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Age, Analytics, & Letting it All Come Together: Carlson’s Path to the Majors

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Carlson’s path to the majors is a fascinating study in the value of scouting, age-per-level, and analytics over traditional box score stats.

New York Mets v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

In the winter of 2015, the Cardinals offered arbitration to two of their pending free agents: Jason Heyward and John Lackey. While they would end up losing both players to the Cubs, the club gained two valuable compensation picks – #33 and #34 in the upcoming 2016 draft.

That draft was the first led by new scouting director Randy Flores. The Cardinals were known for their conservative approach to high draft picks, usually selecting college pitchers or MLB-ready bats. Flores, though, had no intention of playing it safe. After selecting the toolsy teenage shortstop Delvin Perez at #19 overall, many commentators assumed the Cardinals would go conservative for their back-to-back compensatory picks. Instead, Flores reached for another risky talent at pick #33: a 17-year old switch-hitting prep outfielder named Dylan Carlson. Flores would settle into the more familiar model at #34 with college sinkerballer Dakota Hudson.

The bulky Carlson was given a second-round draft grade by many largely because of questions about his future defensive position. The Cardinals saw past that to a unique and unquestionably elite set of offensive skills. At just 17 years of age, Dylan Carlson displayed a refined swing and mature hitting approach as a high-school aged switch-hitter. He had impressive ability to drive the ball with consistent power from both sides of the plate, all while drawing walks and controlling the zone.

The Cardinals weren’t concerned that then age-17 Dylan Carlson might one day end up at first base. They were concerned about letting one of the best prep switch-hitters to enter the draft in years sneak past them.

So, they reached for him, paid him, and then prepared themselves to be patient with him.

I can’t stress enough how large of a factor age is in evaluating Carlson’s progression through the minors. When it comes to my approach to prospects (and I’m no minor league guru), scoutable ability, advanced analytics (like exit velocity and wOBA), and age relative to level matter more to me at lower levels than traditional box scores. Impressive bubble-gum card stats grow in importance the closer a prospect gets to the majors. At some point a player just has to produce but that doesn’t have to happen right away.

This is the exact way that Carlson progressed.

In 2017, Carlson was an 18-year-old slogging through an uncomfortable first season in professional ball. He produced a less-than-inspiring .240/.342/.347 slash line at A-level Peoria. Buried below the meager batting average and power numbers was the same impressive skillset the Cardinals saw in the draft. Less traditional analytics confirmed those skills and surely gave Flores and the player development team reason to believe the rewards would one day come from their risky pick. While Carlson’s actual OPS was only .689, his wOBA (weighted On-Base Average) was a decent .324. For the sake of context, a .324 wOBA would normally translate into an OPS in the mid-700s. Carlson supported that with an impressive 11.5% walk rate and held his strikeouts at just over 25%. At 3.3 years younger than his average competitor, this first year was quiet but successful; a season the club and Carlson could build on.

(Video: Carlson at Peoria, 2017)

More of the same followed when Carlson advanced to offense-suppressing Palm Beach the next season. While his overall slash line in ‘18 was similar to the year before, his power did start to show, despite the terrible offensive environment. At 3+ years younger than his competition, he finished with a .390 slug% on the season and 11 total home runs. He improved his walk rate over ‘17, cut his strikeouts to just under 18%, and finished with an improved .339 wOBA. Despite a slash line that was still underwhelming, prospect analysts everywhere were now taking notice and the 19-year-old began to appear on many top 100 lists.

Can you feel it coming? Scouts could. The Cardinals knew. In retrospect, what happened next fits together so well: Carlson’s age, scoutable talent, measurable analytics, suppressed production because of playing environment, the experience he had gained, his physical maturity... It all clicked. Despite holding a career OPS barely above 700, giddy scouts and analysts kept pointing to an imminent explosion of production.

At age 20, now nearly 4 years younger than his competition, Carlson went to AA Springfield and tore the league apart. He produced a .387 wOBA with a .281/.364/.518 slash line and 21 home runs. He was named the Texas League most valuable player and even starred at the Future’s Game.

