BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — On April 24, Joe DeCarlo was lost at the plate.
The third baseman, selected by the Seattle Mariners in the second round of the 2012 draft, was in his first season in High-A, and something was off. In his first 12 games for the Bakersfield Blaze, he struck out 20 times in just 51 plate appearances. After an 0-for-3, two-strikeout day on the 24th that dropped his average to .140, the Mariners had seen enough. Two days later, they shipped him back to Arizona for extended spring training and a hard reset.
DeCarlo ended up spending nearly a full month in Peoria; at the very least, it saved his summer. The way he sees it, though, the move might have saved his career.
“You try to find the silver lining in situations like that, and for the organization to hang on to me and send me down there, that obviously shows me something,” DeCarlo, now back in Bakersfield, told Today’s Knuckleball after his club’s Friday night win over Lake Elsinore. “Initially it was a little frustrating because I had to leave my teammates, but once I got there, it was baseball, and I knew what I had to do. I knew I had to get better.”
This is the part of the story where you’re given the Joe DeCarlo redemption saga, then, right? After a month in extended, the headlines should read, DeCarlo crests .350 and makes the California League All-Star Team.
Reality never seems to conform to that too-perfect, movie-like redemption, though, and DeCarlo didn’t become a Cal League All-Star after coming back from extended. But there’s no question he’s far more equipped now thanks to his time in Arizona.
The stats back that up, with an offensive resurgence that has him slashing .250/.365/.417 with 17 doubles, nine home runs, and 47 walks through his first 88 games with Bakersfield. The eye test, too, finds the third baseman far more calm and comfortable at the plate. And his personality—DeCarlo carries an intense but collected, soft-spoken presence—is one conducive to weathering the storm of inevitable pro ball adversity.
“While I was down there, I surrounded myself with people who I felt were going to help me both mentally and physically,” he said of his time back in Arizona. “And to be able to carry that back to the Cal League with a strong mental approach, that’s just baseball. That’s me taking it one day at a time, and really sticking with the adjustments I made down in Arizona.”
As you’d expect with a player overcoming struggles, the adjustments DeCarlo made in Arizona were predominantly of the “less is more” variety. Cutting down moving parts, and simplifying the thought process going through his head, have been critical in the prospect’s climb back up the organization’s ranks. From slowing down in the batter’s box to give himself an opportunity to track the ball longer, to moving his point of contact with the ball to further out in front, his mechanics have developed of late through the extra work.
Mentally, though, DeCarlo has taken it to another level, and that’s been guiding and improving something he’s done well his entire career: draw walks. With walk rates in the double-digits ever since his rookie summer in 2012, the third baseman has a veteran’s understanding of the strike zone already despite being just 22, and it’s all been reinforced in his post-extended resurgence in Bakersfield.
“One thing [a hitting coach in rookie ball] told me that’s really stuck is that it’s ‘hit mode,’ and not ‘swing mode,'” DeCarlo said. “So I’m up there anticipating a good pitch to hit until I don’t want to hit it. And my whole life, I’ve been able to know the strike zone. It’s something I take pride in. Being a tough out is definitely a good thing.”
More to the arc of his season, and the bigger picture surrounding his career, DeCarlo is centered in his role and back on the right track after a tenuous first few weeks in Bakersfield. Still just 22 years old (he’ll be 23 next month), he is on track for the most statistical success of his career here in his fifth pro season—and considering the second-rounder is spending it in High-A and not, say, knocking on the door of the big leagues, only reinforces what is all too quickly forgotten: The development path is not always linear.
“The curve is different coming out of high school, you’re playing 18 games in a high school season, and then right out of the gate if you get drafted high like I was, it’s like, ‘man, this is going to be easy, I’m going to move quick,'” DeCarlo admitted. “And you get excited. And your head gets a little big. But pretty soon, you figure out that it’s pro baseball and it’s a bit of a different beast, you know? You start to understand that guys like Bryce Harper, or Mike Trout, or my buddy Andrew Benintendi, those are once-in-a-ten-year types of players.
“When you start to understand that one guy might make it in two years, and another guy might make it in ten, you put your head down and try not to worry about it,” he summed up. “You just hope to make it one day, and bust your hump to do so.”
There’s no question the game will soon throw more literal and figurative curves DeCarlo’s way as he tries to make good on his career; in that way, a demotion to extended spring was one part of what will be a long, brutal grind. But this year’s demotion was a test—and with a new front office to impress, a big one—and now, no longer lost at the plate like he was on April 24, Joe DeCarlo is passing that test.
Maybe there’s a redemption story here after all.