By Rob Rains
Dylan Carlson does not need to look at a calendar to realize how much his life has changed in the last year.
Just 12 short months ago, Carlson was playing baseball for Elk Grove, Calif., High School, coached by his father, preparing for his graduation and wondering about his future.
His success there led to him becoming a first-round pick in the amateur draft last June, and his journey has now brought him to the Peoria Chiefs, the Class A Midwest League affiliate of the Cardinals.
“It’s pretty cool to think about how far I’ve come,” Carlson said. “I’m just trying to improve every day and keep it going. It’s been quick, but I’m having a lot of fun.”
Carlson was one of just 10 position players selected out of high school in the first round of last year’s draft, and is currently one of only seven playing for a full-season minor league team.
Of that group he also is one of the youngest. He will play this entire season at 18, not celebrating his 19th birthday until October. Only Hudson Sanchez, a shortstop drafted by the Padres who also is playing in the Midwest League, is younger, and only by a couple of weeks.
Carlson has never worried about being the youngest player on his team, and his manager, Chris Swauger, said there was a good reason why Carlson should feel that way.
“Dylan is by far the most mature 18 year old I’ve ever met in my life,” Swauger said. “Personality wise he’s very calm. He listens well, which is very rare in my experience for the younger generation right now.
“It’s just impressive what he has been able to put together. … He’s definitely a guy when you watch him play that catches your eye.”
Carlson, a switch-hitter, was promoted to Peoria to start the season after playing his first professional games for the Gulf Coast League championship team last summer. He was one of four position players on that team drafted out of high school and the only one who skipped over extended spring training and a likely stop in either Johnson City, Tenn., or State College, Pa.
One of the other players is shortstop Delvin Perez – a month younger than Carlson – who was kept in Florida so he could receive extra instruction from Jose Oquendo.
For Carlson, however, his baseball education has continued as he travels around the Midwest League, including bus rides, staying in hotels and getting a meager allowance for meal money.
“I don’t think we’re alone in challenging guys,” Swauger said. “You can give guys at-bats in extended spring training or give them at-bats under the lights. Development-wise you can pick what you want to do. We’ve chosen to bring a few young guys up here. It’s great to see guys adapt and adjust to what happens up here. You really get the true professional baseball experience when they you are at a full season club.”
Carlson said that has been the biggest difference for him.
“Definitely playing under the lights is different,” Carlson said. “Going to all the different parks, the travel is a lot different compared to the GCL. Playing in front of a crowd is a little different, it’s a different atmosphere.”
As he did last summer, Carlson got off to a slow start with the Chiefs. He hit just .175 in April, but has improved to a .250 mark so far in May. When Swauger watches Carlson play, however, he looks beyond the raw numbers.
“He has been competing with the league since he got here but has been having a little more success in the last few weeks,” Swauger said. “I don’t think he will have any problem being at the level of the league if not moving beyond it by the end of the season. That would not surprise me.
“You can always tell a lot about guys with how they react to failure or if they don’t have initial early success. Do they get upset? Do they let it affect their mood, their effort? With him it’s been the total opposite. He has a true professional approach, analyzing what was going wrong. He asked questions. ‘How do I fix it?’ He’s able to take the answers and apply that and now is seeing success with the concentrated effort and the work that he has put in.”
Carlson, who had a 4.0 grade point average in high school, believes he has worked as much on the mental side of the game so far this spring as he has on the physical aspect’
“Everyone out here is talented and good at what they do,”Carlson said. “It’s more the mental aspect that separates guys. That’s something I’ve been trying to work on. I’ve never played a full season like this. I’m just trying to learn from the older guys, watch some of the stuff they do, how they go about their business, how they compete and seeing what works for me.”
What Swauger thinks works for Carlson is his dedication to processing all of the information he receives, and then coming up with a personal plan for success, including how he divides his time working on hitting from both sides of the plate and catching fly balls in the outfield.
“He’s an apt pupil, a really intelligent player,” Swauger said. “You can give him information that you typically wouldn’t give to an 18 year old player. He’s able to run with it and make small little adjustments and tweaks. He was already taking really good at bats even when his swing was a little off.
“He actually knows the strike zone a little better than some of the umpires here according to some of our tracking data. He would get frustrated but he wouldn’t let it affect him and he would continue to take his at-bats even though there were times he fell behind in the count saying, ‘I can’t handle that pitch.’ We told him, ‘Don’t worry about it, it’s not a strike.’
“He’s doing the right thing, with the right approach. We’re just trying to take the base of what he has in his swing and make it a little more fluid, smoothing it out a little bit. I think he’s going to make plenty of contact. He’s got an approach and batting eye that is really hard to teach. I think he will be a guy gets on base and as he gets older and stronger there definitely is power there.”
Carlson is smart enough to know what he needs to do on days that don’t go as well as he would like.
“You have to stick to what you know and trust the process,” he said. “You have to keep working. I’ve definitely been learning a lot, and I’m happy where I am, but I am trying to get better.”
Swauger also has been impressed with how Carlson has played in the outfield, rotating between all three spots. He did not play much outfield until last summer, mostly working at first base when he was not pitching in high school.
“He’s defensively one of the better outfielders I have seen in our system,” said Swauger, who managed Johnson City the last two years. “He’s impressive to watch how good of jumps he gets. He’s got very good arm strength. He’s learning the little nuances about angles and reading swings, especially in the corners.”
Swauger said he had no expectations for how well Carlson, or other players for that matter, would perform in their first season on a full-season club, knowing how big of an adjustment that is for a young player.
“It’s kind of an old technique – there are a couple of ways to teach people how to swim,” Swauger said. “You can hold their hand and take them step by step or just throw them in the deep end and see what happens. I feel like we’ve done that a couple of times and guys surprise you with success.
“Dylan seemed like a guy who we threw in the deep end and he’s doing more than treading water. He’s swimming pretty well.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains