The rookie impressed in his age-22 season, but he still has areas for growth.
As a 22-year-old rookie, Dylan Carlson posted 2.8 fWAR and 3.2 bWAR. The outfielder displayed an all-around skill set with a strong hitting ability, solid power, an advanced approach at the plate and decent skills in the field. A 3 WAR player is a solid starter, and the fact that Carlson reached that threshold as a 22-year-old is an encouraging sign for his career. Many players will never reach such a level of play, but it now appears to be a baseline for Carlson, who should continue to improve as he gains experience.
To begin with, Carlson led all St. Louis Cardinals starters in chase rate at 23.9%. The next closest teammate was Paul Goldschmidt at 25.2%. This low chase rate helped Carlson walk in nearly 10% of his plate appearances (9.2%). It also helped him strike out just 24.6% of the time. This kind of patience and discipline at the plate can be rare among players so young, but Carlson’s approach gives him a strong foundation from which to work.
One area Carlson does need to improve is his whiff rate. The right fielder’s 27.9% whiff rate put him in just the 27th percentile in the league. While this whiff rate can be contributed to Carlson’s struggles against breaking pitches (.264 wOBA, 30.8% whiff rate), the larger problem is Carlson’s susceptibility to high pitches and power pitching.
In my last article, I looked at ways in which Oli Marmol might platoon players, and I highlighted the hole in Paul DeJong’s swing at the top of the zone. Carlson has the same sort of hole.
To begin with, here are his whiff rates across the different regions of the strike zone.
Outside the bottom of the zone is also a problem area for Carlson, but his whiff rate on pitches in the upper third of the strike zone is simply too high.
The next chart gives Carlson’s xwOBA on contact in the different regions of the zone.
As a disclaimer, Carlson did actually have decent results on contact in the upper region of the zone. His wOBACON at the top of the zone was in line with his results in other regions. However, his xwOBACON at the top of the zone tells a different story. This is largely because he did not hit the ball hard when it was thrown at the upper regions of the strike zone.
It is clear that a much lower percentage of the balls that Carlson put in play at the top of the zone were hit hard. When combined with his high whiff rate against these pitches, it is clear that the top of the zone is where pitchers should attack him. If he does not shore up this weakness, pitchers will exploit it.
In tandem with Carlson’s struggles against high pitches is his struggles against power pitchers (as classified by Baseball Reference). Against these pitchers, Carlson had just a .505 OPS in 152 plate appearances. This is well below his .780 OPS on the season and his .902 OPS against finesses pitchers. Thus, not only does Carlson need to improve at the top of the strike zone, he needs to get comfortable facing high velocities.
Carlson could also stand to improve his power output. Carlson did not have a bad year at the plate in terms of power. He hit 18 home runs and tallied an ISO of .172. There should be more power in the tank, though, as among Cardinals starters, he had the third lowest fly ball rate (ahead of only Tommy Edman and Edmundo Sosa) and the highest percentage of balls hit to the opposite field.
To be clear, I am not arguing that Carlson should look to pull everything in the air. In fact it was his team leading line drive percentage that gave him plenty of his production this year. Still, power primarily comes from the pull side, and it comes from fly balls. It is possible for Carlson to find a balance between pulling fly balls while still using the entire field, which is something that he is very good at doing. If he could pull more fly balls, though, he would almost certainly hit more home runs and be able to add more power to his profile. For someone with a great feel for hitting and a disciplined approach at the plate, such a change would make Carlson a complete hitter and a top of the order force.
The now 23-year-old Carlson has plenty of time to make these changes. He showed tremendous improvement this year after struggling in 2020, and he has room to improve even more. Consistent power can often be the last thing that a hitter develops and that has been the case for Carlson. His advanced approach is more typical of a seasoned veteran than a rookie, and his ability to consistently hit the ball on a line demonstrates a great feel for hitting, which offers an encouraging sign that he should be able to make the necessary improvement to add more power and start hitting high pitches.