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Expecting a Breakout Season For Carlson in 2021

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Expected stats and pitch-type data point toward significant improvement from Dylan Carlson next season.

Milwaukee Brewers v St Louis Cardinals - Game Two Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Dylan Carlson probably had the most anticipated debut from a Cardinals player since Alex Reyes. The talented outfield prospect was held out just long enough for the club to earn their extra year of control and then was thrust into a starting spot to sink or swim.

He mostly sank. His final line was .200/.252/.364 with a .260 wOBA. That’s a 65 wRC+.

However, all season there was an undercurrent of optimism about how Carlson sank. This shows up in his expected stats for 2020. Based on batted ball data, Carlson’s line should have been .246/.303/.443 (xBA, xwOBA, xSLG).

(Side note: OBP is not available in expected stats and many valuable splits. I will substitute wOBA for OBP in the slash lines and identify it when I do.)

Intriguing right? Expected stats take statcast batted ball data to remove things like luck and defensive performance. Expected stats are also relatively predictive. So we can look at Carlson’s expected stats and project them forward with some level of caution.

What kind of comps do we get to Carlson’s 2020 season if we translate his expected line into a normal 162 game environment?

To do this, I’m going back to 2019 and then comparing his expected line to actual outfielders. That doesn’t net us a perfect match, but it does provide an intriguing range of players. Carlson’s expected ’20 season would have fit somewhere between the ’19 version of Marcell Ozuna (.241/.328/.472) or Yasiel Puig (.267/.327/.458) on the high end and maybe Kevin Pillar (.259/.287/.432) or Adam Jones (.260/.313/.414) on the low end.

Between those ranges are players like Jason Heyward, Andrew Benintendi, Dexter Fowler, Victor Robles, Alex Gordon, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Randal Grichuk.

There’s a lot of respected, veteran starters in that group who have had nice careers. Dylan Carlson’s expected rookie production fits in with those names. Sure, he didn’t actually produce those numbers. But his batted ball performance suggests he’s already that level of player.

Can we support that data with more than just expected stats. Sure we can! Let’s look at production by pitch type, which tells the story of why Carlson’s actual production was so far below his expected numbers.

When Carlson arrived in the majors he didn’t immediately earn counting results. Still, his exit velocity data was very encouraging and pointed toward a high level of expected production coming soon.

Of course, the league saw this just as quickly as we did. Before Carlson’s luck could catch up with his impressive stroke, opposing pitchers began to (ahem) change up their approach to the young slugger. Carlson’s fastball and breaking pitch percentage dropped and his offspeed pitch rate soared.

I watched nearly every plate appearance from Carlson this past season and you could see his confidence and comfort level drop as the changeup rate rose. For a while, he was ahead of offspeed pitches – swinging straight through them. After about a week or so, he slowed down to anticipate changeups. That was a rookie mistake.

While Carlson’s bat and reactions are tremendously fast, they’re not fast enough for him to watch for changeups and still react to fastballs. His swing and timing became a mess.

The Cardinals made the right decision to send him down. But he returned to the ATS armed with valuable information. He had seen major league pitching in a competitive environment for the first time. He knew how the league would adjust to him. He knew his problem area and what he needed to do to in response.

Unlike Carlson’s fellow (and less talented) young Cardinals outfielders, Carlson quickly and successfully adjusted to the extremes that the league threw at them.

When Carlson went down, he was hitting.162/.215/.243

He returned less than two weeks later and hit .278/.325/.611 the rest of the way, while still seeing a high (though dropping) rate of offspeed pitches.

That leaves me with three points to make about Carlson’s approach by pitch type, which is critical to understanding how he will perform looking forward.

1. Carlson had measurable bad luck against fastballs and should be an exceptional fastball hitter going forward.

Carlson’s actual stats against fastballs were not all that great. His expected stats, on the other hand, are exceptional. His actual line against fastballs was .228/.280/.351 (BA/wOBA/SLUG). His expected line against the same type was .306/.369/.552 (xBA, xwOBA, xSLUG).

That’s a HUGE difference. How real are the expected stats compared to the actual stats? We’ll need more time to know, but the batted ball data does support a significant bump against fastballs going forward. Considering his skill set, scouting reports, and what my own eyes have seen of him over several years of scouting, I feel VERY comfortable accepting his .369 expected wOBA against fastballs as not just possible but likely going forward. We’ll stay there — .370 against fastballs. (To be honest, though, I believe Carlson will be better than that against fastballs in the not-so-distant future.)

