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How Important is Age in Evaluating Dylan Carlson?

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Can Dylan go electric?

Cleveland Indians v St Louis Cardinals
With no access to a Dylan Carlson image, settle for this one of a comparable minor league hitter. (it’s the one on the right, not the left)
Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

There’s a growing revolution happening at the lower levels of the Cardinals farm system. For a few years now, the Cardinals have done well developing solid position player talent, but the top prospects have generally been on the pitching side. Over the last two years, three position players have asserted themselves in a way that promises to flip that script. Elehuris Montero was recently named the Midwest League MVP after a monster 2018. Nolan Gorman, the team’s 2018 first round pick, made an aggressive rise to Midwest League Peoria in his first season, ending his professional debut season with 17 homeruns in 270 plate appearances, good for a .295/.381/.577 slash line spread across two levels. The third member of the triumvirate is Dylan Carlson, the franchise’s 1st round pick in the 2016 draft. That’s the player I want to focus on today.

Before the season, Carlson landed outside of Baseball America’s organizational top 10. That’s more of a function of his distance from the Major League squad than anything else- he had just completed his first season at Peoria and had yet to play at high-A Palm Beach. His numbers last season were very respectable, but not earth shattering. Over at Birds on the Black, Kyle Reis placed Carlson 10th in his Dirty Thirty-Five. Our own A.E. Schafer had Carlson as the 14th best prospect in the system entering the season. When I reached out to the Baron, here’s what he offered as an update on Carlson after the 2018 season:

“Dylan Carlson represents a really fascinating sort of litmus test in the Cardinals’ system, as they are generally one of the more conservative organisations in terms of pushing players up the ladder. In Carlson’s case, though, they’ve hurried him along more aggressively than pretty much any other position player I can remember (with Nolan Gorman being another notable exception fresh out of the draft). His raw physical tools are more good than great, but he has such a remarkable feel for his offensive game that everything he does in the batter’s box plays up.”

There are a few nuggets of wisdom in there I want to discuss today. Specifically, I want to talk about the feel for his offensive game, as well as his young age as the Cardinals have aggressively pushed him in the system.

Carlson’s age rightly comes up in every scouting report you can find. Scouting mavens bring up his age because Carlson has spent the last two seasons as a teenager holding his own against much older players. Per Baseball Reference, Carlson was 3.3 years younger than the average player in the Midwest League last season, and 3.4 years younger this season in the Florida State League. He ran up a 101 wRC+ last year at age 18 and a 112 wRC+ this year in high-A at 19. Again, that’s not earth shattering, but it seems like it should mean something combined with his age. What, exactly, does it mean? Let’s use Carlson’s established level this season to see how often this happens.

What I want to find is a list of hitters who spent their age 19 season in high-A. Fangraphs’ minor league data goes back to 2006, and they have batted ball data for minor leaguers going back to 2007. I’ll use that as my frame of reference. We also want players who received regular playing time in high-A. After all, plenty of 19 year olds have received late-season promotions to high-A and racked up a quick 100 plate appearances. That’s not the same as Carlson spending the majority of his age 19 season there. With that in mind, I’ll limit my search to hitters with at least 250 plate appearances.

Using these parameters alone returns only 57 position players since 2007, before we’ve even looked at how these players produced. We can immediately see that Carlson is in fairly select company. Now it’s time to look at the way Carlson has produced and find similar hitters. I’ve given a percentile rank to every minor league hitter in the sample (regardless of age) with more than 250 plate appearances at high-A. Specifically, I want to focus on overall production and some of the measures that illustrate why Carlson is special.

Carlson’s plate discipline and pitch recognition is outstanding. I’ll look at the percentile ranks for the 19 year olds in our sample in wRC+, walks per strikeout (BB/K), and swinging strike percentage (SwStrike). I’d love to include isolated slugging percentage (ISO), but the Florida State League is notorious for sapping power, and other high-A leagues are more hitter-friendly. In short, it’s not fair to the Florida State League players to compare ISO for this full batch of players.

Here’s how Carlson grades out amongst all high-A hitters since 2007:

Dylan Carlson Among All A+ Hitters, 2007-2018

Carlson Percentile Rank
Carlson Percentile Rank
wRC+ 63.9
BB/K 83.6
SwStrike 87.2

His wRC+ this year was very solidly above average, if unspectacular. As I mentioned, where he stands out is in the plate discipline categories. He’s in the upper fifth of both walks per strikeout and swinging strike rate. Of the 432 players with a better (lower) swinging strike rate than Carlson since 2007, only nine of them were teens. In the bell curve, 83.8% of them fall between the ages of 21 and 24. It’s safe to say that Carlson’s approach at the plate- making wise swing choices and putting the bat on the ball- is very advanced.

