Before we get to the good stuff, I feel like I should probably introduce myself as your new prospect writer. I started writing about Cardinals' prospects a couple of years ago at a buddy's site and turned that experience into my own, minors-focused blog, CardinalsFarm. While the blog was doing pretty well, the every day stresses of running it became too much and I shut 'er down. I am a middle school teacher living in Atlanta with my wife, 6-year old, and 3-year old.
Enough about me, let's take a look at Carson Kelly.
The St. Louis Cardinals selected Carson Kelly in the second round of the 2012 draft, the same draft that produced current MLB'ers Michael Wacha and Tim Cooney and future MLB'ers Jacob Wilson, James Ramsey, and Stephen Piscotty, with a couple more possibilities mixed in.
The Cardinals were able to lure Kelly away from the University of Oregon with a huge over-slot bonus, nearly $1 million over, and he began his professional career with the Johnson City Cardinals of the Rookie Level Appalachian League, a pretty big jump for a newly drafted high schooler.
2013 saw Kelly bounce from Low-A Peoria, where he had a wRC+ of 69, to Short-Season State College where he finished the season with a 123 wRC+.
2014 brought a new challenge and this Instagram photo was the first sign.
At just 20-years old, the Cardinals moved Kelly behind the plate and also returned him to the Peoria Chiefs, a level he struggled at the year before. While the offensive numbers weren't great - by any means - there was improvement. His wRC+ hit 100 (league average) and his ISO was up to .118 (I know, still very poor), but again, he was also learning a new position, and arguably the toughest position to learn on the diamond.
On-the-job training at its finest.
This history lesson brings us to present day, and what should be added improvement for a now 21-year-old prospect who is in his 4th year in the Cardinals system. The Cardinals - maybe somewhat aggressively - promoted Kelly to High-A Palm Beach for 2015, and Eric ranked Kelly the Cards' 12th best prospect for 2015. We will come back to that heat map later.
Before we get to Kelly's struggles offensively, let's take a look at how the defensive aspect is going. Catching metrics for minor league backstops are few and far between, but what I can give you is a 30% caught stealing percent (about league average) and 2 passed balls (above league average) through 67 games. Without a ton of numbers to look at, I went straight to the beneficiaries to Kelly's defense, his pitchers. Here are a few quotes I obtained from pitchers regarding Kelly's defense:
He is learning the game and calling better and better games every time out. He is learning to not take his AB's into the field and let one side of the ball dictate the other. He is becoming a great catcher. I enjoy throwing to him and were learning together.
He has a great arm. He receives the best I've ever thrown to except [Mike] Matheny. He’s smart, not afraid to make adjustment towards the pitchers strengths. [Kelly] is athletic and blocks the ball well.
He does a really good job receiving the ball and has a great arm. It's been cool to see how far he's come behind the plate in the past year.
While we wouldn't expect these guys to be critical of their catcher, there is a common theme in all of the responses. They all have high praise for Kelly's receiving skills. Also Reyes' comment that he has never thrown to a better receiver other than Matheny is quite a compliment. It appears that Kelly's catching skills are coming along quite nicely and should continue to improve.
Offensively, 2015 has been a challenging year for the Portland, Oregon native. As Eric pointed out in his Top 25 Prospects post, Kelly profiles as a slightly above average power guy with above average plate discipline. While the power may not be where it should (1.4% HR rate), it has not declined since his rookie season (4%). Let's take a look at Kelly's stats for 2015 (through games played on Monday)
Those numbers show significant decline from last season, when he had a .692 OPS with a .248 batting average and a .326 on base percentage. Kelly's offensive woes cannot be traced to a mid-season slump as his monthly numbers have remained consistent with a slight drop in June and July. Also, Kelly's 47 wRC+ is the lowest of all qualified batters in the Florida State League.
Possible explanations to the poor start
If we dig deeper into the numbers, there are a couple of things that come to mind as possible explanations for this poor performance. First, the BABIP monster has struck hard for Kelly (.192). Second, his batted ball profile looks like he should be a speedster. His 29.3% outfield fly ball percentage is probably about 5-10% lower than what it should be, while his line drive percent of 15.6% is probably 3-4% lower. The big issue appears to be his ground ball rate of 47.9%, which would be great for a speedy runner, not a 40 grade speeder as Eric gave him in his prospect profile. Bottom line is he needs to be lifting the ball more.
Another factor that could be at play deals with plate discipline. As mentioned earlier, Kelly does a good job of avoiding strikeouts. His 2015 K% currently sits at 14.4%, which is 16th best in the Florida State League, while his walk rate of 5.3% is 53rd best in the FSL. In my opinion, he needs to be more selective at the plate and needs to see more pitches (unfortunately, I could not find that stat for minor leaguers). If this means his strikeouts increase, I am okay with that.
And now back to the heat map. This is his current map:
This heat map compared to the one in Eric's post shows exactly what I talked about above, too many ground balls, plus more hitting to the opposite field.
It is too early to consider Kelly a bust, especially considering he 2.5 years younger than the Florida State League average and has taken just 13 at bats against pitchers who are younger than him. If Carson Kelly can limit the balls he hits on the ground and be more selective at the plate, I believe that he will make the needed adjustments in his offensive game to right the ship and it appears his defensive progress is coming along quite nicely.
I want to thank Alex Reyes, Rob Kaminsky, and Blake McKnight for their quotes.
I hope you enjoyed my inaugural post here at VivaElBirdos and I am always looking for post ideas and would love to hear them in the comments section.
Thanks for reading!