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Carson Kelly’s 2021 hot start: Future breakout player or small sample size mirage?

Kelly is off to a blistering start to open up the 2021 season.

MLB: Arizona Diamondbacks at Cincinnati Reds David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

When the Diamondbacks traded franchise superstar Paul Goldschmidt to the St. Louis Cardinals, one of the key players coming back was catcher Carson Kelly. In his first year with the Diamondbacks, Kelly put up a very solid .245/.348/.478 triple slash (107 wRC+) with 19 doubles and 18 home runs in 365 plate appearances. At that point, it looked the D-backs came out ahead as they found their franchise catcher for the next five years.

With Kelly now in place as the team’s primary starting catcher, the expectations is he would be a solid bottom of the order bat who can extend the lineup. That didn’t happen in 2020, as he struggled to a .221/.264/.385 slash (70 wRC+) in 129 PA. Given Kelly’s struggles in every year other than 2019, the question was where is his actual talent level with the bat. As the season ended, Kelly put together a respectable September with a wRC+ of 99 and 4 homers. That was a small glimmer of hope that Kelly would rebound if he continued to make adjustments in the offseason.

For the team to improve in 2021, they were going to have to get more offense out of the catcher position. So far in 13 games, Carson Kelly has more than lived up to expectations. He’s starting the year with an incredible .351/.537/.730 slash (226 wRC+), although it’s buoyed up by an unsustainable .375 BABIP with 2 doubles and 4 homeruns. He’s been incredibly stingy at the plate, drawing a walk in a franchise record 10-straight games, and more walks (13) than strikeouts (10) on the season to date.

With this hot start to the plate combined with a respectable finish in the final month of 2020, the question becomes if Kelly is on the verge of a breakout. Looking at his Statcast data, we’re seeing improvements across the board. He’s been more selective at the plate, offering at pitches 10% less than last season and chasing out of the zone 6% less. The selectivity at the plate has allowed him to draw walks and make pitchers throw the ball in the zone.

As a result of making pitchers throw balls in the strike zone, he’s taken advantage. 52.2% of the balls he put into play have exceeded 95 MPH and his launch angle has jumped to 17.4 degrees. In addition, his exit velocity has jumped from 86 to 90 MPH. The jump in exit velocity, hard hit rate, and average launch angle suggests a potential future breakout if this batted ball improvement is sustainable.

As the season continues, we’ll have a good idea if Carson Kelly is making the jump from an average starting catcher to a borderline All-Star. The combination of improved plate discipline and batted ball data suggests we’ll see more offensive production out of him. As arguably the most important player in the return for Goldschmidt, seeing Kelly make that jump is excellent news for the short and long term health of the franchise.