The slugger could not bunt. This was no surprise — when you slug .600, why play small ball? — but it bothered Corbin Carroll.
In March, Carroll, the centerpiece of the upstart Arizona Diamondbacks, agreed to an eight-year, $111 million contract, with a ninth-year team option. It was the largest guarantee ever for a player with fewer than 100 days of major league service, and while bunting was not the reason, of course, Carroll’s desire to bunt explained a lot.
The Diamondbacks had started bunting more last season, so practice drills filtered down to the minors. Carroll was playing for the Class AA team in Amarillo, Texas, when the scout Jeff Gardner, an organizational troubleshooter, visited to work on bunts. Carroll was terrible the first day, Gardner said, but took about 200 bunts the next day and improved.
Carroll finished the 2022 season in the majors, after smashing 24 homers with a .611 slugging percentage in the minors. Over the winter, when he visited the Diamondbacks’ training complex in Scottsdale, Ariz., he asked Gardner if he could bunt some more. They worked together for five or six sessions, hundreds and hundreds of attempts.
“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 being: He wanted them all to get better, too, because he wants to win. And I thought, for a young 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 N.L. West standings. Through Tuesday, he is hitting .293 with 17 homers and 23 stolen bases, on track to become the first 30-30 player in club history. He seems likely to be the first rookie of the year winner for the only major league team to never have one.
Corbin Carroll is building a strong case to win the Rookie of the Year Award. He leads the Diamondbacks in home runs and stolen bases.Credit…Tony Avelar/Associated Press
“His ability to do pretty much everything is crazy, and he’s well beyond his years in maturity, which really stands out when you talk to him,” said Joe Mantiply, a Diamondbacks reliever. “I always try to kind of put myself in the front office’s shoes: What kind of guy would I like to be the face of my franchise? He checks all those boxes.”
Mantiply was the Diamondbacks’ only All-Star in Los Angeles last season, when Arizona finished 74-88. Carroll — a finalist for a starting N.L. outfield spot — is almost certain to make it this season in his hometown, Seattle, which hosts on July 11.
“That definitely puts a smile on my face,” Carroll said before a recent game in Milwaukee. “There’s still a ton 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 an on-field pass 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 taken notice of others with a similar set of skills.
One of those players, he said, was the Brewers’ Christian Yelich, also a left-handed-hitting 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 noticed Carroll’s ascent.
“I’d like to say that we have some similarities, but he’s definitely better than I was at that age, that’s for sure,” Yelich said. “He’s really well rounded, and the way the game is evolving, especially with the new rules, that multidimensional player’s going to be more and more coveted because they can affect the game in so many ways.”
Only three players have had 30-30 seasons at age 22 or younger: Ronald Acuña 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, said he thinks of a young Trout when he watches Carroll now: Both are so skilled that they are bound to stand out, in some way, every game.
Torey Lovullo, the Diamondbacks’ manager, coached for Boston when Mookie Betts arrived in the majors. Carroll is 5 feet 10 inches 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 limitations and try to figure out how he was going to work through that limitation,” Lovullo said. “There was a plan for every single day with Mookie, and it definitely overlaps with Corbin. In ’21, when he had shoulder surgery, he was on this crusade 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 I looked up, he was there.”
Because of the shoulder injury — after just seven games at high-Class A Hillsboro (Ore.) — Carroll spent that 2021 season in Arizona. After daily shoulder rehab, he would head to Chase Field and sit in the scout seats behind home plate with Gardner. In a year of misery for the Diamondbacks, their future star was paying close attention to the game’s finer points.
“As a minor leaguer, I feel like there’s a perception of big leaguers, you hold them on this pedestal like they’re ideal and perfect,” Carroll said. “And just watching big league players make mistakes and seeing their different reactions to it, it seemed like the best players were the ones that learned from it and didn’t take it with them through the rest of that game, through the rest of the series. That was pretty powerful for me.”
As they watched games together, Gardner would share stories and statistics with Carroll — a tip from an old teammate, Bruce Hurst, to never let a pitcher know when he’s frustrating you, and data from an iPad on spin rates and catch probabilities and exit velocities. They would study 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 bunt single. But if he needs it, at least, he will know what to do. Carroll owes it to himself — and the team that invested its future in him.
“I’ve been graced with some natural ability, more than a little bit,” he said. “And I just view it as my role every day to try and maximize it.”