Breakout or Bust: Will Carson Kelly Emerge As A Top 10 Catcher In 2020?

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For a long time Kelly was viewed as one of the top catching prospects, though more for his defense (drafted as a 3B, Baseball America noted that, “some evaluators believe his transition to catching meant his offensive development was put on hold, so much so that his bat could have more upside”). Prior to 2019 he was blocked from getting an opportunity due to the presence of Yadier Molina. Finally freed, after he was part of the trade that sent Paul Goldschmidt to St. Louis, Kelly got playing time and delivered a solid line:

.245 (77-314), 18 HR, 47 RBI, 46 R, 0 SB

The number that stands out is his poor average, and while catchers often won’t carry elevated BABIP the underlying metrics point towards a significant improvement on the horizon:

  • Hard% – 48.7%
  • Oppo% – 21.6%
  • Fly Ball Rate – 41.1%
  • SwStr% – 8.6%
  • O-Swing% – 25.0%

So he hits the ball hard, hasn’t taken a fly ball-centric approach and stays within the strike zone with regularity. Maybe he’s a little too pull heavy? Perhaps, but everything points towards a BABIP significantly better than his .271 from ’19. He was much better from May-July, when he hit .296 courtesy of a .295 BABIP and plenty of power (14 HR over 187 PA).

The power is a part of the equation, as he didn’t hit a home run in September, but his overall 18.6% HR/FB isn’t an unreasonable mark. Perhaps he takes a step back, as many in the league may in 2020, but expecting 15-20 HR over a full season isn’t unfair.

An improved average + Solid power? That’s a nice combination for any catcher. There were eight catchers who hit at least 20 HR last season, with five of them pairing it with a .270+ average (but no one better than .278). So even if he’s at 15 HR, but with a .285ish average, there’s going to be a lot of appeal. In fact the only catcher who came close to that last season was Wilson Ramos, who hit .287 with 14 HR (no catcher with 15+ HR hit .280 or better).

At the time of his trade to Arizona, we basically had the same opinion as we said:

Over his Triple-A career he’s hit .278 with 17 HR over 651 AB, with the key being his approach as he’s walked (92) nearly as much as he’s struck out (105).  In 294 AB at the level this season he had 48 walks vs. 48 strikeouts and showed the type of approach we like to see:

  • SwStr% – 6.8%
  • Line Drive Rate – 22.9%
  • Oppo% – 27.7%

The question is going to be if he is able to develop enough power, and at his age there’s definitely reason to believe that there’s still growth.  Think of him as a potential 12-15 HR threat as a near .270 hitter (and he could be even better if he can maintain a strong BABIP, something that’s never a guarantee for a catcher).

We saw the growth in power, and if he does maintain it he’s a potential Top 10 catcher. Even as is, he’s a viable option with significant upside.

Sources – Fangraphs, CBS Sports, Baseball America

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