As if being named the Minor League Reliever of the Year within the Tampa Bay Rays organization wasn’t enough, Colby White is one of just five nominees for Reliever of the Year for all of the minor leagues.
The minor leagues are vast with all 30 teams have five minor league clubs, and there are roughly 1,500 relievers scattered among the minors. White’s nomination puts him in the 99.996 percentile of all minor leaguers, a remarkable task for someone who had just one junior college offer coming out of high school.
White said it’s pretty crazy to be recognized as one of the five best relievers in the minors, with the potential to be selected as No. 1, but his mindset has made it all possible.
“My thinking has been to make it to the majors, I’d have to beat out a lot of people. To me, this kind of ties hand-and-hand with that, and it means I’m that much closer to reaching my ultimate dream,” he said. “It’s awesome just to pitch in the minor leagues, but I obviously have a higher goal and a higher standard than that. Just to be able to say I’m top-5 out of that many is unreal, and I’m very thankful.”
He added looking at the numbers of the other relievers nominated, he recognizes he is in very elite company with how special they played this year, too. His numbers — 104 strikeouts in 62 1/3 innings with 11 saves, 0.66 WHIP and .124 average against — are special as well, and he has just as good of a shot to claim the hardware as the other nominees.
If he does win the award, White said it would be awesome and another feather in his cap, but he believes it would make him work even harder so that it wouldn’t be the pinnacle of his career.
The flame-thrower, who has been dubbed “Night Night White” for being a shutdown late-inning reliever, learned this year that if he truly trusts his plus stuff and challenges hitters in the zone, it’s very difficult for hitters to square him up because his stuff is that dominant. His fastball, which sits around 96-99 mph, has been clocked as fast as 101.2 mph and is exceptionally difficult for hitters to pick up, especially up in the zone. He’s always paired his fastball with a knee-bending slider that sits around 76-79 mph, but he began using his 80-82 mph splitter again this year against lefties, which elevated him to another level.
White hadn’t used his splitter since high school, but he went through a short stretch this season when left-handed batters were squaring up his slider. He decided to give his splitter a whirl against lefties, and it immediately became a go-to out pitch for him because it has such unpredictable movement. The average spin rate for a major-league splitter is around 1,400 rpm, but White’s sits between 600 and 800 rpms. Not only that, but the pitch somehow begins with backspin then switches to topspin in midflight and resembles a 12-to-6 curveball from a lefty.
The software that tracks pitches doesn’t even recognize White’s splitter as a splitter and instead has labeled it at different times as a slider, curveball and even a knuckleball. He said he believes it’s because he throws it differently than most people, burying the ball deep into his hand, and he throws it much slower than most splitters.
“It only spins like two-and-a-half times, and it’s kind of like a knuckleball. It’s just weird,” White explained. “I lodge it in my fingers so deep that it doesn’t have enough backspin to keep going, then gravity pulls it into topspin. It’s an interesting pitch.”
There are seven other categories of the MiLBY Awards, including Offensive Player, Starting Pitcher, Team, Play, Home Run, Blooper and Feel-Good Moment. White actually played a key role in three other nominations for the awards, with three of the five nominees for Team of the Year being squads White played on this year within the Tampa organization. Those nominees are the Charleston RiverDogs (82-38, Low-A East Champions), Bowling Green Hot Rods (82-36, High-A East Champions) and the Durham Bulls (77-43, Triple-A East Champions, Triple-A Final Stretch Champions).
White said he believes when teams, or entire organizations in the Rays’ case, have that type of success, it typically stems a certain mentality. Since 2015, no team has won more games in MLB than the Rays, and no minor-league system has won more than Tampa’s.
“I’m just thankful to be drafted into that 2019 because the way they talk — the front office guys and the high-up coordinators — the way they talk and the way they talk about attacking every day, it’s no surprise when things like this happen,” he said. “I’m thankful to be able to play alongside very good, talented baseball players.”
What the Rays have been able to accomplish over the past 13 years — seven playoff appearances, four AL East titles and two World Series appearances — while playing in the same division as the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox and consistently fielding a team with a bottom-5 payroll has been nothing short of remarkable. With no hard salary cap in baseball, big-market teams oftentimes dominate the sport because they’re able to spend big on free agents and retain their own players. The Rays are at the opposite end of the spectrum, constantly having to trade stars before they reach free agency and not being active when it comes to the big-name free agents. To win the way they have despite those challenges has stymied many analysts, but White believes it comes down to the type of players the Rays target.
“I think it starts with who they draft because just being around certain guys, it seems to me they draft a bunch of selfless guys. The high-profile SEC guys and Power 5 guys, the Rays rarely get them,” he said. “It seems like they get very hungry, motivated people that are talented. They group them together and say, ‘Fight for it.’ The past two years when I’ve gone back to Spring Training, I’ve had coordinators text me and say, ‘Come back and fight for a spot.’ When you hear about all these great players they’re drafting that want the same thing you do, along with the competitiveness of these guys, it makes us all want to do better and do whatever it takes to go up the chain and get to the big-league level.”
Despite earning the No. 1 seed in the American League, the Rays were eliminated by Boston on Monday in the ALDS. White was training at the alternate site in Port Charlotte, Fla., in case the Rays needed him in the postseason, but once they were eliminated, he packed his bags and returned to Marion County Tuesday. Now, he’s already back to training through lifting weights and stretching, but he’s not throwing to give his arm a rest after he threw a career-high 62 1/3 innings.
All voting for Minor League Reliever of the Year is online at https://www.milb.com/fans/milbys/top-reliever, and the polls close Nov. 3.