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Dylan Carlson and 22-Year-Olds

Carlson has had a pretty good age-22 season. Where does he fit historically with Cardinal 22-year-olds?

Minnesota Twins v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

A – let’s just call it a discussion – broke out in the comments section of a recent article by stlcardsfan4. In the article, Gabe made several innocuous points about how Carlson reminded him of former Cardinals’ first-round outfielder Stephen Piscotty. It’s a relatively fair comparison and one that I had heard before. Both came up as mature hitters who probably should be better defensively than their stats. The comp breaks down when considering other factors – like scoutable skill (Carlson is the more talented player) and age (Carlson was in the majors at the same age Piscotty was playing at Stanford.) Still, hardly a controversial subject.

That post, though, sparked a long chain of point/counterpoint about Carlson, his season, and his future. It seems like Cardinals fans share a relatively wide range of opinions on how good, bad, or terrible Carlson is and how much of his good, bad, or terrible future is now pre-determined by what he’s done in his career so far.

That whole conversation made me realize how unusual it is for a 22-year-old to reach the majors and, because of that, how difficult it is for the casual fan (and fan blog writer) to evaluate a player’s future at that age.

First, let’s talk about how rare it is for a player to be where Carlson is – regardless of production – at his age. In my “paying attention years” – which I’ll assign as 1990, age 12, forward – the Cardinals have only had five hitters age 22 or younger receive more than 300 PAs in a season. Those five are Albert Pujols, Edgar Renteria, Colby Rasmus, Yadier Molina, and now Dylan Carlson. That’s not very many players. The sample size is very small for the Cardinals and for just about every other team in baseball over that period. Players Carlson’s age have to be extraordinary performers in the minor leagues to even put themselves in a position to play for a major league team.

If we go back 50 years further we can get a larger sample size and end up with a really fun list of former Cardinals. The list includes the names above plus star players like Stan Musial, recent Hall of Famer Ted Simmons, Tim McCarver, Keith Hernandez. the great Curt Flood. Andy Van Slyke. Red Schoendienst, and more.

There are a total of 23 Cardinals players who have received at least 300 plate appearances at age 22 or younger since 1940. I’ve heard of most of these players and I’m guessing most of you will too. They have a well-earned reputation for greatness; their legacy has long outlived their playing careers. Carlson’s appearance alongside those names is heartening.

But not all 22 year old players become legends. Some of names I had never heard of — like Joe Cunningham or Bobby Tolan. I assumed, at first, that was because they weren’t very good. That didn’t prove true. Of the 5 or 6 players whose names were unfamiliar to me, most of them actually had solid-to-great careers. They just didn’t stay with the Cardinals for long (like the aforementioned Tolan) or were overshadowed by era or more famous teammates (like Cunningham, who played alongside Boyer, Musial, and Flood).

There are really only a couple of bad players on the list. Maybe you would throw Colby Rasmus here but that seems harsh for a player who did produce almost 19 WAR in his career. David Green didn’t amount to much. Luis Alicea was pretty disappointing.

As far as lists go, the quantity of Hall of Famers, perennial All-Star, MVPs, and really solid starters far outstrips the Luis Aliceas.

Simply put, whether it was 1941 or 2021 players don’t make and stick in the majors at age 22 unless they have serious talent and more often than not, that talent shows up.

It just rarely shows up at age 22.

If you take the same list above and sort by cumulative wRC+, Dylan Carlson is – as of Aug. 9 – the 8th best 22-year-old or younger Cardinal hitter in history. His career 98 wRC+ sits behind great youngsters like Musial, Pujols (who might not have been as young as we thought), Van Slyke, Simmons, and Hernandez. He’s ahead of players like McCarver, Renteria, Flood, Schoendienst, and Molina all of whom who ranged from not-very-good to downright terrible with the bat at age 22.

Carlon’s numbers in the chart above do include his 2020, age-21 season. We could throw that out since the majority of the players on the list didn’t even have an age 21 MLB season. This season, Carlson’s wRC+ is 107 and that would push him up a notch or two on the rankings. Since we’re focused on 22-year-olds, there is not a player on this list who performed at Carlson’s level (or better) at the same age who didn’t become a really good hitter for a really long time.

My point here is pretty simple: Carlson is just a bit over one season into his career and, based on his age and production, he’s already playing like a player whose name you will recognize 30 years from now. He might not be a once-in-a-generation kind of talent, like Pujols and Musial. Or even Keith Hernandez. But if he is anything like the rest of the players on the list, he’s well on his way to being a very good hitter.

On his way... That doesn’t mean he’s arrived.

