earned All-Star honors in the CPL. And then he had Tommy John surgery. He missed his entire junior season and pitched five total innings his senior year.
Understandably, he was not in high demand when the 2017 MLB Draft started. A Freshman of the Year in a Division II school, a not all that great sophomore year (4.41 ERA), and an All-Star nod in a summer league just doesn’t seem likely to have suitors fighting for you when it comes to draft time. And he may very well have not even expected to be drafted. 813 MLB players got drafted without Whitley’s name being called, but in the 27th round, the Cardinals took him off the board.
So what do we have here? We have a 22-year-old pitcher who you’re still not totally sure has completely recovered from Tommy John. From the Cardinals perspective, this guy is not high priority. He’s a 27th rounder, he’s old for a draftee, and we don’t even really know if he’s good. So they sent him to the GCL. You don’t send 22-year-olds to the GCL. There’s no way the Cardinals had any faith in this guy.
But then he dominated. He dominated 17 and 18-year-olds primarily, but he made them look like, well, inexperienced teenagers I guess. He pitched 14.2 innings, struck out 19 of them, and walked just 3 batters. He had a 1.84 ERA with an above average groundball rate and a ridiculous .441 BABIP against. The Cardinals brought him up to Palm Beach at the very end of the year. September hit, it was time to call up everyone they could from Memphis, which naturally led to call-ups at every level, if only for a series. And I guess they thought there was more value in having him pitch a game at Palm Beach than alternative options below him at Peoria. Which makes sense again given his age. He pitched 3 innings with three strikeouts and one walk with no earned runs.
The Cardinals sent him to Peoria in 2018 anyway. When I went to Peoria to watch Nolan Gorman play, I’m fairly certain I also saw him pitch. And if my estimation of when I went is correct, he pitched 2.1 scoreless innings. He didn’t necessarily look that impressive at the time. He had three hits allowed and just one strikeout. I definitely didn’t think he’d be in the majors in less than two years. And as a 23-year-old relief pitcher, his results didn’t really suggest that either. He was good, but I’m sure tons of 23-year-old relief pitchers have or would have similar stats at A ball. He struck out 22.5% of batters, walked 8.6%, and had a 3.12 FIP. He benefited from not allowing any homers, which he was in Peoria, that’s pretty normal for that league.
While the Cardinals have so far basically treated Whitley with kid gloves, they came off in 2019. He spent 4.1 total innings at Palm Beach. He faced 15 batters, struck out 5 of them, and only allowed 3 of them to reach base. That was enough for the Cards to promote him to Springfield. His success didn’t stop there. In 31 games (and 39.1 IP), Whitley had a 1.83 ERA in AA. He struck out 27.9% of batters, walked 7.9% and had a 3.17 FIP. They don’t look that dissimilar from his Peoria numbers, except now he’s at an age appropriate level and playing in a hitter’s park.
The Cardinals had him finish out the season in Memphis and he never really stopped pitching well. The AAA stats in 2019 are hilariously goofy for most every pitcher, who seemed to step into Coors Field circa the 1990s. And while Whitley’s performance was not without its concerns, he’s one of the few who seems to have stats that actually resemble pre-2019 AAA pitching stats. He maintained the K rate in AAA (28.1%), but severely dropped his BB rate to 4.2%, and also just gave up on the idea on getting groundballs. I don’t think a 26.6% GB rate will fly in the majors, but I’m inclined to give him a break given the AAA pitching conditions.
Anyway, that’s how Whitley got here. He was somewhat of an afterthought when drafted, and he basically just pitched so well that he forced his way onto a big league roster. He was probably destined for the bullpen at some point in 2020 anyway, but I really don’t think he would have started the year in the bullpen with no delay. But he’s here now, he got his MLB debut out of the way, and he’s off to a strong start. Let’s hope we have another homegrown dominant reliever on the Cardinals.