It happened. The Prodigal Son cometh home. The Lamb Who Has Been Ready For The Majors But Wasn’t Brought Up Because Of Service Time Manipulation has been guided to the fold. On the Fifteenth of August, Two Thousand and Twenty, Dylan Carlson was called up to Major League Baseball by the St. Louis Cardinals.
Now, by the way dedicated Redbird fans talk about this guy, you would presume he was the reincarnation of the legendary Stan “The Man” Musial. Tune in to any past St. Louis home feed, and odds are Vegas solid that at some point in the broadcast you would listen to longtime Cardinals commentator Dan McLaughlin lauding the young man’s accolades and opining about the future of the St. Louis Cardinals with Carlson starring in center field. Hidden away in the depths of Twitter is a group of fanatical Carlson devotees, a cult, really, dedicated to screaming his name from the summits of the internet.
The difficulty in finding detractors comes with good reason: Carlson mashed in 2019. Good for a 2019 slashline of .292/.372/.542 between the AA Springfield Cardinals and the AAA Memphis Redbirds (with the superior numbers coming in AAA) with a wRC+ of 152, 26 home runs, and a glove good enough for the outfield at Busch Stadium, Carlson was making a convincing case to break spring training with the club in 2020. Then COVID happened, he was told to be patient, and his discipline is being rewarded. Now that Carlson has a few dozen MLB at-bats under his belt, I feel like we can semi-accurately evaluate how he’s adjusting to the Majors. I can’t wait to see if he’s hitting .400, or has already smacked ten bombs in fifty plate appearances! Let’s check-in on Dylan Carlson!
Wait… Carlson is struggling at the major-league level? A twenty-one year old top prospect with exceedingly high expectations heaped upon him, who is playing in a pandemic season for a storied franchise, isn’t immediately cultivating a nine WAR season? How could this be?
Okay, I think I’ve gotten the excessive drama out of my system. It’s true, Carlson isn’t looking especially productive on paper. He’s currently rocking .174/.240/.261 as of August 26, with a wOBA of .226 and a wRC+ of 41 (yikes) through about fifty plate appearances and fourteen games. It took him twelve games to hit his first MLB homer against the Cincinnati Reds, collecting his first two RBI and a two-hit game along the way. Not a promising start for the prospect. However, it isn’t all fiery ash and brimstone. If we dig a little deeper, some very reassuring signs that Carlson is doing exactly what he needs to be successful begin to emerge, and all it takes is a matter of time and plate appearances for that promised success to become tangible. I mean, the shooting star Fernando Tatis Jr. was only swinging .214/.313/.476 through his first fifty PAs. Take a deep breath, relax, and let’s chat about the upside.
The first thing that entices me about Carlson is how often he clobbers the ball. The second thing is how unlucky he is. In his first two series of games, he had twenty total PAs that ended in a batted ball. Of those twenty, ten balls were hit 90 mph or harder (that’s a good thing). Per FanGraphs, 48.5% of balls Carlson connects with are hard hit, with another 33.3% being medium hit, and a paltry 18.2% being soft contact. If we check FanGraph’s nifty chart that ranks quality of contact, that would rate Carlson as “Excellent”. That qualifies him as an elite hard hitter, an obvious observation when he takes pitchers for a ride nearly half the time. The assumption is that hard hit balls typically translate into hits more often than lightly tapped balls, which makes sense. You smoke the ball, you blow it past defenders. So, why does Carlson’s slashline look weaker than a house made of balsa wood?
That’s where the unlucky bit comes in. Of those ten 90+ mph hits, four of them had an expected batting average of .450 or higher, and still were converted to outs. Good defense or bad juju is to blame. StatCast agrees that misfortune is in part responsible, granting Carlson an XBA (expected batting average) of .268, an XSLG (expected slugging) of .485, and an XwOBA (expected weighted on base) of .346. That is a far cry from the actual line of .174 BA, .261 SLG, and .226 wOBA that plagues Carlson now.
Taking a glance at some peripheral indicators, Carlson is staying in the zone (56.7% Z-Swing), resisting the temptation to swat the outside of the plate (26.9% O-Swing), making good contact (69.6%) and striking out at a tenable rate (26% K). His defense is playing just fine in the Majors (2 DRS and 0.3 UZR through nine opportunities, already an improvement on Marcell Ozuna’s -2 DRS and -2.1 UZR), and his offense looks to be on the upswing (heh), with positively trending numbers coming after every game he starts. Along with his first homerun in the Bigs came an impressive performance (.500/.500/1.250, wRC+ of 367), and hopefully a sign of further things to come.
It’s only a matter of time before Carlson erases the -0.1 fWAR and frustrating slashline that has kicked off his MLB career. Cardinals Nation has watched as he swiftly rose through the farm system, never spending much time at a particular level before his noted work ethic and clear talent propelled him to the next step in his baseball journey. Coaches and fans alike have seen the results firsthand, and confirmed via both eye test and number-crunching that Carlson is a Major League caliber player. So, ease off the kid, give him more than two weeks to get his feet under him, and watch with delight as Dylan Carlson blooms into the future of the St. Louis Cardinals.
Featured Photo: St. Louis Cardinals (@Cardinals) / Twitter