2. Carlson can already hit breaking balls.

If you’ve followed my pitch type articles throughout the last year, you know how big of a deal that is to me. Bader and O’Neill have both seen extreme breaking ball percentages over the past few seasons and that has wreaked havoc on their overall production. Their struggles against breaking pitches and their inability to adequately adjust has threatened their ability to stick in the majors.

Carlson doesn’t seem to suffer from the same problem. He had a respectable (for breaking pitches) .348 wOBA against them and looked relatively good against both curves and sliders, at least by my eyes. Assuming this holds up, it’s a great sign going forward.

3. Carlson is bad against offspeed pitches. How much does it matter?

Carlson saw offspeed pitches 21.3% of the time. That would rank in the top 10 in the league with players in his PA range or above. He was terrible against the slow stuff, producing a .115/.114/.154 (BA/wOBA/SLUG) line.

Does this matter? Yeah, it matters. It’s at least something that Carlson needs to work on. However, major league pitchers typically throw more breaking pitches than they do offspeed pitches. So, someone like Harrison Bader will see a breaking ball nearly 40% of the time (and climbing). Even the batters with the highest offspeed rates in the league are below 25%.

While Bader has to (and has) learn to hit breaking pitches just to survive in the league. Carlson just has to learn to better recognize changes, avoid them, or fight them off and live to see another fastball. It’s an easier task for him and one he’s already shown himself capable of, although in a small sample.

What Does a Breakout Season Look Like For Carlson?

First, let’s establish a baseline for Carlson in 2021. What do projections expect from him? That’s where we can return to those expected stats. Carlson should have had a .246/.303/.443 (BA/wOBA/SLUG) line last year. ZiPS picks up on that (using the same types of batted ball statcast data) and projects him for a .245/.315/.426 traditional slash line. I can’t translate Szymborski’s model to wOBA, but suffice to say, ZiPS confirms my confidence in Carlson’s expected stats, giving him a little less power and a little more OBP — a change that I agree with.

Reasonable minds and objective computers already believe Carlson is good enough to be a solid starter in the outfield according to the range of batters mentioned above.

Baseline is not breakout, though. What if things go right for him? What if, at age 22, he starts to explore that high ceiling that his mature batting profile has always projected?

We have two points of data that can help us produce a breakout model: his return performance in September after adjusting to the league and his expected performance against fastballs, maintained through a terrible slump. Those two slash lines are .278/.325/.611 and .306/.369/.552 respectively. Those two models reveal what Carlson can already do — use his mature approach at the plate to adjust quickly to the league — and what he should have done — had better luck against fastballs.

Let’s assume that Carlson’s current pitch type percentage still leans toward the extreme in ‘21. I’ll project a 50% fastball, 30% breaking, and 20% offspeed percentage for 2021. Let’s then set his wOBA values at .370 for fastballs, .350 for breaking balls and bump him to .200 (still terrible) against offspeed pitches.

Math is very hard between Christmas and New Years, but I think that results in a .335 overall wOBA by pitch-type.

That flips the list that we had earlier. At .335, the player range above flips. 2019 Marcell Ozuna, Yasiel Puig, and Jason Heyward become the floor of Carlson’s breakout range. Brett Gardner (.251/.325/.503) and Tommy Pham (.273/.369/.450) become his ceiling.

In between is an intriguing comp — Brian Anderson of the Miami Marlins. In 2019, Anderson produced a .261/.342/.468 traditional slash line with a .342 wOBA. There are a lot of differences between Anderson and Carlson as players, but it’s the line that stands out to me. A breakout season for Carlson – about a 10% bump in production over his current ZiPS projections – would put Carlson awfully close to Anderson’s 2019 production.

That line from Carlson, especially if he spends some time in center and continues to play good defense, would produce somewhere between a 3.0-3.5 fWAR. From a 22-year-old in his first full season, that would be nice to see and would almost double the current WAR value that ZiPS has for him.

Can he do it? Yes. I won’t say that I expect him to, but that level of production is well within his potential and, if his career continues to progress according to his talent, it should become his annual floor.

Happy New Years! There continue to be reasons to be optimistic about 2021.