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System Sundays: Considering Dylan Carlson’s Timetable

The Cardinals’ top outfield prospect is slowly but surely proving himself at Double A. How aggressive will the Cardinals be with his timetable this season?

St Louis Cardinals v Texas Rangers Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Hey, you know who’s having a really good season? If you read the title of this article, you probably know already. However, if you somehow managed to click this without looking at the title, I’ll give you a hint. His name rhymes with ‘Billon Farlson’.

You give up? Yeah, so do I, so let’s kill this crappy intro conceit and just get to the business of discussing how well Dylan Carlson’s 2019 season is going so far.

As of this morning, Dylan Carlson is sporting a really nifty 135 wRC+ for Springfield, the Cardinals’ Double A affiliate. Now, a 135 wRC+ is quite good, but not exactly earth-shattering. Since wRC+ is scaled to 100, we can pretty easily see how Carlson compares to league average; i.e. he’s been 35% better than the average Double A hitter this season. That’s very good territory, but not Vlad Guerrero Jr. numbers.

As has been the case pretty much his entire career, however, there’s a little extra context that needs to be taken into account when considering the numbers Carlson is putting up. There is, of course, the matter of his age relative to level, which is really where Carlson has always been most impressive. Born in late October of 1998, Dylan Carlson is only 20 years old currently, and will be for the entire season. Succeeding in one’s first go-round at the Double A level is a very encouraging sign for any minor leaguer, given how difficult the jump up from High A ball to Double A is — typically considered to be the largest jump in competition of any minor league level. The history of minor league baseball is littered with the bones of single A studs who simply couldn’t make the conversion to AA. To be doing what Carlson is doing at just 20 years old, though, is something really special.

It’s not a huge shock to see Carlson posting big numbers, I don’t believe. After holding his own in the pitcher’s haven of the Florida State League the second half of the 2018 season, there were plenty of prospect observers who predicted big things from the young outfielder moving into the much friendlier hitting environs of the Texas League. I said as much in my own scouting report on Carlson back in the offseason, and while I’m quite proud of my prospect coverage, it’s not as if I have some magical crystal ball. It didn’t require any soothsaying ability to project a power surge from a kid turning 20 and moving up from the cavernous parks of the FSL to the relatively cozy environs of Springfield and the other Texas League stadia.

However, I have to admit I firmly believed the Cardinals would return Carlson to Palm Beach to open the season, and allow him to dictate when he was ready to move up with his performance. That’s how they handled his 2018 season, sending him on a return trip to Peoria to open the year, then promoting him once he showed he was ready for the jump. Carlson had spent all of 2017 in the Midwest League, and had held his own with a season batting line that just eclipsed league average (101 wRC+, to be exact), despite being one of the youngest players in the league at just eighteen years old. He opened 2018 back at Peoria, posted a line 26% above average that featured a 1:1 strikeout to walk ratio and an ISO close to .200, and was pushed to High A after only 57 plate appearances. It made sense, I thought, for 2019 to follow a similar template. Carlson would return to Palm Beach, show that he matured beyond the 112 wRC+ hitter he was last season there, and then be bumped up to Double A, probably right around the middle of May. As in, right about now.

I still think that was probably the most likely plan coming into spring training, given a couple conversations I’ve had with one or two contacts on the inside. However, once spring training began, it became obvious pretty quickly that Dylan Carlson had decided he was going to make his return to Roger Dean Stadium a brief one, and his way of ensuring that was to make an impression with the big club as long as he could stay on the roster. The impression stuck, and instead of staying in Florida, Dylan Carlson was off to the wilds of Western Missouri.

So here we are, and Carlson has 177 plate appearances on the season. That 135 wRC+ is undoubtedly impressive, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. The full story is, in fact, even more impressive. He came out of the gate extremely hot, collecting five doubles and a pair of home runs in the first two weeks of the season. He wasn’t striking out, but he also wasn’t walking a whole lot. Hard to find much fault with a player putting the bat on the ball, however, particularly when the results were so good.

After those first couple weeks, though, Double A pitchers began to make an adjustment, and Carlson hit the skids for a bit. Not a terrible slump, mind you, but the second half of April his strikeout rate rose precipitously, and his power numbers took a nosedive. Word had gotten around not to challenge the Cards’ young switch hitter, and Double A pitchers are good enough they can attack you in a variety of ways. It is, perhaps, the biggest difference going from the low minors to the upper levels; the atheltic talent isn’t hugely different, but the ability to learn and adjust on the fly takes a quantum leap forward.