To make a final cut to our list, we’ll find hitters within fifteen percentile points, in either direction, of Carlson in at least two of the three categories. That means hitters with a BB/K percentile from 68.6 to 98.6, a wRC+ percentile from 48.9 to 78.9, and swinging strike rate percentile from 72 to 100. That gets us 15 hitters besides Carlson. Here’s the group:

Most Similar A+ Hitters to Dylan Carlson at age 19

Name Team Year Age wRC+ Pctile BB/K Pctile SwStrike Pctile
Name Team Year Age wRC+ Pctile BB/K Pctile SwStrike Pctile
Francisco Lindor CLE 2013 19 75.51% 95.06% 95.50%
Dylan Carlson STL 2018 19 63.91% 83.65% 87.20%
J.P. Crawford PHI 2014 19 72.83% 90.51% 61.77%
Matt Dominguez MIA 2009 19 71.60% 71.83% 28.80%
Orlando Arcia MIL 2014 19 65.43% 82.12% 59.51%
Billy McKinney OAK/CHC 2014 19 59.74% 78.31% 49.59%
Andres Gimenez NYM 2018 19 77.71% 24.38% 84.10%
Franklin Barreto OAK 2015 19 76.70% 8.80% 79.18%
Gleyber Torres CHC/NYY 2016 19 74.14% 67.58% 88.58%
Rafael Devers BOS 2016 19 65.43% 50.25% 85.38%
Cristian Pache ATL 2018 19 59.74% 8.80% 82.44%
Carlos Correa HOU 2014 19 94.06% 91.97% 76.91%
Luis Urias SDP 2016 19 84.82% 98.16% 99.75%
Isaac Paredes DET 2018 19 80.96% 75.78% 98.49%
Ronald Torreyes CHC 2012 19 48.79% 98.10% 92.26%

Francisco Lindor is the only hitter who matches Carlson in all three categories. That’s exciting! Carlos Correa is on that list, too- also exciting! Gleyber Torres and Rafael Devers are both on there- still exciting! It’s a who’s who of AL MVP candidates and/or prospect darlings.

There’s a problem, though. Let’s look at this a different way. I’ve removed all of the players too young to reach the big leagues. That means Carlson, Giminez, Pache, and Paredes. Here’s how the rest of the players have performed once they reached the majors (their fWAR for their first three seasons), along with their minor league position and their age when they debuted. All data is through September 18th.

First Three MLB Seasons, Carlson MiLB Comps

Name Pos Debut Age WAR1 WAR2 WAR3
Name Pos Debut Age WAR1 WAR2 WAR3
Francisco Lindor SS 21 4 5.4 5.7
J.P. Crawford SS 22 0.5 0.3 N/A
Matt Dominguez 3B 21 -0.3 0.3 0.8
Orlando Arcia SS 21 -0.3 1.4 -0.8
Billy McKinney OF 24 0.3 N/A N/A
Franklin Barreto SS 21 -0.1 0.2 N/A
Gleyber Torres SS 21 2.1 N/A N/A
Rafael Devers 3B 20 0.8 0.7 N/A
Carlos Correa SS 20 3.4 5.1 5.2
Luis Urias IF 21 0.1 N/A N/A
Ronald Torreyes IF 22 0.1 0.6 0.6

There are a lot of shortstops in there, along with utility infielder types. There’s only one outfielder- Billy McKinney- and he took five years after his age 19 season to reach the majors. Since Carlson plays the outfield, and outfielders are much more productive hitters than middle infielders, his position-relative ability to contribute is limited from reaching the peaks of Correa, Lindor, and even Devers or Torres. It’s easier to find outfielders who hit like Correa, Lindor, Devers, and Torres than it is to find infielders who hit that way. Additionally, Carlson has less of a chance to make an impact with his glove in the outfield unless he performs at an elite level approximating Harrison Bader or Jason Heyward. I can’t speak too much to his defensive abilities, but that’s an extremely high bar for any player to cross.

