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Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down to Carlson in 2023?

How much did Carlson’s thumb/wrist injury impact his season? We can timeline it and explore 90th% exit velocity to find out!

Wild Card Series - Philadelphia Phillies v St. Louis Cardinals - Game One Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Yes, it’s a terrible title.

My New Year’s resolution is to make sure my article titles are as bad as possible. This resolution is already off to a roaring start, and it’s likely the only one I’ll be able to keep this year.

Speaking of bad, (maybe I should add cringy paragraph transitions to my resolution list) there’s Dylan Carlson’s 2022 MLB season. Carlson began the year surrounded by optimism. He was some fans’ dark horse pick to be the best player on the Cardinals. He was certainly on many written and unwritten breakout lists. After an inarguably good age-22 2021, his first full season in the majors, he seemed poised to take a step toward stardom.

It didn’t happen. He started the season with a horrendous slump. He followed that with a long stretch of very productive baseball that only barely pulled his stats out of the early season hole he had dug for himself. His mid-season offensive consistency and more refined defensive approach even gave the Cardinals the confidence to trade Harrison Bader for a much-needed upgrade to the starting rotation.

Then something happened. Carlson’s power evaporated and for about a month he struggled to drive balls or do anything on offense. A very unsurprising trip to the IL followed and Carlson returned for the end of the season as a slap-hitting platoon hitter.

The end result was a 2022 with fewer ups than downs.

Carlson finished the season with a perfectly average 100 wRC+. That came with a slash line of .236/.316/.380; with offense down league-wide, his paltry line makes his performance feel worse than it was. We’re conditioned to expect league-average performances to be a bit better than that.

He did show some promising signs of offensive growth. He lowered his K-rate to 19.3%. He maintained his walk rate and is solidly above average in that category. His defense in center field was a +3 OAA in less than a full season out there, and he’s displayed one of the better arms in baseball.

And the bad? He took a significant step backward in terms of power. Carlson’s ISO declined to .144 from .172 in ’21. His exit velocity data fell as well, from 88.2 mph on average to a meager 86.1, among the worst in the league. Not surprisingly, his hard-hit% fell as well.

His Statcast data is more than troubling. But he has had long stretches where the production is present despite some poorer-than-desired peripherals.

What happened to Carlson this season?

The answer is more than a lack of ability to drive the ball. An injury that was untreated for nearly a month seems to have played a significant role in the way his season ended and in some of his Statcast data.

Let’s look at these factors – the injuries, the decline in power, and the timeline of those events – to see if we can’t identify which parts of Carlson’s season are likely to translate forward and which ones are best forgotten.

The Wrist Injury: Timeline and Impact

To do this, we have to start at the end and work backward. Carlson hit the IL on September 7th due to persistent pain in his thumb and wrist. According to the Post-Dispatch, a scan taken that day revealed damage to the ligament that connected his thumb to the bones of his wrist.

It was an injury that Carlson had dealt with for some time. John Denton of reported that Carlson first noticed the discomfort about a month before he went on the IL. This corresponds with reports I had received that indicate the injury occurred during the series with the New York Yankees on August 5-7.

How significant was this injury? The Post-Dispatch quotes Carlson, saying “That (was) causing some one-handed swings, some off balance, just some things that don’t make me feel myself…. It’s something that has been lingering, so they felt like it could be causing me to compensate and do things that maybe I wouldn’t.”

The impact of this injury was noticeable to the eye test in his play toward the end of the summer. We frequently saw Carlson take what amounted to a one-handed swing, with his hand flying off the handle before he finished his follow through.

It was equally noticeable in the results of his swings. Even contact that looked good at the plate frequently led to balls falling well short of the wall. He looked like a player that simply didn’t have the strength to drive the baseball.

Was that true? Can we confirm that in the stats and maybe find the point of injury and its statistical impact? We can.

After looking through the data, I believe we can divide Carlson’s season into three unequal sections. Carlson started the season in a slump that doesn’t seem to be connected with any injury issue. It was about a three-week stretch where the Cards’ young outfielder was in a funk with his swing and his results.

After that Carlson got himself right and had a lengthy period of healthy, productive play that lasted from (roughly) May 1st through the reported injury that occurred around August 7. That was a 272 PA timeframe and represents about 55% of the PAs that Carlson received last season.

Then there’s the final section with the reported injury, the IL trip, and his return from the IL to a platoon role.

Here’s what each of these sections looks like statistically:

The Slump: 4/7 – 4/30
PA: 84
XBH: 4
ISO: .066
K%: 16.7%
BB%: 4.8%
BABIP: .219
Slash: .184/.250/.219
wRC+: 41

This early stretch of the season has all the characteristics of a slump that Carlson tried to hit his way through. His BB rate was below half of last year’s total. His K rate was down, which is normally a good thing, but the resulting contact was poor (see his .219 BABIP). Carlson generated little power, few extra-base hits, and a wRC+ in the toilet.

