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System Sundays: A Brief Consideration of Dylan Carlson's Age

Taking a look at a still-potentially-underrated aspect of prospectdom, as it relates specifically to recent Cardinal drafting tendencies.

Okay, so it's a birthday cake for a ballpark. There are only so many photos to choose from in the image banks. Work with me here.
Okay, so it's a birthday cake for a ballpark. There are only so many photos to choose from in the image banks. Work with me here.
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

In the most recent draft (the first of the Randy Flores era, though I'm as yet unsure how relevant that is to this post; we may have to wait a couple years to see if what appear to be trends currently are, in fact, or if it's simply seeing patterns where they don't exist), there were lots and lots of interesting things to consider. The Cards seemed to lean in to taking players from small schools, a demographic they've been attempting to exploit since the Jeff Luhnow regime. The hitters taken generally had high contact rates on their side. There were some health gambles taken on pitchers. The preference for changeups in general still seemed present, to a moderate degree.

One of the more intriguing points of the draft for me, however -- and this is an extraordinarily tiny thing -- is just how young the Redbirds' first two picks, Delvin Perez and Dylan Carlson, were relative to the rest of the draft class.

Just in case anyone out there isn't familiar with the players, and didn't follow the draft this year, a quick bit of background: Delvin Perez, the Cardinals' first pick in the draft this year (23rd overall), is a high school shortstop from Puerto Rico. Considered one of the most physically gifted players in the entire draft -- if not the most gifted -- Perez was considered a lock for the first 5-7 picks, with the Reds at #2 overall apparently strongly interested. He fell in the draft following a positive PED test, all the way to the Cardinals, who had the final pick in the non-compensatory first round proper. Carlson, meanwhile, is a corner outfield/first base type from a high school in Northern California, taken by the Redbirds at #33 overall. A switch-hitter with big-time power potential from both sides of the plate, Carlson was widely considered an overdraft in the compensation round, and a money-saving pick to help the Cards move their bonus pool as needed.

The two players wouldn't really seem to have a ton in common which each other; Perez is a crazily twitchy athlete at a premium position from a poor area of Puerto Rico, while Carlson is a present-strong and future-even-stronger kid who plays down at the non-premium end of the defensive spectrum (and being a lefty thrower, first base is the only potential infield spot for him), from a very nice part of Sacramento County. Both are high schoolers, and both are position players, but beyond that they don't seem to have a whole lot in common with each other.

Except for that little tiny thing I find really interesting; namely, the fact both Perez and Carlson are incredibly young for this draft class, even among players of the same demographic.

Perez was born in November of 1998; Carlson in October of the same year. Both will be seventeen throughout the entirety of their first professional seasons, and all the way through fall instructs. That's...kind of amazing.

Here's the thing, though: I don't honestly know if that's unusual for Puerto Rican high schoolers. The age cutoffs for entering schools and those sorts of things in Puerto Rico are subjects I know essentially nothing about. Plus, the level of competition overall, statistical records, and even how similar the school system as a whole is to mainland America are all mysteries to me. Therefore, I'm not going to try and draw too many conclusions about Perez based on his age at graduation and the draft and all that. I just don't feel I have enough context, honestly. I'll just leave it at this: Delvin Perez, the best shortstop prospect in this year's draft, and quite possibly the position prospect with the highest ceiling in the whole class, will not turn eighteen years old until right around Thanksgiving.

Carlson, on the other hand, I do have a better handle on the context. I have a pretty good idea what kind of competition he was facing as a high schooler in California, one of the real hotbeds of baseball talent in our country, and I know enough about high school and travel-league baseball in general that I feel pretty comfortable with the context.

What I don't quite understand is how a kid born in October could possibly be in this particular draft class, rather than being one of the older players in next year's class. I was born at the end of July, and was one of the youngest kids in my grade pretty much all the way through school. There were two classmates I know who were younger than me (and one who was born on the exact same day), and that's it. The cutoff date for entering school, so far as I understand it, has only gotten earlier in the year since then (and I started kindergarten in 1985, so we're not talking about a super recent development), and so how Dylan Carlson, born almost three full months later in the year than me, managed to graduate this year instead of next, is definitely a mystery to me. Maybe California doesn't have kindergarten, and he went straight to first grade at age five? I don't know. That bit of context I really don't have, and so will have to be content with not knowing. Which is fine, really; it's not so important why Dylan Carlson is exceptionally young, only that he is, and what that means for his development.