The players on our list have reached the majors at a very early age, taking 2.27 years on average to reach the majors after their age 19 seasons. I suspect their advanced knowledge of the strike zone and ability to put the bat on the ball helped move them along. The way they’ve performed once reaching the majors is a bit of a mixed bag.

Lindor and Correa hit the ground running in their rookie seasons, putting up 126 and 136 wRC+, respectively. Combined with Lindor’s superior glove and Correa’s ability to hold his own at a premium position, it foreshadowed their future MVP contention.

Gleyber Torres hasn’t been as successful this year as Lindor and Correa were in their debuts, but nobody is complaining. A 2.1 fWAR debut at age 21 is very good. Similarly, Rafael Devers has put up a 94 wRC+ across 688 plate appearances at the Major League level, all under the age of 22. His 1.5 fWAR isn’t blowing off any doors, but it’s an impressive feat all the same. He’s been close to a league average player while receiving semi-regular playing time at a very young age.

Ronald Torreyes has proven his worth at the major league level purely on the strength of his photo opportunities with Aaron Judge. He’s been a reasonable performer through his first 611 MLB plate appearances, although it’s almost exclusively on the basis of his ability to put the bat on the ball. He hasn’t hit for much pop and he rarely walks. His defense has been solid in a utility role and he’s a good baserunner. He also lost a good chunk of this season due to a personal issue and the Yankees stashing him in AAA.

J.P. Crawford struggled a bit in his September debut last season, then saw his 2018 dissolve into a flurry of injuries. When he’s been on the field, the results have been mixed. Through 213 plate appearances over the last two seasons, he has a 95 wRC+. The injuries make it difficult to truly evaluate him.

Orlando Arcia’s glove carried him to the majors. The higher he reached in the Brewers’ farm system, his walk and strikeout rates started moving in terrible directions. It has only gotten worse at the MLB level. Through his first 1,094 plate appearances, he’s run up a dreadful 70 wRC+ and collected 0.3 total fWAR.

Matt Dominguez received cups of coffee at ages 21 and 22 before taking over full-time third base duties for the Astros at age 23. He was below average that season, posting 0.8 fWAR and a subpar 87 wRC+. Like Arcia, his walk and strikeout rates took an ugly turn by the time he reached the majors and he never truly recovered. He was a regular again in 2014, albeit one of the worst in the majors. He has only taken 12 major league plate appearances since and is now playing in Japan.

Franklin Barreto was overmatched in a brief MLB stint last season (.197/.250/.352, 59 wRC+ over 76 plate appearances), and spent most of this season in AAA. His slash stats have looked much better this season in a 68 plate appearance sample through Monday (.242/.265/.485, 102 wRC+) thanks to a little more pop. His walk and strikeout percentages are dreadful (1.5% BB, 39.7% K). In any case, he’s still just getting his feet wet. Luis Urias was just called up late last month. McKinney received a two-game cup of coffee with the Yankees out of spring training, then was traded for J.A. Happ. He’s been with Jays’ major league squad since August 18th, getting a 97 plate appearance audition. It’s much too early to make conclusions about these three players.

Conclusions

Lindor, Correa, Torres, and Devers all offer degrees of extreme hope. However, there’s also caution for Carlson’s future buried in the rest of the list. Dominguez is the biggest red flag, and Arcia isn’t too far behind, particularly since Carlson lacks the defensive value of Arcia. Torreyes was never going to develop the pop we hope to see from Carlson. At the end of the day, he’s a reasonable bench option thus far but not much else.

You would hope that Carlson’s plate discipline would protect him, but many of these players were similar and the bat-to-ball skills and plate discipline eroded for many of them as they rose through the ranks. We’re still waiting on Crawford, Barreta, Urias, and McKinney. It’s much too early to write off any of that quartet, or hold them up as shining examples for Carlson’s future.

If anything, our sample of players here proves just how big the wall is at the AA and AAA levels. Age is legitimately an important factor in grading Carlson as a prospect, and it gives him a chance to become special in the fairly near future. Performing the way Carlson has thus far is extremely encouraging, but it’s only one or two steps in a very long process. Next season against AA pitching will be the most difficult step.

If he can maintain his superior swinging strike percentage and his BB/K rate in AA and above, we’ll have a much better idea of his MLB future. We’ll know just how much of a difference it makes to have, as the Baron put it, “raw physical tools [that are] more good than great” if you can couple it with a remarkable feel at the plate.