Since Dylan Carlson broke out with his phenomenal 2019 season at age 20, turning both AA and AAA into his personal batting practice, fans and commentators, like myself, have been searching for the right “comp” for the elite prospect.
What are comps? Comps are short for comparables – using a known player with a similar skillset to describe an unknown player or prospect. As he was coming up through the minors, I heard a wide range of comps for Dylan Carlson: from solid major leaguers like Dexter Fowler and Colby Rasmus to Hall of Fame-caliber talents, like Larry Walker and Carlos Beltran.
Now that Carlson has some major league time under his belt and we’ve gotten to see him play, I think it’s time to revise our comps for Dylan Carlson and use the info we have to get more precise comps.
I want to do this two ways. The first will be statistical. I’m going to use Carlson’s stats and comp them against recent players at the same age and position. Then I want to do some physical comps for Carlson – focusing on his switch-hitting trait to find historical models.
Statistical Comps for Dylan Carlson
When Carlson arrived at age 21, with just a handful of games played above AA, he stunk. From Aug. 15 – Sept. 5, Carlson hit .162/.215/.243 in 21 starts. Carlson was shut down and sent to the Alternative Training Site to get his head straightened out and spend some quality time with the changeup machine.
When he returned, he was a different hitter. The qualities he displayed from A+ to AA that earned him such rave reviews shined through and he hit .278/.325/.611 over 40 PAs for the rest of the season.
Now add 2021 into the equation. He has 116 plate appearances on the season with a .267/.345/.465 slash line, a .346 wOBA, and a 120 wRC+.
Carlson’s performance at the end of 2020 has pretty much carried over to 2021, minus the unsustainable slugging percentage. He’s improved his K-rate and his BB-rate, bringing them in line with what we might expect based on his minor league career.
Based on what we’ve seen, Carlson’s post-demotion batting line actually looks more stable and indicative of his true talent than what he did the first three weeks of his career. Yet, that small initial run of games is dragging his overall batting line way down.
Because of that, I want to use two sets of stats for Carlson in our search for comps – his actual career stats and his summed stats from after his demotion through now. Both will prove useful.
Now, let’s go fishing. I sorted the Fangraphs leaderboard by rookies age 20-22 since 1990 with a minimum of 230 PAs. I set the defense to CF, since that’s where Carlson qualifies. I then did a little manipulative magic to get both of Carlson’s lines into the set.
So, Dylan Carlson is Mike Trout. Comp’ed! Article over!
Ok, no. But the revised (post-demotion) Carlson compares favorably with a rookie Andrew McCutchen. Hmm… not sure about that. Ian Happ fits as a switch-hitter with some center field time early in his career. Carlson has a much better hit/contact tool. Somehow Happ BABIP’ed .362 in 2018 and his batting average was only .233. Still, as a switch-hitter, he’s worth noting.
That’s pretty much it for the revised version of Carlson. The actual version of Carlson – a 92 wOBA – pulls up some other interesting names.
If Jay Bruce was a switch hitter, I think I would have my comp. Bruce started as a centerfielder with a mature hitting approach. His size didn’t allow him to stay at the position. He also never displayed the hitting tool he had in the minors. His BABIP normalized and left him as a walk/power hitter with solid-to-good defense in the corners early in his career. That’s certainly a path that Carlson could follow.
Carlos Beltran pops up here, too. It’s easy to see why Beltran is often mentioned in regards to Carlson. Offensively, the two players were very similar early in their careers.
Then there’s Bernie Williams. Williams was a switch-hitting center fielder who started his career with little power and an elite hit tool that took a while to develop. In his late-20s and early 30’s, Williams became one of the best hitters in the game, routinely hitting between .300 and .340, with walk rates above 12% and K rates nearly as low. His offensive profile doesn’t fit well with Carlson.
Then there is Rasmus, who seems to be a fall-back comp for Cards fans who don’t want to saddle Carlson with Beltran. The age 23, 4.0 fWAR version of Rasmus the Cardinals saw in 2010 is very close to what we are seeing from Carlson right now. The problem with Rasmus is that he game devolved as he aged into prime. His walk rates fell. His K rates climbed astronomically. His contact ability – which was never great – tanked. Rasmus is a nice cautionary tale here.
Physical Tools Comps
That group of comparables didn’t really result in what I was looking for. Part of the problem is that I can’t sort players by handedness. I think it’s important to compare Carlson – a switch hitter – to other switch hitters. Then there are physical considerations that I also can’t sort with stats I can currently access.