That brings me back to an article that I wrote this May. In that piece, I tried to reset our expectations for Carlson by looking through historical lists of switch-hitters to find a statistical and physical comp. There were a few exciting names that jumped out on that list, including Lance Berkman, Reggie Smith, and Chili Davis.

All three of those players were very productive. All three are solid comps for Carlson’s skillset with the bat and body type, give or take. How did those comps perform at age 22?

Let’s start with Berkman. He’s the perfect example of why we should not form hard opinions on Carlson’s offensive ability based on what he’s done so far. At age 22, Lance Berkman was not in the majors. He didn’t even reach the major leagues until the end of his age 23 season. In 34 games that year, Berkman had just an 85 wRC+ (100 is average). The next season, age 24, he came on stronger, jumping up to a 132 wRC+.

Reggie Smith is a strong Carlson comp and very informative when it comes to production by age. Smith reached the majors at age 21, getting just 6 games with the Red Sox. He was terrible, producing a (-14) wRC+. The next year, at age 22, the Sox gave him a starting spot anyway. He took a step forward, producing a 98 wRC+ with a .246/.315/.389 line that is very reminiscent of Carlson’s at the All-Star Break this season. The next year, Smith jumped 30 points in wRC+ to 124 with a .265/.342/.430 slash line. At 24 he was up to a 139 and didn’t climb to his peak of around 150 until his late 20s.

Chili Davis also had a handful of PAs at age 21, producing a (-6) wRC+. The next season he stabilized for the Giants, receiving 701 PAs and providing a 102 wRC+ with a .261/.308/.410 line. At age 23 he had a setback, dropping down to an 83 wRC+. Like Smith and Berkman, it was his age 24 season when he took off. He produced a career-best 148 wRC+ and a 4.6 fWAR season.

If I start expanding the list to include the comps I rejected, we find more of the same:

At age 22, Carlos Beltran had a 95 wRC+. He followed that up with just a 62 at age 23 before breaking out with a 122 at age (you guessed it) 24.

Bernie Williams? 94 wRC+ at age 22. 118 at age 23. Then he dipped at 24 before having his breakout at 25 – 120. And 26 – 133.

Jay Bruce had two just-below-100 wRC+ seasons in ’08 and ’09 at age 21-22 before taking his step forward at age 23 with a 124 wRC+.

I didn’t comp Carlson to guys like Andrew McCutchen or Mike Trout, even though they showed up on my search back in May. Those two aren’t good matches Carlson skill for skill. They also blew up the moment they arrived and will translate that to Hall of Fame (or close to it) careers.

The point? As with any elite, fast-arriving prospect, there is this hope that the player will translate his skills immediately to the majors and bust out toward a Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, or Stan Musial-like career. That is an exceptionally rare occurrence. Those guys are extreme talents. Carlson probably isn’t one of those guys. Honestly, his skillset never tracked like one of those guys.

However, when we comp Carlson to names like Carlos Beltran, Lance Berkman, or Chili Davis, we tend to view those players through the lens of their prime production seasons. Since Carlson isn’t producing like Lance Berkman right now, we tend to discount the possibility that he can become Lance Berkman. Or Davis. Or Smith.

We tend to ignore or forget the developmental process those players had to go through to become the talents that we remember them being.

Dylan Carlson is not the Lance Berkman we remember. Or Reggie Smith. Or Chili Davis. Then again, 22-year-old Lance Berkman, Reggie Smith, and Chili Davis weren’t Lance Berkman, Reggie Smith, or Chili Davis either.

Oh, and all of those players were worse hitters or not even in the majors at Carlson’s age.

Players change and develop as they age. For most prospects, their prime production seasons don’t come until age 24-28. Only the rare outliers produce before that.

If we look at Carlson’s progression, we can see this happening in real-time.

For his first half-season (we’ll just call that all of 2020), Carlson, at age 21, was terrible. His 65 wRC+ was Yadier Molina territory. (But still way better than Reggie Smith!)

In his next half-season, he made real strides forward. For the first half of 2021, Carlson produced a 104 wRC+ with a .258/.343/.391 slash line.

Since, (just 21 games into his third half-season), Carlson has jumped up to a 120 wRC+ with a .247/.313/.518 slash line. (Update: 128, .270/.330/.528 as this article publishes.) The power that was missing early season has come back again. Will it hold up? We’ll see. For now, though, we’re seeing steady improvement.

Carlson is getting better. And his best is yet to come. But just doing what he’s done so far is enough to put him in rare company and it’s reason to be extremely optimistic about his future.