2019 Stats: .245/.348/.478, 365 PA, 1.9 bWAR/fWAR, 112 OPS+, 108 wRC+, 18 HR
2019 Salary: $560,000
2020 Salary: Pre-arbitration until 2021
“Being traded for Paul Goldschmidt, is there added pressure for you? Do you feel like fans are going to be evaluating your play under a microscope?” -Keegan Thompson, Fan Fest 2019
“Basically, when you get traded and come to an organization... we need to come here and try to be ourselves. We can’t try to replicate what Paul did here. Hopefully, over time you guys love us and grow with us because we’re younger players. We want to grow to be part of this organization” -Carson Kelly
One year removed from that question and response, I’d say Carson Kelly did exactly what he set out to do upon arriving in Arizona as part of the trade return for Paul Goldschmidt to the St. Louis Cardinals. As I’m sure was the case for most of us Diamondbacks fans, I didn’t really know how to feel or what to expect after the franchise altering trade. However, at Fan Fest 2019 Luke Weaver and Carson Kelly responded to my question by telling me to sit back, relax, and just enjoy the show but not in so many words. Boy did they not disappoint. No longer stuck behind the shadow of Yadier Molina, Carson Kelly faced a new challenge for playing time behind the dish in a three man timeshare between himself, Alex Avila, and John Ryan Murphy.
Carson got off to a slow start at the plate through April batting a lowly .196/.226/.333 in the midst of the positional timeshare struggle behind the dish, but he quelled seller’s remorse concerns with the best month of his season coming in May. He slashed .360/.467/.680 with five home runs, and that put an end to the catching Cerberus as John Ryan Murphy was designated for assignment on May 25th. The very first home run of his career came at the hitter friendly Coors Field on May 4th during a game in which Luke Weaver, another piece of the Goldschmidt trade, also started and won.
Despite cooling off considerably at the plate as the season drew on, Kelly finished near the best hitting catchers in the game for the year based on wRC+. Among catchers with at least 350 plate appearances during the 2019 season, Kelly’s 108 wRC+ was tied for eighth with perhaps the best catcher in the game currently, J.T. Realmuto. Carson did most of his damage against left handed pitchers hitting .356/.462/.667 with 6 home runs in 104 plate appearances.
Perhaps most enlightening is that his respectable play with the bat did not come at the expense of his defense as we see far too often with catchers. He’s no Jeff Mathis or Alex Avila on defense, yet, but he wasn’t completely inept either. His 32% caught stealing rate was above the league average 27%, and Baseball Prospectus has him saving 2.6 runs, 8th in the league, from errant pitches. His framing in 2019 was about average, but we’ve seen how that can fluctuate wildly for a player from one season to the next and he’s not Welington Castillo terrible.
His best game of the season undeniably came on August 9th against the Dodgers in Los Angeles. Baseball Reference has his Win Probability Added for that game at .647, and it can be attributed to his play on both sides of the plate that evening. The game went eleven innings total and Carson caught each one of them and was directly responsible for all D’backs runs. Arizona had been losing 2-0 since the third inning, but Kelly took struggling Dodger Closer Kenley Jansen deep for a two run blast tying the game at two apiece in the bottom of the ninth.
He’d single handily dismantle Los Angeles in the eleventh with the decisive run and a heads up defensive play. He hit his second home run of the evening off Julio Urias giving Arizona the lead. Needing to preserve the one run lead, Archie Bradley came on for the save with Kelly still behind the dish. Bradley walked Joc Pederson to begin the inning bringing the winning run to the plate in the form of former D’back A.J. Pollock. Bradley uncorked a 96 MPH fastball in on Pollock’s hands. The pitch hit the knob of the bat and Kelly, not missing a beat, caught the pop foul to record the first out of the inning. Dave Roberts challenged the call with Pollock saying the pitch had hit his hand, but the call was upheld. Pollock slothed his way back to the dugout to the annoyance of Archie who barked at him to hurry along, clearing the benches and delaying the game further. None of this would have taken place without Kelly’s heroics that evening.
Kelly’s strong results in his first full season essentially ensured that he will be the D’backs primary catcher for the foreseeable future. It may even hasten the development of Daulton Varsho, Arizona’s top ranked catching prospect, who the D’backs have experimented with moving to the outfield towards the end of the minor league season. He has the foot speed to play in the outfield, and as Carson Kelly continues to develop behind the plate there is less of a need to keep Varsho as Arizona is currently thin in the outfield. Instead, Kelly will be splitting his time at catcher with Stephen Vogt who signed a one year deal this offseason with a vesting option for 2021. Carson will surely almost always start against left handed opposing pitchers as he fared much better against them in 2019 than Vogt has in his career.