Can we read much into this section of his season? Not really. This three-week section of play was a stat killer but it doesn’t look anything like the rest of Carlson’s career. Slumps are a normal part of the game, unfortunately. What matters more is not what a player does in the slump but how they come out of it.

The Surge: 5/1 – 8/7
PA: 272
XBH: 30
ISO: .189
K%: 18.8%
BB%: 8.5%
BABIP: .305
Slash: .262/.335/.451
wRC+: 125

There was nothing magical about May 1. He went 0-4 with a K. It’s an arbitrary beginning point to represent Carlson’s emergence from his slump to settle into a long stretch of very good production.

Carlson became a double’s machine, cranking out 21 of them in 272 PAs. He struggled with his HR/FB rate but his overall power numbers (.189 ISO, .451 slug%) are just fine for a player with an average-to-good power profile as a prospect.

This stretch of play does a good job of establishing what Carlson can do when he was healthy and had both hands to swing with. It is a long enough sample – three full months – to include normal ups and downs of extended play. A 125 wRC+ over three months is inarguably good.

If you throw the slump in, which we should because it happened and slumps happen every season, Carlson’s first 4 months of 2022 look a lot like 2021. When he exited the Yankees series on Aug. 7, the reported time of his injury, Carlson had a season slash line of .244/.312/.403 with a .283 BABIP and a 105 wRC+. If he had been able to continue without injury, he likely would have finished the season about the same as he did in 2021.

That injury changed everything.

For this last part of his season, let’s look at it in two parts: injury to IL trip, and return to the end of the season. Doing so helps us see how his play declined due to the wrist/thumb issue and how little he was able to recover after his brief rest.

The Injury (part 1): 8/8 – 9/6
PA: 75
XBH: 2
ISO: .079
K%: 24.0%
BB%: 14.7%
BABIP: .289
Slash: .222/.333/.302
wRC+: 90

The differences are obvious and immediate. When Carlson lost the ability to maintain his grip or put pressure on his thumb/wrist, his power evaporated and he started to take steps to compensate for his neutered swing. His ISO fell over 100 points. He could not drive the ball at all. So, he stopped trying. His pull rate dropped as he looked to weakly shoot more balls up the middle. His BB rate skyrocketed to 14.1%. This is normally a very good thing, but if probably reveals here just how much Carlson tried to change his batting approach to remain productive while fighting through pain. The same thing explains his higher K rate. He was still able to place balls where fielders weren’t – his BABIP didn’t drop notably – but he just couldn’t do it with much authority.

This wasn’t a slump. This was an injury. It has all the characteristics of a good contact hitter who only had one hand to hit with.

It took a month but the Cardinals noticed the change and decided his defensive play wasn’t worth enough for Carlson to continue toughing out plate appearances. They sent him to the IL for about 10 days. It was long enough to let his aching thumb/wrist rest but not completely heal. What did rest do for him?

The Injury (part 2): 9/17 - 10/5
PA: 57
XBH: 6
ISO: .122
K%: 19.3%
BB%: 12.3%
BABIP: .263
Slash: .204/.316/.327
wRC+: 86

57 more sporadic PAs in a platoon role over the span of three weeks are a bad sample to read anything from. He gained a bit of power back but didn’t get much in the way of results over the last month of the season. The IL stint helped him reset and the rest allowed a bit of his power to come back. But we shouldn’t pretend Carlson was healthy at the end of the season; we know he entered the offseason with a few months of prescribed rest and rehab for his achy wrist.

What About the Statcast Data?

The three uneven sections of Carlson’s season are pretty clear in the regular stats. Part of the concern with him, though, is the underlying Statcast data. Does his exit velocity data match up with the sections above?

Yes and no.

Considering the stats, it shouldn’t be surprising that Carlson’s worst avg. exit velocity of the season came during his early season slump.

The Slump: 5/1 – 8/7
Exit Velocity: 84.5
90th Percentile EV: 99.9 mph

His overall average exit velocity of 84.5 mph early in the season was just terrible. I didn’t run the season rankings on this stretch but it’s likely at or near the bottom of the league.

Now, we talk about average exit velocity a lot around here but it’s important to note the flaws inherent in it as a stat. Studies have shown that the higher end of a player’s batted ball events has more to say about their true production than the bottom end. Every player has quite a few batted balls that are in the 40-75 mph range that are sure outs. It’s the quantity and peak of balls hit from 95-115 mph that make or break a player’s production and indicate their potential.

This is where “90th Percentile” Exit Velocity comes into play. It’s a simple stat that takes all the batted ball events for a player and finds the one at the 90% point.

Why does this matter? Two players can have the same average exit velocity – 90 mph, for example – but if one has a 90th EV of 104 (i.e. 10% of his batted balls are 104 mph or higher) and another has a 90th EV of 100 (i.e. 10% of his batted balls are 100 mph or higher), which player is likely to be more productive going forward?

