Image credit: Corbin Carroll #7 of the Arizona Diamondbacks warms up on deck during the first inning of the MLB game against the San Francisco Giants at Chase Field on September 19, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
After his first taste of the majors in 2022, Diamondbacks outfielder Corbin Carroll entered the offseason on a mission.
Called up for a 32-game audition at the end of that season, Carroll had certainly justified the hype. He batted .260 with an .830 OPS. His sprint speed had immediately placed him in the 100th percentile of big leaguers.
Yet, after zooming from Double-A Amarillo to the majors in just five months, there had also been weaknesses. Known for his plate discipline, Carroll struck out 27% of the time in 115 MLB plate appearances. The young lefthanded hitter struggled against lefthanders, leading D-backs manager Torey Lovullo to sit him or hit for him in those situations.
After the season, Carroll made a promise to his manager—and to himself.
“I’m going to work as hard as I can to hit lefthanded pitching,” Carroll told Lovullo, “so you never have to pinch-hit for me ever again.”
Mission more than accomplished.
In 2023, Carroll achieved far more than the sanding down of his weaknesses and the rounding out of his game. He fashioned one of the best rookie seasons ever.
Heading into the final series of the season, he hit .287/.362/.509, including a .283 average versus lefties. He showed a tantalizing combination of speed and power packed into a wiry frame by blasting the ball to all fields and wreaking havoc on the basepaths.
Carroll clubbed 25 homers and stole 52 bases, becoming just the ninth player ever to record a 20-50 season. On that list, he keeps company with the likes of Barry Bonds, Rickey Henderson, Joe Morgan and Ronald Acuña Jr. Carroll, who turned 23 in August, is the only one of them to accomplish the feat as a rookie.
As calculated by FanGraphs, Carroll’s 5.9 WAR is the sixth highest for a rookie position player since 2000, trailing seasons by Mike Trout, Aaron Judge, Albert Pujols, Kris Bryant and Ichiro Suzuki. It is the 15th highest of the Expansion Era and introduction of the 162-game schedule in 1961.
Just where Carroll ranks in the pantheon of great rookies makes for a stirring debate, but where he ranks among rookies this season isn’t all that difficult to determine. For that reason, Carroll is crowned the 2023 Baseball America Rookie of the Year.
“He’s quite possibly the best young player I’ve ever played with,” said D-backs veteran Evan Longoria, who won the American League Rookie of the Year award in 2008. “I could probably say that pretty easily.”
That Carroll would find quick success in the majors was not difficult to predict. Even as a gangly teen, he’d always possessed great speed, good hand-eye coordination and an advanced understanding of the game. His drive to excel is legendary.
The D-backs love up-the-middle athletes with speed and plate discipline, and they were thrilled when Carroll, a product of Seattle’s Lakeside High, dropped to the 16th pick in the 2019 draft. Even after a lost season in 2020, even when shoulder surgery ended what would have been Carroll’s first full professional season in 2021, Arizona was bullish on his potential.
But transcendent seasons like Carroll’s 2023 almost always come as a bit of a surprise. Who predicted the 5-foot-10 Carroll would be one of the team’s top power threats, with his home runs so equitably spread across the outfield it’s as if he wanted to guarantee fans in each section a chance at catching a longball?
Who had him starting the All-Star Game as a rookie—in his hometown of Seattle, no less? Who had him, in his first full season, powering a previously moribund D-backs team back into contention?
“I’d be lying,” said Amiel Sawdaye, Arizona’s assistant general manager who oversees the draft, “if I said I would have seen any of this.”
Neither were the D-backs shocked, though. To watch Carroll up close is to inevitably appreciate his many talents. Longoria caught glimpses of it when he first arrived at the team’s spring training complex last winter.
“He was hitting 110 mile-per-hour rockets off of the machine in January, taking like three-quarters swings,” the veteran recalled. “I was like, ‘This guy might have a chance to be something special.’ ”
Teammates and coaches rave about Carroll’s work ethic. He is such a fiend for hitting off the pitching machine, said assistant hitting coach Rick Short, that he can tell when the speed or spin isn’t set to his preferences.
That’s one of the many reasons that, before the 2023 season even started, the D-backs eagerly locked Carroll up to an unprecedented extension worth at least $111 million over eight years, a record amount of money to guarantee a player with less than 100 days of major league service time.
