- Rating: 4.83
- 2022 stats: 104 G, 354 PA, .211/.282/.334, 7 HR, 35 RBI, .617 OPS, 76 OPS+, 0.9 bWAR
- Date of birth: July 14, 1994 (28 years old)
- 2022 earnings: $3.325 million
- 2023 status: On 40-man roster, 2nd-year arbitration projected at $4.1 million
When Carson Kelly arrived from the Cardinals in the trade for Paul Goldschmidt, the team was hopeful they had found their everyday catcher of the future. Kelly had understandably been blocked in St. Louis by future Hall of Famer Yadier Molina, but had no such competition in Arizona. 2019 saw him stake a solid claim to the position, being worth 1.7 bWAR in 111 games. However, since then it has very much been a case of one step forward and one back for Kelly. The COVID-shortened 2020 was a disaster at the plate for Carson, his OPS dropping to 73, and his walk-rate dropping below 5%. But he seemed to rebound in 2021, the walk rate going back to major-league average at 12.3%, and an OPS+ of 104.
Hopes were therefore high that Carson could build on that, and become the reliable, everyday hitter we expected, while also working with the pitching staff. But 2022 started off in truly disastrous fashion for Kelly, through his first 20 games, he was hitting just .105 (6-for-47) with one extra-base hit, and was striking out ten times for every walk (K:BB of 20:2). The resulting April OPS of .276 was, by more than a hundred points, the worst ever start to the season by a Diamondbacks hitter (min. 50 PA). He was then bitten by the injury bug, spending five weeks on the injured list with a strain of his left oblique. This might not necessarily have been a bad thing, as Kelly acknowledged:
“I was thinking about that. It’s going to give me some time to work on my core (beliefs), the things that I really believe in. Obviously, you never want to be hurt, but there are positives that come with it. Maybe a little bit of a mental reset, a physical reset, would be good for me. I’m going to take every day and get back to what I do well. Think of my core beliefs and things like that and go from there... I think it’s a combination of everything, but I also think mental. I think when you have the start that I’ve had, it wears on you... “I think a lot of the time I go external and try to find results instead of going back to what I do well and what I can control.”
Things were improved on his return, though a line of .235/.310/.381 still left considerable room for improvement, obviously. However, the return of something approaching Kelly’s usual plate discipline was welcome. In 294 PA after coming off the injured list, he had 27 walks and 51 strikeouts, a much-improved ratio. He was also hitting differently, according to coach Joe Mather. “He’s making contact in front of the plate. Whereas I felt like early in the year, the approach was more soft right-center and it kinda got him to get a little pushy and miss under the ball a lot... He is a guy that’s a little bit more pull-side, I would say, since he’s been back and doing well. That’s benefiting him. It fits his approach, it fits his swing.”
Carson himself spoke of the benefits of simplifying things. Interestingly, this was something he mentioned in spring training: “For me, it was really just simplifying things. Last year, there was a lot going on. This off-season, I was really trying to simplify my swing, simplify mechanics catching and calling a game. Overall, just going through every aspect of my game and how I can be a little bit better every single day and help this team win.” He returned to the same theme in July. “A lot of it is just simplifying. Continuing to work on the process. Don’t get results-oriented. Just continue to do your work every single day. Every at-bat is a new at-bat. Move on to the next one, good or bad.”
The final line wasn’t good, but Kelly’s value was boosted in 2022 by improved defense. He moved up to 17th of 60 qualified catchers in Statcast’s pitch framing, going from +1 to +3 runs there. This helped boost his overall bWAR to 0.9; it’s okay for the cost, but he’s going to get increasingly expensive as he moves through arbitration, and the cost-benefit equation will require better production. Maybe he can become a pitcher if catching doesn’t work out? For in 2022, he appeared no less than four times for the D-backs. That’s the same number of outings as Dallas Keuchel...
There have been rumblings that the team has been interested in finding another catcher to take over from Kelly. Reports have the D-backs being interested either in trading for Sean Murphy or signing free-agent Christian Vázquez. Neither came to pass (Vázquez signed a three-year, $30 million contract with the Twins), but it does seem to suggest the team is looking to upgrade at the position. For now though, Kelly would be the man, and is still likely a significantly better option for Arizona than Jose Herrera or the recently-acquired Ali Sanchez, the other two catchers on the 40-man roster at time of writing.
However, if Carson can keep his OPS around the .700 mark, where it was after he returned from the injured list this season, that’s probably good enough. The average catcher in the majors last year had only a .663 OPS, the lowest of any of the nine positions in the line-up. Even that figure was somewhat skewed by the top end, thanks to teams like Atlanta and Toronto: it’s not a golden era of catcher offense, with teams appearing to skew defensive. In the long term, be interesting to see if that sustains, especially if automated ball-strike calls reduce the value of pitch framing. But for now, let’s just hope Kelly hits more like the second half of the year, rather than the historically bad way in which he opened 2022.