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2021 Diamondbacks Reviews: #6 Catcher Carson Kelly

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Injuries derailed a breakout season for the Diamondbacks backstop

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MLB: Colorado Rockies at Arizona Diamondbacks Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

Rating: 6.56

Age: 27

2021 Stats: 98G, 359 PA, .240/.343/.411. 104 OPS+, 2.1 bWAR, 1.7 fWAR

2021 Earnings: $1,700,000

2022 Status : Arbitration eligible, year 2 of 4. Est. between $2.7M to $3.0M

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Introduction

Most readers are familiar with Carson Kelly’s story. Taken by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2nd round of the 2012 draft, he started his career as a thirdbaseman. Converted to catcher in 2014 he advanced quickly and made it to the major in 2016. However blocked behind future Hall of Famer Yadier Molina, he received only sporadic opportunity between 2016-18. The Cardinals included Kelly (along with Luke Weaver and Andy Young) in the trade that sent Paul Goldschmidt to St. Louis.

Kelly’s first season with Arizona was a success. After a slow start he heated up mid season, while playing good defense throughout. He posted a 112 OPS+ and 1.7 bWAR while also throwing out a respectable 15 of 47 base stealers (32%). His one weakness was hitting right handed pitching, he crushed lefties, but righties we able to contain him. 2019 Splits

He had a very slow start to the 2020 pandemic shortened season. But he recovered somewhat over the last few weeks , and oddly enough had a reverse split for the year hitting righties well but lefties poorly. Small sample size to be sure, but improvement vs. RHP was encouraging. Still, he finished with just a .221 B.A., 5 homers, a lowly 73 OPS+ and -0.3 WAR. Even his throwing took a big step back, as he caught 3 of 22 base stealers, 14%.

2021

Kelly worked on his both his mental approach and simplified swing mechanics during the off season and throughout spring training. The change focused around reducing his leg kick so he was not swinging uphill so much. Zach Buchanan wrote an extensive article about it March. As the season began, it all was working. Kelly got out of the gate fast, collecting 5 hits in his first 8 at bats, he was batting .440 through April 15th. He continued his hot hitting through the end of April and into May, stroking over a 1.000 OPS . Wrote Nick Piecoro on April 23rd:

For Carson Kelly, a bad at-bat is not a referendum on his approach. A swing-and-miss does not call for a deep dive into his mechanics. A hitless night is not cause to start searching for answers.

Kelly rebuilt his swing in the offseason. The Diamondbacks’ catcher made it simpler, more repeatable. He turned it into something he trusts — something he no longer questions when things do not go according to plan.

Indeed, through May 13th Kelly was hitting .338/.491/.613. He had more walks than strikeouts, (16/13) was hitting for power, (6 HR), and was leading not only the team, but the entire National League with 2.1 bWAR . He was well on his way to his first all star appearance.

Then he caught a bad break, literally, taking a foul tip off his toe. The resulting fracture put him on the IL 2 days later on May 15th. With the team in a deep slump, he was rushed back ten days later May 25th before the fracture had fully healed. At the time the team said being able to play was simply a matter of his pain tolerance and he would not risk further injury. While that was true, the disruption to his season caused timing issues. He went 1 for 15 upon his return, and from May 25th through June 19th in 77 PA he hit just .171, with 2 homers, 5 walks, and 22 K’s. Timing, plate discipline, and power had all disappeared. And then disaster struck again,

On June 19th he was hit by a Walker Buehler fastball, fracturing his wrist. This time there was no quick return, as he’d be out until July 30th. Over his last 48 games he hit .221/.297/.364 with just 5 homers 16 walks and 36 K’s. While it’s undeniable that the two injuries impacted his season, a detailed look at his splits before and after the injuries reveals that his issues hitting right hand pitching have not been fully resolved. Some regression to the mean would have occurred even if he’d not been injured. But after the injuries he actually continued to hit lefties well. Unfortunately the bottom fell out against righties. (See below) Did the injuries themselves cause more issues against RHP than against LHP ? I am somewhat doubtful of that actually.

2022 Outlook

At one point during the season I brought up the question of whether or not the team should look to trade Kelly. If the team trades Ketel Marte, then there is a case to be made that they should finish the tear down and trade Kelly as well. He’s already 27, starting to get expensive, and getting closer to the typical offensive cliff that most catchers start to see around age 29 or 30. However there is a case to be made that Kelly aging better than that.

The injuries that hit Kelly were unfortunate, but they are not an indication of an injury prone player. Of course catchers are prone to have more injuries in the first place perhaps, but as far as I can tell he’s never had back, knee. or shoulder issues. He had a hamstring injury in 2018 with the Cardinals. But by and large none of the injuries he’s had should impact him going forward.

Steamer and ZIP combine to project him to hit .239/.330/.417, .747 OPS. It’s pretty easy to want to take the over on that projection.

On top of that Kelly does not actually have the typical wear and tear of a 27 year old catcher. He’s only played in 287 Games, 2079 innings behind the plate, and has only 984 career at bats. So it would not surprise me at all if Kelly is a “late bloomer” or has a very productive career up through age 30 and perhaps even into his early 30’s. That means there is a decent chance he could still be a major contributor to the “next good Diamondbacks team” Who knows, maybe he’s even an extension candidate.

Of course how Daulton Varsho develops, and how Carson rebounds from the 2nd half of 2021 will dictate the team’s actions in this regard.

Kelly is smart, articulate, and funny. He’s got a great attitude, and is open and approachable. He’s very easy to root for, and I’m sure we’ll all be doing just that.