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Why Dylan Carlson Is Poised to Breakout

Carlson had a strong second half in 2021. Is that expected to continue during the 2022 season?

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

(Editor’s note: Everyone welcome Devin Csigi to the team! Devin brings to the table analytical skills and plans to contribute on the Majors and Minors. -J.C.)

Dylan Carlson is one of the more talented and nationally discussed players to come through the Cardinals system in recent years. He closed the 2020 season being MLBPipline’s 14th best prospect in all of baseball as well as being the Cardinals best prospect by 29 spots with Nolan Gorman ranking 43rd. Although, we did not see the instant impact that was expected from him in 2020, when he slashed .200/.252/.364 in 119 plate appearances. Carlson did have a bit of s turnaround in 2021, slashing .266/.343/.437 with 18 home runs and also eight outfield assists. It does appear as if he figured some things out during the 2021 season and is going to continue to build on it. If we dig a little deeper, we can see the numbers and adjustments behind his improvements and why they point to him having a strong 2022 season.

There are some full-season numbers that can be pointed to that show Carlson’s key areas of improvement from the 2020 season to the 2021 season. First, his strikeout rate lowered from 29.4 percent in 2020 to 24.6 percent in 2021. Carlson’s walk rate rose from 6.7 percent in 2020 to 9.2 percent in 2021. Additionally, his launch angle went from 9.3 degrees to 15.1 degrees, which helps shed some light as to why his HR/AB went from 36.67 in 2020 to 30.11 in 2021.

Carlson improved significantly against changeups, which represented 16.6% of the pitches in 2021. His xBA went from .156 in 2020 to .280 in 2021; xSLG went from .220 to .247; his xWOBA increased from .164 to .360. His whiff rate dropped from 30.7 percent in 2020 to 27.9 percent in 2021, and his chase rate went from 24.5 percent to 23.9 percent — which was 4.4 percent better than league average during the 2021 campaign.

Carlson also became a hitter who was looking to attack more frequently. His first pitch swings jumped from 10.9 percent to 23.3 percent, a zone swing increase of 59.3 percent to 67.3 percent, and an overall swing increase going from a below average 41.1 percent to an above league average 45 percent. It also cannot be overlooked that even though he improved in these areas, both his chase and whiff percentages decreased.

Carlson’s breakout truly started in the second half of last season with his wOBA, which is a stat that is used to determine how well a player contributes to run scoring for his team. Carlson’s wOBA went from .322 (which is considered to be right about league average) to .357, which is considered to be well-above average.

Carlson posted a wRC+ of 104 in the first half, which is once again right around league average. In the second half, Carlson had a 127, which is considered to be well-above average. Additionally, his .ISO, which is simply extra base hits divided by total at-bats, went from .134 to .227. The next question to ask is: What are some of the numbers that might have contributed to such a significant rise in some of the most heavily used analytic stats in baseball?

The two most notable statistical differences are Carlson’s pull percentage (37.7 percent in the first half to 45.7 percent) and hard contact percentage that went from 24.6 percent to 34.6 percent. Although, while it is nice seeing these numbers on paper improve, it is still important to understand why his numbers took such a significant improvement in the second half.

One of the biggest things to look for when evaluating younger players and seeing improvement in their numbers over the course of a season is trying to find adjustments in their swing. The video with the Diamondbacks and Dodgers is taken from two home runs that Carlson hit in late May, and the video with the Pirates and Brewers is from two of Carlson’s swings late in the season.

The two biggest differences in these two swings are his pre swing movement in the bat and with his hands, as well as a very small toe tap. In early May, there is hardly any movement pre swing with both his hands and bat, and he hardly incorporates any type of toe touch prior to beginning his swing.

In the video from late in the season, we can see him moving the bat a bit, as well as there being some more movement in his hands and arms. The likelihood of an adjustment like this is to get him in more of a rhythm at the plate and to get his body going before the pitch. It is difficult for some hitters to go from a completely stagnant stance (like we see him use against Bauer) and then immediately getting into the swing, getting behind the ball to drive it. His hand path also changes ever so slightly in the two videos; of the biggest things to evaluate in scouting is the plane of a hitter’s hands at the start of the swing. If the hands enter two different planes of motion at the start of the swing — whether that be down and back, back and up etc — it is going to make it a little more difficult to stay on time and make solid contact with the ball. That can be marginally seen in the early season video, as well as some of Carlson’s other swings from the first half. This is opposed to in the late season video, where Carlson’s hands stay on a more even plane of motion from back to front.

Even with everything discussed above there are still a few key areas that Carlson needs to improve on in 2022 to reach his ceiling as a player this season. First of all, he still did not make enough contact in the zone on swings. His zone contact of 79 percent ranked 102nd out of 132 qualified hitters, finishing 18 spots behind Eugenia Suarez who has one of the highest whiff rates in the league. Additionally, his chase contact of 52.9 percent ranked 90th out of all qualified batters, which was 8 spots and 2.3 percent better than Jazz Chisholm — who also has one of the worst whiff rates in the league. These are things that a player with Carlson’s talent will continue to refine as he improves at picking up spins and recognizing pitches.

It is very easy to get carried away thinking about the season Carlson might have in 2022. We saw the adjustments where he was getting the ball in the air more and hitting it harder — which could lead to a higher home run rate this season. We also saw him make some adjustments with his hands, bat, and front foot that will help him improve his timing at the dish. These adjustments should reduce the odds of prolonged slumps, and in turn, lead to him posting more consistent offensive production.

It’s difficult to see Carlson reaching his ceiling this season, but Carlson hitting over .275 with at least 20 home runs and 15 stolen bases is certainly not out of the question.