And then, well, Carlson did perhaps the most exciting thing he could have done: he adjusted right back. Since the beginning of May, Dylan Carlson is hitting .300/.391/.567, good for a remarkable 154 wRC+. His strikeout rate in May is on the high side, at least for him, at a touch over 20%, but he’s also pushed his walk rate up to 11.6% and the isolated slugging is .267. I’ve watched quite a bit of Carlson hit this spring, and his season has largely been a story of narrowing his zone, letting pitchers pitch around him if they don’t throw him something he likes, and doing plenty of damage when they do give in and come after him. He hasn’t responded to pitchers working him more carefully by becoming frustrated and expanding his zone, trying to force something to happen; he has gone the opposite direction completely and countered their caution with greater patience and discipline. Admittedly, there’s a slightly odd thing going on with his season line in that he has hit a ton of triples this month, which isn’t the most replicable skill, but even if a couple of those three-baggers were just doubles, the fact is Dylan Carlson is beating Double A pitchers consistently by waiting them out and not missing when they give him something to hit.

Again, it is worth noting how impressive this is for a player who is only 20 years old. We do occasionally see true hitting prodigies, guys like the aforementioned Vlad Jr., who simply lay waste to every level at ridiculously young levels, and if that’s the standard then Dylan Carlson’s season line maybe doesn’t stand out quite so much. But those sorts of talents are few and far between, and counting on any player to go all Juan Soto on the league is unrealistic.

However, compare Carlson to another, similar hitter, Blake Rutherford of the White Sox. Rutherford was the first-round draft pick of the Yankees the same year (2016), Carlson was selected by the Cardinals, going fifteen picks higher. Rutherford was one of the more precocious hitting talents available in that draft class, and absolutely blew up rookie ball his draft season. He was dealt from the Yanks to the White Sox at the trade deadline in 2017 as part of the package that netted New York David Robertson and Todd Frazier, struggled in a limited sample for Chicago’s Low A club, and then rebounded to post a very solid season in High A ball last year. Rutherford and Carlson’s careers have tracked at similar levels all along, and both played part of all of 2018 in High A. Rutherford posted a 120 wRC+, Carlson a 112. The real advantage for Carlson was the fact he’s eighteen months younger than Rutherford, being unusually young for his draft class, while Rutherford was one of the older high school seniors on the board in 2016.

This season, both players moved up to Double A, with Rutherford heading off to the Carolina League rather than the Texas League. I’ve already told you what Carlson is doing this year. Rutherford, meanwhile, has found the going to be extremely tough in Winston-Salem, hitting just .177/.221/.298 over 131 plate appearances so far this season. That’s just a 52 wRC+. and he’s striking out nearly a quarter of the time while walking only a little more than 5% of the time. Rutherford’s walk rate has dropped each time he’s moved up a level, while Carlson has made the adjustment and maintained his plate discipline as he’s moved up. Again, all while being a year and a half younger than another very high touted young slugger.

All of which leads me to the central point of this column, which is to consider how much longer the Cardinals will keep Dylan Carlson at the Double A level. The safest bet, obviously, would be to assume they let him play against Texas League competition for if not the whole season then a large chunk of it, since there’s really no rush considering how young a player we’re talking about here. However, at this point, with Carlson seemingly having already come to grips with the level of competition he’s facing, I wonder if that will be the case.

Obviously, we’re still talking about fewer than 200 plate appearances, which is hardly enough playing time to draw hard conclusions about a player’s mastery of a level. There are a couple of things going on here, though, that make me feel like a further acceleration of the timetable may be at least possible, if not probable.

First, it isn’t as if what Carlson is doing at Double A looks unsustainable. He’s not simply benefiting from some crazy high batting average on balls in play; his BABIP this season is .328, which is maybe a touch high, but minor league BABIPs are much less stable than what we see in the majors, and can often indicate a player who is simply a bit too good for the level. The triples thing is interesting, but fluky bounces aside, those are still extra base hits even if he stops at second. Point is, he’s driving the ball.

More importantly, the plate discipline is where I think we see Carlson really differentiate himself from the pack. Players who are extremely young for their level can often out-athlete the competition, or out-talent it, or however you wish to put it, but they very rarely out-discipline it. That’s a very unusual thing to have happen.

The other thing is not so much about Dylan Carlson, but about the Cardinals. The Cards’ outfield situation has been well documented the past couple years, as in, we have discussed ad infinitum the seemingly endless steam of outfield talent the organisation has coming up, and the sort-of glut we see in the upper levels. There is, however, almost certainly going to be an opening in the outfield heading into the 2020 season. Power numbers or no, I don’t believe the Redbirds have a whole lot of interest in resigning Marcell Ozuna at this point, given the somewhat shaky relationship he’s had with the club and its medical staff, as well as the simple fact that when you have a ton of young outfield talent coming, you may not want to lock in a guy approaching 30 to a long-term deal.