There is a fair bit of evidence that players who are young for the class in which they are drafted tend to be more productive than average; here is the excellent Rany Jazayerli breaking down the phenomenon all the way back in 2011. Of note to this particular article is the fact both Carlson and Perez (but, again, I'm going to focus on Carlson because I feel more comfortable with the context), would fall into the 'Very Young' category, being younger than 17 years and 296 days when they were drafted. Both, therefore, are in the bucket of players who, taken as an aggregate, produce nearly 25% more value than their draft slot would suggest should be expected.

We've seen the Cardinals seem to favour players who are younger than the average for their draft class and demographic; Kolten Wong was notably young compared to other college juniors when he was selected, still 20 years old. Luke Weaver was still 20 when he was drafted.  Bryce Denton last year was still almost two months shy of his eighteenth birthday when he was drafted. On the other hand, both Shelby Miller and Jack Flaherty, each approximately 18.5 years old on their respective draft days, suggest it's a fairly weak preference, if indeed it's an actual preference at all. In all likelihood, it's the sort of thing that might be a tiebreaker, but probably is no more than that.

Consider this: Dylan Carlson, the 33rd overall pick, was born the 23rd of October, 1998. Blake Rutherford, on the other hand, who went nineteenth overall to the Yankees (and who I loved heading into the draft, full disclosure), and who was seen as potentially the best or second-best high school hitter in the draft, was born on the 2nd of May, 1997. That means Rutherford is almost a year and seven months older than Carlson. Put another way, by the time Carlson is the same age as Rutherford was on draft day, he will have already played this season and another full season in professional baseball.

We can also look at the statistics each put up in their senior seasons of high school for some added context. Admittedly, high school stats are generally not all that useful, and I would never try to draw any real conclusions from them. In this case, though, the fact both Carlson and Rutherford played in California (though, admittedly, SoCal, where Rutherford is from, is even more of a hotbed for baseball talent than NorCal), means we don't have to worry about the quality of competition being so drastically different as to make the numbers meaningless. This isn't Nick Plummer's high school track record, playing in cold weather with a weird two strike/three ball rule on the books. We can at least look at the numbers directionally. And thanks to websites like MaxPreps, we can be fairly confident the stats are accurate, at least as far as they were reported.

Playing his senior season at Chaminade Prep, Rutherford hit .577/.676/.923, good for a 1.599 OPS. In 102 plate appearances, he clubbed 13 doubles and 4 home runs, walking 19 times against just 8 strikeouts. Which, yes. Those numbers are absolutely ridiculous. But, that's what a top of the draft high school hitter's senior season looks like. And, remember, Rutherford turned nineteen right around the end of the baseball season, playing against mostly younger competition.

Carlson, meanwhile, "only" hit .406/.532/.821, for a 1.352 OPS over 141 plate appearances. He hit 13 doubles, same as Rutherford, but 9 homers. He struck out 17 times, but drew a slightly amazing 28 bases on balls. That is a player already very willing to take a walk. And, again, he posted those numbers playing as a young seventeen year old, rather than an old eighteen year old.

A little further context: in his junior season, which he played at an age closer to Carlson's senior season (though he was actually still older), Rutherford put up a .435/.602/.693 line, which amounts to a 1.296 OPS. So slightly more contact, incredible plate discipline, but less power.

My point here is not to argue Dylan Carlson is a better, or worse, prospect than Blake Rutherford specifically. What I'm trying to highlight is the fact that in the draft, it's tough to keep the full context of what a player is at the moment in mind, simply because there can be such a wide variety of developmental phases present. Rutherford was considered an easy top ten talent, possibly a top five guy, and Dylan Carlson barely snuck into the top 100 range. And yet, at the same age, the two put up fairly similar numbers. They just happened to be separated widely in age when draft day rolled around.

I don't know if drafting two of the youngest high schoolers in the entire draft was necessarily an out and out strategy of the Cardinals this year, or if they just happened to like these two particular players, who also just happened to be particularly young compared to their peers. But in both cases, those particularly young ages would seem to bolster their status, and at least in the case of Carlson, a bit of added context when it comes to his age relative to the draft class as a whole would seem to suggest, at least to me, that he may have been underrated coming in to the draft itself, including by a certain prospect writer who liked him, certainly, but not enough to make him a priority for a full write up. Which might be a severe oversight before it's all said and done.

Age relative to league as a component of minor league prospect stock is pretty well understood; we hear all the time about how a hitter's performance has to be kept in context in terms of his age, the league he's playing in, and what both the average age of players and real prospects in that league look like. Carrying that notion on down to the amateur levels, though, is still a part of the scouting and drafting process we don't always keep in mind. Maybe it's nothing, and it doesn't matter at all. Maybe it matters a ton, as it would appear from the Baseball Prospectus research. If it is, in fact, a big deal, then there's even more reason to be optimistic about the draft haul our Redbirds pulled in this year than maybe we previously thought.