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2020 Arizona Diamondbacks Reviews #22: Carson Kelly

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A step backwards for the starting catcher

Texas Rangers v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

RATING: 4.63

AGE: 25

2020 STATS: 39 G, 129 PA, .221/.264/.385, .649 OPS, 71 OPS+, -0.3 WAR

2020 SALARY: Pre Arb League Minimum Pro Rated

2021 STATUS: 1st year Arb eligible, (Super 2). Estimated $1.3M

Carson Kelly was taken in the 2nd round of the 2012 draft by the St. Louis Cardinals. Coming out of high school as an 18 year old that year, he made his major league debut four years later in 2016. Considered a top catching prospect, he was blocked by Yadier Molina, and in very limited playing time in parts of three seasons failed to hit enough to push the issue of replacing Molina. Despite Molina’s aging and pending free agency coming up in a couple of years, when the Cardinals had a chance to grab Paul Goldschmidt from the Diamondbacks prior to the 2019 season, they jumped at the chance, sending Kelly, Luke Weaver, and Andy Young to Arizona to secure the deal.

In his first year with Arizona Kelly had a great deal of success. Originally part of a three catcher system and getting sporadic playing time in the early part of the season, he started to hit and wrestled most of the PA’s his way by mid season. He peaked on August 12th , 2019 when his batting line reached .270/.362/.562, .924 OPS with 17 HR and 42 RBI, and 32 walks vs. 51 K’s in 268 PA

However perhaps due to fatigue playing his first full season, or perhaps due to the league making adjustments to him, he slumped badly over the final 6 weeks of the season to end up .245/.348/.478 , .826 OPS, homering just one more time to finish with 18. Still it was a successful season all around for Kelly. He posted a 111 OPS+, and 1.7 WAR in 111 games, threw out 15 of 47 baserunners, (32%) , and registered +5 runs in Statcast’s Pitch Framing Metric.

The team decided to sign left handed hitting veteran backup Stephen Vogt to pair with Kelly in 2020, and finally abandon the three catcher system. Kelly was slated to be the starter and depended on heavily in 2020 with the expectation of further growth and possibly even developing into a star.

2020

When the 2020 season finally got under way, Kelly’s slump over the last 6 weeks of 2019 seemed to carry over. Through September 12th he was still batting just .183 with a .533 OPS. It took a 10 for 29 streak, with 3 doubles and 2 homers to close out the season to bring his season batting line up to a semi respectable level. Perhaps if the season had gone on longer he would have continued his hitting recovery, but in the short season that was, he never got that opportunity. All his underlying numbers were poor, so “bad luck” was not an excuse.

His walk rate cratered from 13.2% in 2019 to 4.7% in 2020.

His Plate discipline numbers ( Swing %, Swings at out of zone pitches, Swinging strike, etc) were all worse

His Stat Cast Numbers, such as Barrells and Hard Hit % were all well off 2019 as well.

Looking at his xwOBA or “expected performance” based on plate discipline and quality of contact, we can see a pretty big fluctuation over his career. It’s added up to just slightly above .300. League average is .321. HOWEVER it’s really important to note this: Carson Kelly has just 625 career PA, or the equivalent of one full season.

Perhaps even more concerning was his defense. His throwing was markedly worse in 2020 as he threw out just 3 of 22 baserunners, (14%) . His pitch framing barely registered in the positive with +1. Even if Kelly turns out to be a below league average hitter, it’s imperative that his defense improve going forward, and at least return to 2019 levels.

The one positive for Kelly in 2020 was that he continued to hit better than his personal average w/ RISP and in high leverage or “clutch” situations. He’s shown a knack in his career to do well in these situations. It could just be small sample size of course, (it usually is, and these things tend to even out). But it will be interesting to see if that carries forward in the future. Here are his career numbers by leverage:

In that spirit, here are Kelly’s top 5 hits by WPA in 2020 per Fangraphs Play Log

LOOKING FORWARD TO 2021

Kelly will enter 2021 as the starting catcher, once again backed up by Stephen Vogt. Daulton Varsho may get some time behind the plate as well in a utility role, but it does not appear his defense behind the plate will be strong enough to push Kelly out of the starter’s role any time soon.

Kelly’s ZIPS/STEAMER Composite projection is .243/.323/.413, .736 OPS. That’s well below his OPS for the previous two seasons combined, (.778), but better than his career average of .701.

The average OPS for Catcher in MLB was .706 in 2020, and .717 in 2019. But that includes backup catchers, who are typically offensively challenged.

I’ll leave this off with a comp list. These are Right Handed hitting catchers since the Wild Card era began, through age 25. All had somewhat similar playing time. Kelly is in the middle of this pack, and in many ways reminds me of former D-back Chris Snyder. Snyder had a couple of good seasons in 2007-2008, with a league average bat and good enough defense to register a couple of 2 WAR seasons back to back. Unfortunately that’s best case scenario from this particular comp list. Hopefully Carson will break out ...again...in 2021 and start hitting like he did for a few months in 2019, and start throwing out baserunners again while he’s at it.

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