Fantasy baseball: What's wrong with Corbin Carroll?

Fantasy managers haven't gotten the return they expected from reigning NL Rookie of the Year Corbin Carroll. Harry How/Getty Images

Few things rankle a fantasy manager more than a poor return on a first-round pick.

Regardless of what our collective memories tell us, each season has its share of these first-round busts, although many are the direct result of unexpected injuries.

This year's bad-luck injury scenarios, for example, have seen Atlanta Braves teammates Ronald Acuna Jr. and Spencer Strider (fantasy baseball's top hitter and pitcher respectively entering the season) lost for the season. Acuna was the universal No. 1 overall pick, while Strider went fourth overall on average in ESPN standard leagues and second overall in NFBC (National Fantasy Baseball Championship) Main Event leagues in the week leading up to Opening Day.

Chalk these outcomes up to exactly that, bad luck, and don't let yourself get too worked up about their first-round "failures." It's the players who do stay healthy, yet fall significantly short of preseason expectations, who truly deserve your ire, grumbling and teeth-grinding.

I'm looking at you, Corbin Carroll.

The No. 10 pick (on average) in ESPN leagues, and No. 7 in the aforementioned NFBC Main Events -- this is a standard rotisserie 5x5, with 15 teams -- Carroll has been arguably 2024's most disappointing overall player, and it hasn't been especially close. In 2023, he was the No. 3 name on the Player Rater, scored the 16th-most fantasy points overall and became the first 25/50 (at least 25 home runs, 50 stolen bases) rookie in baseball history. This year, despite his lofty draft status, he ranks 181st in fantasy points (121) and 309th on the Player Rater, with more than 40% of his Arizona Diamondbacks' schedule already in the books.

Most disturbingly, Carroll's contact-quality Statcast metrics have significantly tumbled:

  • 2023: 7.6% Barrel, 40.9% hard hit, 90.0 mph average exit velocity, .344 xwOBA

  • 2024: 5.1% Barrel, 34.4% hard hit, 87.0 mph average exit velocity, .302 xwOBA

This has fueled many a theory about what's wrong with the defending NL Rookie of the Year, not the least of which is the reminder that he suffered a shoulder issue in late June which cost him two games and had an adverse impact on his numbers over the remainder of last season. That said, Carroll has exhibited no lasting impact of the injury this year, and it must be stressed that, even after said shoulder injury, he registered greater ISO (.172), hard-hit (39.1%) and Barrel (5.8%) numbers than he has so far this season. Yes, he has been noticeably worse this year than even post-injury in 2023, a signal that the injury itself is not the likely culprit.

So what's wrong with Carroll?

His plate approach certainly isn't it. Carroll's numbers in those departments look spot-on and actually are slightly better than last year:

  • 2023: 28.0% chase, 21.5% whiff, 8.8% BB, 77.9% contact

  • 2024: 27.7% chase, 20.7% whiff, 10.7% BB, 78.8% contact

What instead stands out is Carroll's early-season struggles on fastballs up in the strike zone, an area in which he excelled in 2023. In 106 plate appearance-ending results, he posted a .250 batting average, a .525 slugging percentage, and a 38.3% Statcast hard-hit rate. Over the first six weeks of the 2024 season, in his 40 PA-enders, he has hit just .108, with a .189 slugging percentage and only a 31.0% hard-hit rate.

That lends credence to his own feedback on his struggles. "I made my swing too flat, and so it's been a lot of work to try and create better attack angles and a better vertical bat angle," Carroll told reporters a few weeks back.

Fortunately, Carroll's bat has shown signs of life of late -- although not yet in the ballpark of his 2023 level of production -- as he has had five multi-hit performances over his past 13 games, during which he has hit .333/.429/.438. This includes Tuesday's 3-for-4 output that included a double and triple. Additionally, against fastballs up in the zone and over the past four-plus weeks (following the aforementioned stats from the first six weeks), he has hit .250 with a .350 slugging percentage and a 35.7% hard-hit rate. Carroll's power appears to be the one remaining ingredient yet to return.

One final thought on Carroll's struggles: He has also possessed the platoon advantage far less often this year than last, as his 66.4% of plate appearances in those situations ranking ninth-worst among the 73 left-handed hitters who currently qualify for the batting title. That's down from 73.0% (35th among 56 qualified lefties) last year. It's a big deal for a player who has a career 73-point wOBA split, even if he's a decent enough contact hitter against lefties (.250 batting average, 15.1 K%).

Count this columnist among those who believes that Carroll will enjoy a significant rebound over the remainder of 2024, even if not to the levels we had anticipated during the preseason. A top-25 hitter valuation seems fair, meaning those who have him in the 94.1% of ESPN leagues in which he's rostered should remain as patient as they have been. Meanwhile, those seeking to trade for him might reasonably offer up a Logan Gilbert, Kyle Schwarber or Yoshinobu Yamamoto in exchange.

Other disappointments

Carroll isn't the only early-rounder to fall flat early in 2024. Here's a quick look at three others who have struggled to meet the lofty expectations of their draft position.

Matt Olson, 1B, and Austin Riley, 3B, Atlanta Braves: Olson was selected ninth on average in ESPN leagues and Riley 31st, and they went 18th and 21st in the aforementioned NFBC Main Events. Thus far, Olson ranks 187th in fantasy points (119) and Riley 387th (80). Olson is 228th on the Player Rater with Riley 514th.

Olson has picked up the pace recently, however, batting .286/.342/.509 with six home runs over his past 30 games (that's a 32-HR pace), and his underlying metrics aren't far off where they were in 2023. The 54 homers and 139 RBI he had last year were always going to be difficult to repeat or even approach, something his fantasy managers surely knew at the time they drafted him. Still, a 35-HR, .250-batting average seasonal pace over the remaining schedule of games is well within his reach.

As for Riley, he has been equally frustrating to Carroll, if not more so. In fairness, an intercostal injury that cost him 13 games in mid-May could be contributing to his struggles. Since his return, he's been just a .170 hitter with a mere two extra-base hits (both doubles) and 15 K's over 57 trips to the plate. However, there's no question that he was struggling well before getting hurt. The injury question does pose a concern, making him a player who might be better off shopped around if the return resides close to or within the top-50 overall.

Julio Rodriguez, OF, Seattle Mariners: The No. 18 overall selection in standard leagues and No. 4 in NFBCs, Rodriguez ranks a respectable 48th overall on the Player Rater but only 255th in terms of fantasy points (104). A noted rotisserie standout whose high strikeout rate makes him a less-valuable player in points leagues, Rodriguez also has a history of saving his best hitting performances for later in the year.

He's a career .259/.317/.408 hitter who averages one home run per 28.6 at-bats from March through June and a .307/.362/.563 bat with one homer per 16.2 at-bats from July through October. In points leagues, this amounts to a 1.98 per-game average in the former split, compared to 3.27 in the latter. That alone provides evidence that there's no reason to panic over Rodriguez's so-so batting stats to date.