CLEVELAND -- Dylan Carlson had to go. He didn't want to be impolite, but coaches in the National League clubhouse were telling players it was time to stretch and prepare for batting practice out on Progressive Field. This being his first (and potentially only) Futures Game, he didn't want to
CLEVELAND -- Dylan Carlson had to go. He didn't want to be impolite, but coaches in the National League clubhouse were telling players it was time to stretch and prepare for batting practice out on Progressive Field. This being his first (and potentially only) Futures Game, he didn't want to miss out on any responsibilities. Fair enough. But one last question. Did he think this season could be defined as a breakout?
"It's definitely been a build up," he said. "It's been a process all throughout the Minors. I'm real grateful for all the struggles I've had, because I don't think I would be here without them."
There are any number of ways to describe Carlson's fourth Minor League season, but at the very least, it should be deemed impressive.
Going into his trip to Cleveland over the weekend, the 20-year-old switch-hitting outfielder was hitting .282/.366/.510 with 13 homers and 12 stolen bases over 78 games with Double-A Springfield. All three of those slash-line numbers -- along, of course, with his .876 OPS and 135 wRC+ -- would represent career highs. His 12 stolen bases are already four more than his previous career best, set in 44 fewer games last season between Class A Peoria and Class A Advanced Palm Beach.
But the most exciting jump might be in the slugging department. Carlson slugged over .400 just once in his first three seasons, when he put up a .404 over 50 games in the Gulf Coast League directly after being taken 33rd overall out of a Northern California high school in the 2016 Draft. That fell to .347 at Class A Peoria in 2017 and .390 between two levels in 2018. His career high for home runs entering this season was 11, also set last season. He already has 13 for Springfield, meaning every blast he hits the rest of the way will set a new personal best. He's also doing that after being the second-youngest position player on a Texas League Opening Day roster. (Only Amarillo's Hudson Potts was younger ... by all of five days.)
And this isn't exactly an uneven splits issue either. Carlson's slugging percentage as a left-handed hitter against righty pitchers (.510) is almost exactly the same as it is batting from the other side (.508). If anything, his home run rate is a little higher as a righty hitter (6 percent) than it is as a lefty (3.2 percent), but he's made up for that with other extra-base hits.
Still, for a player for whom above-average power was seen as a ceiling, Carlson is showing signs of even more pop than that. That continued in Sunday's Futures Game, where he had two of the 12 highest exit velocities (102.6 mph, 96.6 mph); only Phillies slugger Alec Bohm could claim the same.
As much as this could be about the physical maturation of a player who has been young for every level he's played so far, it's mostly about a mental maturation.
"Really honing in and focusing on my approach, that's something I've changed," Carlson said. "Not just my approach, but my plan for the game has changed a little bit. I really try to go up there and have some intent with what I'm doing and do some damage.
"For me, I wouldn't say [I was being] too passive, but I would give in to the way pitchers would pitch to me. I would kind of just think if this pitcher is going to try to get me out a certain way, I would try to hit to how he was trying to get me out as opposed to sticking to what I'm good at."
The old approach didn't necessarily result in a lot of strikeouts, at least by lower-level standards. But nor did it lead to a lot of hard contact. Carlson ranked 450th among Minor League qualifiers with a 9.2 percent home-run-per-flyball rate in 2018. This season, he's at 16.9 percent -- good for 65th among players with at least 300 plate appearances -- and that's before he gets to bash the new wonderball at Triple-A.
For their part, the Cardinals have remained big believers in pushing Carlson, even if the numbers weren't the rosiest. Before his aggressive move to Double-A, Carlson was a non-roster invitee to Spring Training and appeared in 23 Grapefruit League games before being reassigned to the Minors side. Although he was primarily used as a late replacement, picking up one or two at-bats at a time, Carlson always watched the more veteran hitters, hoping to find and implement an approach that could help him finally take off. It didn't take long.
"Shoot, probably halfway through spring, I started getting some results from it," Carlson said. "Talking to the guys, some things like my exit velo started to increase, because all I was doing was focusing on hitting pitches I could handle as opposed to hitting the pitches they were throwing me. I think my intent-switching helped me."
That has continued into the season as the switch-hitter tips his hat to Springfield hitting coach Brandon Allen, who hounded Carlson with the point that he didn't need a huge overhaul to show off his true potential. He just needed to play to his strengths.
"Just be me," Carlson said of Allen's advice. "He has a lot of confidence in me. That passes over into my game, and I feel a lot more confident and the results come with it."
With the added offensive improvement combined with his above-average arm and glove in all three outfield spots, "being Carlson" means being the No. 2 prospect in the Cardinals system (up from No. 8 at the beginning of the season) and the No. 88 overall prospect, putting him in MLB.com's Top 100 for the first time. A second-half move to Triple-A Memphis could be in the cards and a 2020 debut not far behind it.
That's getting ahead of things a bit. For now, Carlson's surge earned him a chance to play at Progressive Field on Sunday alongside some of the game's best young talents. He had played in Wrigley Field as a high schooler and got to take a few hacks at Busch Stadium after signing with the Cardinals, but he still gets the chills playing under the bright lights of a Major League stadium. Perhaps after a little more build up, it'll be a feeling he'll get used to.
"It's incredible," Carlson said before taking the field in Cleveland. "You get out there and get the juices flowing. You just have to take a deep breath and realize it's happening. For me, I try to enjoy every moment and soak it all in. ... I'm in awe in these kinds of places. Hopefully, I can make it a reality."