The slugger couldn’t bunt. This came as no surprise: When you have a .600 slug, why play small ball? – But he annoyed Corbin Carroll.
In March, Carroll, the centerpiece of the upstart Arizona Diamondbacks, agreed to an eight-year, $111 million contract with a team option for a ninth year. It was the biggest guarantee ever for a player with fewer than 100 days of major league service, and while the bunt wasn’t the reason, of course, Carroll’s desire to bunt explained a lot.
The Diamondbacks had started to play more last season, so practice drills trickled down to the minors. Carroll was playing for the Class AA team in Amarillo, Texas, when scout Jeff Gardner, an organizational problem solver, visited to work on tags. Carroll was terrible the first day, Gardner said, but he took about 200 touches the next day and got better.
Carroll finished the 2022 season in the majors, after smashing 24 home runs with a .611 slugging percentage in the minors. During the winter, when he visited the Diamondbacks’ training complex in Scottsdale, Arizona, he asked Gardner if he could play some more. They worked together for five or six sessions, hundreds and hundreds of tries.
“And pretty soon he had Alek Thomas out with him, he had Jake McCarthy out with him,” Gardner said, naming two other young Arizona outfielders. “He was dragging these guys with him. The point is: He also wanted everyone to improve, because he wants to win. And I thought, for a little kid, that was amazing.”
Just two years after the Diamondbacks staggered to 110 losses, the most in the National League since 2004, Carroll has led the team to the top of the NL West standings. As of Tuesday, he is hitting .293 with 17 home runs and 23 stolen bases, on pace to become the first 30-30 player in club history. It seems likely that he will be the first rookie of the year winner for the only major league team that never had one.
“His ability to do just about anything is insane, and it’s way beyond his mature years, which really shines through when you talk to him,” said Joe Mantiply, a Diamondbacks reliever. “I always try to put myself in the shoes of the front office: What kind of person would I want to be the face of my franchise? He checks all those boxes.”
Mantiply was the Diamondbacks’ lone All-Star in Los Angeles last season, when Arizona finished 74-88. A finalist for a National League starting outfield job, Carroll is almost certain to do it this season in his hometown of Seattle, which he hosts on July 11.
“That definitely puts a smile on my face,” Carroll said before a recent game in Milwaukee. “There is still a lot of work to be done, not just until the game; I’m committed to nine more years of this, but it would mean a lot to me.”
Carroll, 22, has never taken the field at T-Mobile Park; the closest he got was a pass downfield for batting practice a few years ago. He grew up rooting for the Mariners, but by the time he starred at Lakeside School, the Seattle school where Bill Gates met Paul Allen, he had noticed others with a similar skill set.
One of those players, he said, was the Brewers’ Christian Yelich, also a left-handed outfielder. Yelich won a batting title and had a 44-homer, 30-steal season in 2019, the year Carroll was drafted in the first round by Arizona. Yelich has noted Carroll’s rise.
“I’d like to say we have some similarities, but he’s definitely better than me at that age, that’s for sure,” Yelich said. “It’s very complete and with the way the game evolves, especially with the new rules, that multidimensional player will become more and more coveted because he can affect the game in so many ways.”
Only three players have had 30-30 seasons at age 22 or younger: Ronald Acuna Jr., Alex Rodriguez and Mike Trout, who did it as a rookie for the Los Angeles Angels in 2012. Gardner, a former major league infielder He said he thinks of a young Trout when he sees Carroll now: They’re both so skilled that they’re bound to excel, in some way, in every game.
Torey Lovullo, the manager of the Diamondbacks, was coaching for Boston when Mookie Betts reached the majors. Carroll is 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds, about the same size as Betts with a similar array of tools, but Lovullo made a more nuanced comparison.
“Mookie would talk about the limitations and try to figure out how he was going to overcome that limitation,” Lovullo said. “There was a plan for each day with Mookie, and he definitely overlaps with Corbin. In ’21, when he had shoulder surgery, he was on this quest to find out: How am I going to get through this? What am I going to do with all this downtime? I don’t know how many games he came to, but every time he looked up, he was there.”
Due to the shoulder injury, after just seven games in Class A Hillsboro, Oregon, Carroll spent that 2021 season in Arizona. After daily shoulder rehab, he would drive to Chase Field and sit in the scouting seats behind home plate with Gardner. In a year of misery for the Diamondbacks, his future star was paying close attention to the finer points of the game.
“As a minor leaguer, I feel like there’s a perception of major league players, you hold them on this pedestal as if they’re ideal and perfect,” Carroll said. “And just watching major league players make mistakes and seeing their different reactions, it seemed like the best players were the ones who learned from it and didn’t carry it with them for the rest of the game, for the rest of the series. That was pretty powerful for me.”
As they watched games together, Gardner shared stories and stats with Carroll: a tip from former teammate Bruce Hurst to never let a pitcher know when he’s frustrating you, and data from an iPad on spin rates, catch probabilities and exit velocities. . They would study the pitchers and devise an approach for each one.
“In his mind,” Gardner said, “he probably had a thousand at-bats that year.”
Officially, Carroll has had around 400 at-bats in the majors. Only one has produced a single. But if he needs it, at least he’ll know what to do. Carroll owes it to himself, and to the team that invested his future in him.
“I have been honored with some natural ability, more than a little,” he said. “And I look at it as my role every day to try to maximize it.”