Carroll would soon make it look like a hell of a bargain. He took the majors by storm over the first half of the season, finishing June with a .926 OPS, 17 homers and 24 stolen bases in 26 attempts. Pundits began mentioning him not just as a candidate for Rookie of the Year but for MVP as well.
That kind of talk was hardly premature. Carroll displayed a knack for taking over a game. Multiple teammates point to a June series in Detroit, during which Carroll went 6-for-14 with two doubles, one triple and three homers over three games. He also stole a bag and struck out only once.
That was Carroll at his best, but even an average Carroll performance can be extremely impactful, largely thanks to his speed. He has above-average tools across the spectrum, with the exception of his throwing arm, but he more than compensates as one of the fastest players in the majors.
“I feel like once a series, he beats out an infield hit he shouldn’t,” said D-backs first baseman Christian Walker. “When you think about a player’s upside, understanding what the floor is is important. For him, it’s incredibly high.”
The MVP talk didn’t last past midseason, when Carroll confronted a couple of challenges. One was sickeningly familiar. In mid July, just a few days before the All-Star Game, Carroll took an awkward swing and felt a shot of pain through his surgically repaired shoulder, forcing him from the game.
It sent a jolt through a D-backs team that might not survive a playoff push without him, but Carroll was back in the lineup the next day. He reacted gingerly to the occasional swing the rest of the way, and perhaps relatedly, he went more than a month from late July to late August without hitting a home run. That stretch also roughly coincided with his greatest period of struggle as a professional.
In 20 games from July 28 to Aug. 18, Carroll batted just .167 and went hitless in half of them. The issue wasn’t his shoulder, he and coaches said, but that the league had discovered a soft spot.
“They were throwing him in, bouncing the secondary stuff at the bottom of the zone,” Lovullo said. “He started to become a little vulnerable because of the chase aspect of it.”
He was enduring the kind of attention opponents give to star players. “Teams (were) gunning for him,” Sawdaye said. Opposing managers would sometimes bring in a lefthander to face the switch-hitting Ketel Marte—forcing Marte to hit from his dominant side—just so that pitcher would be lined up for a left-on-left matchup against Carroll.
Though Carroll evinces an almost robotic steeliness at the plate, that down stretch wore on him. “He was pretty open about how he felt,” Longoria said. “He was like, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing. What I was doing before is not working.’ ”
But if any player was equipped to solve that puzzle, it was Carroll, a hitter who studies so hard he’s had to learn to do less of it in the majors in order to conserve energy. He alternated between a toe-tap and a leg kick to help his timing. Other solutions he prefers to keep to himself in the name of competitive advantage.
In any case, he found his way out. In late August, he broke out of his home run dry stretch with a momentous two-run homer against the Reds, vaulting the D-backs from down 2-1 to up 3-2 in the eighth. On Sept. 20, he went for 4-for-4 in a drubbing of the Giants, collecting both his 49th and 50th stolen bases and his 25th home run in the process.
Those games bookended a stretch in which he hit .333/.404/.552. He was tying the bow on a rookie season for the ages.
Not that he ever stopped to smell the figurative laurels thrown at his feet. Carroll is too hyper-focused on the task for that. He has enjoyed, in the moment, the many highs of his year, but when he looks back on his season, the challenges loom just as large.
“As successful a year as this has been, in my eyes, there have been plenty of moments that have been tough and plenty of moments to learn from,” he said. He’s used those moments to get better—turning himself into a more well-rounded hitter, polishing his expertise running the bases—and he already has notions about his offseason projects. “Some freeform ideas,” he said.
A private person, Carroll doesn’t share specifics. If you study his numbers this past year, you might reach whatever conclusions he has. A three-week swoon is shorter than most rookies might experience, but not as short as he’d like it.
“Everyone goes through a slump at some point,” Carroll said. “If not, you’re the MVP.”
He’s certainly capable of turning such an award-worthy season—pay raises are baked into his contract if he does—but he shoots for personal improvement, not external validation. “I’m just going to give the stock answer that I want to be the best player I can be,” he said.
Lovullo puts it in a less anodyne way.
“He’s not going to stop,” the manager said, “until he’s a perfect baseball player.”