This season we’ve seen Dexter Fowler have a really interesting renaissance, which I need to put my thoughts on down before too long, and Jose Martinez continue to do Jose Martinez things, which is to say hit well enough that you want him in the lineup, but field poorly enough that it’s a fraught decision to pencil him onto the card every day. Harrison Bader undoubtedly deserves a starting spot, but has platoon and contact issues that an organisation seemingly set on pushing toward a higher contact offensive philosophy can use as an excuse not to play him 150 games a year. Still, Bader’s secondary skills are so outstanding he has to be the future in center field, one would think. Tyler O’Neill is exciting, and I would really like to see him playing consistently in St. Louis, but I have to admit it’s hard to watch a guy striking out in close to half his at-bats, and while that’s certainly exacerbated by inconsistent playing time, you easily fall into the Catch-22 of needing at-bats to hit better, but struggling so badly it’s hard to get into the lineup so long as others are producing.

Here’s the thing, though: as crowded as the outfield picture looks right now, by this time next year things could be far less muddled. Fowler’s rebound has been wonderful to witness, but he’s also 33 years old and is probably going to be transitioning into a fourth outfielder role within the next year or so. Ozuna, as I said, it almost certainly departing after this season. O’Neill would seem to have the inside track at getting the first shot to fill some starting role next year, but there are also other players to consider. Lane Thomas brings an intriguing power/speed package to the table. Jose Martinez would fit better on a club with the DH available (which, fingers crossed), but is still such a potent bench bat he may very well stick around on the roster for another couple years. Randy Arozarena has those secondary skills that make Harrison Bader so exciting, and is healthy now after beginning the season on the injured list.

It’s in this context that we need to consider Dylan Carlson’s timetable. The large number of at least useful options in the upper minors would seem to put Carlson on a slower track, seeing as how he is so very young and there are so many other players ahead of him. However, it’s also a pretty easy thing to see that most of those players are much more limited, and fit better into either part-time roles or as complementary pieces. I still have hope Arozarena can put all of his disparate skills together at one time one of these days, but it’s also possible he just...doesn’t. Carlson, meanwhile, is the one outfield prospect in the upper minors right now who doesn’t have some deficiency that would seem to point toward part-time status. If Dylan Carlson continues on as the player he looks like he’s becoming, he immediately jumps over all those other options to the front of the line for a starting spot in the future. He’s an above-average defender in a corner, has power, gets on base, and is doing it all at an extremely young age. The Cards have lots of useful options in the upper minors, but they don’t have a lot of potential ten-year starters. Dylan Carlson has that kind of potential.

There’s also one other matter, which is the question of the ball. See, the major league ball has been a big topic of discussion the past few years, with a whole lot of digital ink being spilled over how lively it is, why that might be, why baseball doesn’t seem all that eager to disclose how or why it has become so lively, etc. This year, the major league ball is also being used in Triple A, but not at any of the lower levels of the minors. The home run rate and overall scoring in Triple A has jumped up this season, predictably, giving further proof that something is indeed up with the ball itself.

The reason I’m bringing this up now is that the fact the ball is being used in Triple A but nowhere else creates an interesting incentive for an organisation to perhaps push a Double A hitting prospect up to Triple A, in order to see what sort of effect that ball may have on a give player’s game. Carlson, for instance, is hitting loads of doubles and triples in the Texas League, and a decent number of homers as well. It’s still an open question at this point what that offensive game might look like with the livelier ball being used at Triple A and the major league level. If the big league ball flies ~8-10% further, as I have seen suggested in various corners of baseball analysis, it’s entirely possible that at least a few more of those extra base drives could clear the fence entirely, and instead of a player on pace to hit 20-25 home runs you could be looking at a player on pace for 30+, which is, as they say, a very different kettle of fish.

I don’t necessarily expect to see Dylan Carlson pushed up to Triple A just yet. It’s still very early in the season, after all. But we’re approaching the end of May, and he’s closing in on 200 plate appearances, so it also isn’t that early. It is also true that Carlson is not yet on the 40 man roster, so a spot would have to be made if, say, the organisation wanted to get a look at him in September. However, this most precocious of outfield prospects is approaching the point where he’s looking more and more like a near- to medium-term solution, rather than a far-off possibility. He’s certainly getting close enough that any future outfield openings are going to include his name as a consideration. Given all that, it’s worth keeping an eye on the transaction logs in the coming weeks as we approach the first of June and the amateur draft. There is always some organisational shakeup following the draft, when short season ball kicks off, and it wouldn’t shock me at all if by this time next month we were to see Carlson bumped up to Memphis, though whose spot he would take exactly is a slightly thornier question. And Memphis, even more than Springfield, is just a phone call (and maybe a 40 man move), away from Busch Stadium.