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Dylan Carlson (OF, STL) - 2021 Fantasy Baseball Draft Sleepers

Pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training in a couple of weeks, which means fantasy baseball draft season is ramping up. We do not know if there is a universal DH or a full 162-game season. What we do know is we will draft teams regardless and we will need some fantasy sleepers. Some sleepers are late-round targets, some sleepers are players earlier in drafts that have the potential to perform much better than their ADP would suggest. 

When thinking of fantasy sleepers that can outperform their ADP, Dylan Carlson enters the conversation. He had quite the Jekyll and Hyde 2020. Before the season started, the hype train was in full swing after a monster 2019 minor league season. Those that were clamoring for Carlson were left a bit bummed out as the Cardinals slow-played Carlson to start the season. Once he was called up, he started slow and was sent back to the alternate site camp. When it seemed like all was lost, Carlson rejoined the big club and crushed, leaving a strong memory for the fantasy owners that held on till the end. 

When looking at Carlson’s 2021 NFBC Draft Champions ADP for January, he is drafted as the 35th outfielder around pick 135. To many, that does not count as a sleeper, but surprisingly there are many still concerned with Carlson entering 2021. Those concerned have no fear as you are about to find out why he is a major sleeper for the 2021 fantasy baseball season.

Be sure to check all of our fantasy baseball lineup tools and weekly lineup resources:


Tale of Two Seasons

After a 2019 minor league season that saw Carlson hit .294 with 26 home runs and 20 stolen bases between Double-A and Triple-A, he became a very popular late-round fantasy baseball target. A target that the Cardinals shot down as he started the season at the alternate training site. After a few weeks at the alternate site and a COVID outbreak for the Cardinals, Carlson received the call and joined the big club on August 15.

He played 23 games with the Cardinals but was not living up to the preseason hype, which resulted in a demotion back to the alternate site for a few weeks. Carlson must have been impressive at the alternate site as he was recalled on September 18 and played 12 games to finish the season. He was also regularly in the Cardinals’ postseason lineups. The first stretch with the team was not great, but round two went much better for Carlson.

Games Stat Line BABIP wOBA ISO wRC+
8/15-9/5 23 .162-1-5-5-1 0.22 0.206 0.081 26
9/18-9/27 12 .278-2-5-11-0 0.348 0.38 0.333 142

This was not an ideal start for the 21-year-old Carlson’s MLB career. After the strong 2019 campaign where he only played 15 games at AAA, the MLB level pitching transition was not easy. Like most situations when a young player makes his debut, pitchers will throw specific pitches to see if the player can hit. The early scouting report said Carlson struggled against off-speed/breaking pitches, and that was the steady diet he saw early on in 2020. He struggled mightily but made changes at the alternate camp.

Once Carlson returned to the bigs, he hit offspeed/breaking pitches better, which led to another pitch mix that favored Carlson even more.

8/15-9/5 38.70% 12.30% 10.70% 14.10% 21.80%
9/18-9/27 47.60% 15.70% 4.20% 16.30% 16.30%

(data from Fangraphs)

It is pretty easy to see the pitch mix changes over the two stretches of the season. It is proof that Carlson had made some excellent adjustments to specific pitches, and his overall production increased. Now let’s look at Carlson’s Baseball Savant stats for August and September based on pitches. Quick Note- Savant combines certain pitch types where Fangraphs separates them more. 

It appears to be quite evident that Carlson made adjustments to the pitches that hampered his offensive production. His results and expected results on breaking/offspeed pitches improved. The improvement had pitchers throwing more fastballs, and his results versus fastballs were off the charts. The improvements are evident when looking at the basic fantasy stats and the expected stats, but let’s look at some more stats that showcase the improvements between the quality of contact, plate approach, etc. 

GB%/FB% Barrel Hard-Hit Z-Swing/Z-Contact SwStr
8/15-9/5 51%/29.4% 5.90% 33.30% 56.3%/77.6% 12.30%
9/18-9/27 32%/36% 16% 60% 65.3%/87.2% 9.60%

Carlson made adjustments on the offspeed/breaking pitches, resulting in more fastballs seen, and he thrived. Fly-ball rate rose while the ground-ball rate fell, which coincides with more barrels. His hard-hit rate went through the roof while his zone contact rate rose and the swinging-strike rate fell. Carlson put the ball in play much more while hitting the ball harder, resulting in much more productivity for fantasy owners. Some will say these samples are small, and sure they are, but all we have is a 60 game season to go off of for Carlson. The changes he made at the plate are much more important long term than the size of the samples for now. If more stats are needed, then let’s look at the postseason games Carlson hit CLEANUP for the Cardinals. 

The Cardinals only played three games in the postseason, which saw Carlson hit cleanup in all three games versus the Padres. He went 3-9 for a .333 average with a .348 xBA. He also walked four times, resulting in a very nice .571 OBP. His wOBA was .460 and ISO of .111 over the postseason sample. Carlson was productive, and more importantly, the Cardinals trusted the 20-year-old to hit cleanup in all three postseason games.


2021 Outlook

Carlson continues to get better as he becomes more acclimated to professional baseball. It was evident in the minors as the power continued to develop along with an improvement in average. His hard-hit rates continued to improve as well. When adversity hit in 2020 with pitchers throwing more offspeed/breaking pitches, Carlson made the adjustments necessary to succeed. The improvements at the plate should continue to improve, giving Carlson a 20+ home run and 15+ stolen base upside if everything continues to click.

At worst, his defense is elite and should keep him in the lineup every day, allowing Carlson to continue working on his offensive skills. The Cardinals are still shopping for another outfielder, but that is more likely to affect Harrison Bader or Tyler O'Neill. Some may think an ADP of 136 is too high, but drafting Carlson is securing a young, improving player that has not seen his ceiling yet. If the improvements continue, Carlson could be and likely will be a steal at his current ADP. The upside alone makes Carlson a sleeper this season, as next season he could be a top-20 or even top-10 outfielder in 2022 fantasy drafts.

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