Later that season, Carlson got a call to Memphis where he embarrassed grown adults (avg. age was 6-years older than him) with an absurd .361/.418/.681 line, complete with a .448 wOBA and 5 HRs in 79 PAs.

Some of Carlson’s detractors like to argue that he has “only done it once” and that since his production came out of nowhere, it’s probably not real.

How can I say this kindly? Those people don’t know what they’re talking about.

Just watch this 20 year old ruin baseballs thrown by advanced pitchers:

Now that he is here it’s important to note that nothing has changed. Carlson is still extremely young relative to his competition. He’ll take the field today about 8 years younger than his opponents. The production we long for might be slow in coming. That’s ok. It really is.

Don’t repeat the mistakes that many fans and arm-chair analysts made when Carlson was 18 and “struggling” in A-ball. Don’t judge him by his baseball card stats. Judge him by his scoutable skills and measurable analytics relative to his age.

What should fans expect from him offensively? Projection systems at Fangraphs present the same kind of tempered optimism that I’m trying to project:

STEAMER - .250/.321/.416 with a .313 wOBA
ZiPS - .249/.322/.443 with a .321 wOBA

If that .313-.321 wOBA comes with a walk rate above 8% and a K rate below 25%, I’ll be happy.

Those projections should put to bed any thought of Carlson coming up to “fix the offense.” He is not some great bat-wielding savior riding in on a dappled stallion. However, the experience that Carlson will gain this season – regardless of his stats – will help set him up to make significant strides in 2021, when the club will want him to compete for a starting role.

Where on the field will that role come? Carlson has always been a pretty big dude, but he does have sneaky good speed and great athleticism for his size. His frame projects more along the lines of Matt Holliday or Marcel Ozuna than a speedster like Harrison Bader or the lean Colby Rasums. Still, we’re not talking about trying to hide a first baseman in the outfield. Just as Holliday and Ozuna played some center when they first came up, Carlson can, too. I think he can be at least average there now. His long-term future, though, is likely not at that position. I always prefer for a young player to stay at the hardest position on the defensive spectrum that they can reasonably cover. For Carlson that would be center, but, in his case, it won’t be a big deal if he spends as much or more time in right or left, where he could be a very good defensive player for years to come.

The Cardinals have maintained that they would not call Carlson up until there was space for him to play regularly (i.e. start). With Tyler O’Neill, Harrison Bader, and Dexter Fowler locked into outfield spots, how is Carlson going to see the field? The answer probably lies in the many doubleheaders the club is facing for the rest of the season. It is unlikely that any player – even the youthful Tyler O’Neill – can stay on the field for 7-9 games a week. Manager Mike Shildt can easily work Carlson through all three outfield spots by spelling the more senior players to keep them somewhat fresh. I also expect the club to make creative use of the designated hitter, allowing players to rest their outfield legs while still keeping their bat in the lineup. Carlson should start 50-75% of the games (the vast majority in the field) until the COVID positive players return.

What about service time? These are officially “free” games for Carlson and the Cardinals. Service time is counted by days not games played. MLB passed the minimum days to qualify for a year of service time weeks ago. The Cardinals have already gained their extra year from Carlson. They would have to keep him out until mid-May of 2021 to buy a second year. That’s just not something that clubs do.

Mozeliak, Flores, and Shildt know – probably more than any of us – just what Carlson is capable of. They have scouted his talent, took a significant risk to reach up in the draft and grab him, and have patiently worked to refine his approach at every step of his development. The club knows that he has as much offensive potential as any player that the Cardinals have developed since Albert Pujols, but the value gained from that potential only comes if Carlson is on the field and producing for as many years as possible.

He is in that sweet spot for the club right now. He can play and develop right now without the pressure to produce immediately and the Cardinals will still get one more prime season from him down the road. Yes, the 2020 season is somewhat lost because of the virus, but the Cardinals can still gain invaluable experience for a unique talent they believe will be a big part of their long term future.

And hey! Baseball is back! Enjoy the weekend! Enjoy watching Dylan Carlson make his debut. Don’t get too caught up in the results. Hit me up on Twitter to continue the conversation in real-time during his PAs. I’ll be watching!