So, let’s talk defense, position, and body type, leaving the stats out of the equation for the moment.
While I think that Carlson can improve some of the rookie mistakes we’ve seen from him in center so far this season, his top speed, instincts and routes just aren’t going to land him in the “good” to “very good” category for a centerfielder. I still think he could work to become average there, if he was going to play center regularly.
Then consider his body size. He’s a big kid. He is athletic for his size, but he does not have the lean body type that some of the centerfield comps above have.
Part of what makes Carlos Beltran so great was elite defensive performance in center field for almost his entire career. That’s also true of Bernie Williams – who was one of the best not-so-athletic centerfielders I’ve watched. Andrew McCutchen was also a fantastic defender. Even Rasmus stayed a “center fielder” even when his bat did not secure him full-time starts at the position.
This is why I have problems with all of those comps. The “switch-hitting center fielder” comp fails for Carlson because he’s probably better described as a corner outfielder who can play center if asked to.
That led me to start looking for bigger-bodied switch-hitters who started their careers at a young age in center before moving off the position. That was a hard search to conduct but it did produce the most interesting names we’ve seen so far. I’ve ordered them by career WAR:
Reggie Smith: .287/.366/.489, 137 wRC+, 64.6 fWAR
Lance Berkman: .293/.406/.537, 144 wRC+, 55.9 fWAR
Chili Davis: .274/.360/.451, 118 wRC+. 37.9 fWAR
All three of these players are between 6’0” and 6’3” and 195 to 220 lbs. Berkman (aka “Fat Elvis”) was the biggest of them. Smith is the smallest, but he also started his career in the late 60s – times and bodies have changed.
Carlson is 6’3” and 205 pounds with room to grow. (Jay Bruce, by the way, was listed at 6’3”, 230.)
Any names on that list look interesting?
Well, Berkman certainly is. He just missed the age cut-off above, starting his career at 23. After a weak opening run in the majors (.237/.321/.387, 85 wRC+), Berkman settled in as a truly phenomenal hitter. He routinely had walk rates over 15%. His fWAR would rank higher if he did not lose so much value on defense. He did start in center before moving to corner outfield spots, first base, and DH.
Reggie Smith might be familiar to old-time Cardinals fans. He was a Redbird from 1974-1976. His rookie season looks a lot like Carlson – .246/.315/.389 for a 98 wRC+. After that, he was incredibly consistent. The career line listed above is pretty much what he did year in and year out until his upper 30s. Smith had four seasons in center but spent more time in his career in right.
I remember Chili Davis as primarily a DH, where he played 1132 games. He did, surprisingly, start his career in center and has 439 games there, more than any other on-the-field position. Being a primary DH steals a ton of Davis’ WAR production. He has 350 homers, over 1300 RBIs, an 11.9% career walk rate, and a .354 career wOBA (118 wRC+).
What I like about all of these players as Carlson comps is that they have solid all-around offensive production. They draw walks. They can hit for power. They have sold-to-good contact ability. They all reached the majors around the same age as Carlson and struggled before figuring things out. They fit well with Carlson’s physical traits. They fit well with what we have seen from Carlson so far and expect from him down the road.
Will Carlson stay healthy and consistent like these players? We don’t know that. Comps don’t work that way. It’s hard to expect 30-60 fWAR out of any 22 year old.
Of all the possible comps listed above, I don’t feel right about comping Carlson to anyone that isn’t a switch hitter – like McCutcheon or Bruce – and don’t like comp’ing him to elite center fielders – like Bernie or Beltran. In my Saturday article, I teased this topic and, if you carefully read the comments, you might have gleaned that I was leaning toward Lance Berkman. I was heading that direction, but I just can’t land there. Berkman’s offensive levels are too unrealistic for me. I don’t want to saddle Carlson with that level of offensive expectation.
That leads me back to Reggie Smith. The former Cardinals’ consistent, “very good not elite” overall approach fits with what I would expect from Carlson’s current hitting profile. Carlson is going to strike out more than Smith; that’s a product of his era. He’s also likely to hit for more power, especially early in his career. Carlson’s average will be lower, also because of era. Still, pound for pound and skill for skill, Smith is the best choice among the players I could find.
Tell me where you land in the comments. Maybe you have more names to consider. Mention them and make your arguments!