You want the player who can hit more hard balls over than the player who hits more medium balls, even if the average of their contact velocities are about the same.

(Just to illustrate this, in 2021 Nolan Arenado and Dylan Carlson had the same 113 wRC+. Arenado had an 89 mph average exit velocity. Carlson had an 88.2. Very similar, right? Same hitter quality, right? Hardly. Arenado’s 90th% EV in ’21 was 103.3, by my calculations. Carlson’s? 101.8. More balls hit harder for Arenado makes him project as a better hitter, which we already knew.)

During Carlson’s slump, he was hitting a ton of really weak balls. But he still managed a 90th percentile exit velocity of 99.9 mph. Is that good? Bad? Let’s just compare him to himself and see if anything changes as the season progresses.

The Surge: 5/1 – 8/7
Exit Velocity: 86.7
90th Percentile EV: 102.6 mph

You can see the improvement. Carlson made significant strides forward in his average exit velocity. During this stretch, he averaged an 86.7. That’s pretty bad. But it’s significantly improved over his early season slump.

How many weak ground balls did we see Carlson hit last season? Soooo many! Even during the healthy and productive part of his season. What mattered for Carlson was not the high number of balls that he hit from 50-80 mph. Those are outs. He had a lot of them – around 50 batted ball events that were under 80 mph over 272 PAs.

You can see how little those weak outs affected his production. What mattered was the consistent production of 100-105 mph drives. Carlson doesn’t have many Arenado-like peaks of 108-112 mph. But he can produce a notable number of balls in the 100-106 mph range that are consistently hard enough to find gaps and occasionally get over the wall. That matches well with his contact-oriented hitting profile and average-to-above-average power potential that scouts have predicted since he came through the system.

Carlson didn’t luck into his 125 wRC+ while healthy and not slumping with weak hits that found gaps and doubles that snuck past defenders. He’s not 2021 Tommy Edman. His 90% EV highs support that. The excessive number of mid and low exit velocity batted ball events give him that .262 batting average that should be in the .285 range if he either laid off balls he can’t drive or drove them with more authority on average.

And the last stretch of the season?

The Injury: 8/8 – 10/5
Exit Velocity: 86.2
90th Percentile EV: 99.6 mph

Carlson’s average exit velocity during this sample didn’t change notably. It was 86.2. But his 90th% EV dropped down to 99.6. What does that indicate? Exactly what you see in the stats. He lost the ability to drive the ball and the resulting low and medium contact weren’t enough to generate the production moments that prop up a stat line. It, again, screams an injury that affected the player’s swing and what happened when he did swing.

Let’s finish this out by comparing these stats above to his 2021 season.

The First Full Season: 2021
Exit Velocity: 88.2 avg
90th Percentile EV: 101.8

You can see here why that 90th% exit velocity matters. Carlson produced a higher average exit velocity in ‘21 than what he produced during his healthy stretch this season. The peaks were about the same and so was the production.

Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down for Carlson in 2023?

We’re back to that cringy title, but you see the origin of it now. Where will Carlson’s thumb/wrist injury land him for the coming season? As that injury goes, so goes Carlson.

Because the core of Carlson’s production is still there. When healthy and not scuffling, Carlson can be a quality, productive hitter in this league at a premium defensive position. Considering his age, he can still build off his average-to-above start to his career if he can maintain those high exit velocity events and potentially find more of them.

That, along with the improvements to his K rate, are what we expected from him this past season. A season where he finishes between a 110-125 wRC+ with average-to-good defense in centerfield is not just possible but likely.

If he’s healthy.

Ligament injuries to the wrist can linger. It’s a concern as the Cardinals move forward, which is probably why Mozeliak wasn’t willing to give Carlson a full vote of confidence as the starting center fielder at this point in the offseason. He gave the same treatment to O’Neill, who had legitimately elite-caliber production in the recent past but has suffered through his own share of injuries.

O’Neill’s 90th% EV in 2021? 108.4. This season it was 105.9. Still good for a slugger but the other flaws in his game and his injuries stole a lot of production from him.

The only Cardinals outfielder to get such a vote from the Cardinals GM was Lars Nootbaar, who, incidentally, had a 90th% exit velocity of 106.4 mph and is working hard on improving on that. He’s positioned to be an impact hitter this season, so long as his contact ability can hold up.

And Mozeliak can’t stop talking about Jordan Walker, who had an insane 90th% EV in AA of 108.

Reports are that Carlson is doing what he needs to do to give his thumb plenty of time to heal up. Let’s hope it happens because even though he can’t match the other outfielders in exit velocity numbers, he can provide a more well-rounded, consistent offensive approach that can stabilize the top or bottom of the lineup while playing average or above-average defense in centerfield. He’s the kind of player that can make an offense continue to run even as power comes and goes from these other, more spectacular hitters.

The Cardinals need Carlson. And Carlson needs to get his thumb healthy.