Bored during the early days of the pandemic, Corbin Carroll, already one of the best prospects in baseball, enrolled in a full load of classes at Arizona State University. Learning, about almost anything really, had always appealed deeply to him, and by 2021, when a torn labrum ended his season with the Arizona Diamondbacks‘ Double-A affiliate after seven games, Carroll found the perfect course to occupy his mind.
PHI 326, Philosophy of Happiness, engaged Carroll from the opening lecture. The class explores society’s definition of happiness while encouraging students to find theirs. As he kept reading, Carroll found himself nodding along with the perspective of stoic philosophers, who nearly 2,500 years ago established an ideology built around virtue and selflessness.
“The thing I most identified with is that when you’re chasing happiness, you’re chasing a feeling,” Carroll said. “You’re chasing a state that’s temporary. And if everything’s always good, then nothing’s good. That was a super interesting concept to me of how important those low moments are in creating those positives. Not getting attached to those waves. And at the end of the day, it’s more about contentment of life and finding your life to be valuable.”
If Carroll, now 22, does not sound like the typical Major League Baseball player, it’s because he isn’t. Carroll is the fastest player in the game, packs uncommon power into his 5-foot-10, 165-pound frame, plays a delightful outfield and has helped thrust the surprising Diamondbacks, with their go-go-go brand of pitch clock era baseball, to the top of the National League West standings.
As glorious as Carroll is to witness in a uniform, it was the classroom Carroll, wise beyond his years, that reinforced he was worth the $111 million over the next eight seasons Arizona guaranteed him with a contract extension this spring. Throughout the organization, the Diamondbacks revere Carroll and what he embodies — and exude gratefulness that 15 teams passed on him in the 2019 draft. Locking up Carroll after only 38 days in the major leagues was a risk, but mostly insofar as every contract bears some. The upside, on the other hand, swells every day Carroll does Carroll things.
They range from statistical nuggets (nobody with as many stolen bases as Carroll’s six this year has as many home runs as his four) to inexplicable facts (that torn labrum happened on a swing in which he blasted a home run that left the bat at more than 110 mph). Carroll is a $300 million starter kit, and yet it speaks to his priorities that the deal was less about securing top-of-the-sport wealth — stoicism neither frowns upon nor encourages materialism — than clearing his mental deck of potential pitfalls so he can spend the next decade focusing on what he’s done his whole life: learning.
“What does it take to learn?” Carroll asked rhetorically in mid-March, at the Diamondbacks’ spring training facility in Scottsdale. “That’s a good question. I think it takes a lot of failure, right? Like, it can’t be easy.”
To hear Carroll say this introduces a hefty sum of cognitive dissonance. Carroll’s entire world, through the eyes of those orbiting it, is replete with success — with achievement and recognition and a general ease about him. Over the winter, the Diamondbacks invited Carroll to play in a scramble golf tournament. He accepted, even though he didn’t so much as own clubs. The first hole was a mess. On the second, Carroll focused, hammered the ball 340 yards off the tee and proceeded to win the long-drive contest in a game he doesn’t play.
Failure, in Carroll’s world, tends to be more bite-sized — a swing here, an at-bat there. He carries them with him, the recent mistakes imprinted in his mind the same as ones from years ago.
“It was fifth grade math class, and I sucked,” Carroll said. “I had a terrible test and just wasn’t getting it right. The thing that my dad said that’s stuck with me to this day is: Learn to love it. Those areas that are hard — you learn to love those because those are the ones where you’re gonna reap the rewards and the most room for improvement. And so it’s kind of always the way I’ve operated; just trying to look for the worst part of my game and make that the focus and trying to turn it into the strength.”
Carroll grew up in the Seattle area with his parents, Brant and Pey-Lin, and a younger sister, Campbell, who’s already committed to play soccer at Cal in 2024. The lock screen on Carroll’s phone to this day is a photo of him and Seattle Mariners star Ichiro Suzuki, who he met before the 2019 draft. Seattle, choosing 20th, prayed Carroll would drop, because the Mariners knew him as well as any team (and understood that if he were three or four inches taller, he very easily could have gone with the first pick). Arizona snatched him 16th overall.
“I’ve never really seen a player like him,” Diamondbacks advance scout Jeff Gardner said, “and I’ve never really met a person like him.”
Gardner didn’t get to know Carroll during his draft season or the pandemic year, when buzz about Carroll’s exploits emanated from the Diamondbacks’ alternate site. The shoulder injury then waylaid his first full season, and even with his classes at ASU, he was jonesing for baseball. The team suggested that Carroll spend a night with Gardner in the scouts’ section behind home plate at Chase Field — an internship, of sorts, to get another perspective on the game.
Carroll showed up, mostly listened at first, and then began asking questions. He came back a second night, and then a third, and eventually he was a regular. Carroll was essentially working three jobs: rehabbing the shoulder in the morning and early afternoon, schoolwork in the late afternoon and scouting after dark.
“No one else’s major league stadium is in the same city as where they’re rehabbing,” Carroll said. “I went through my process of: What can I do to get better? And I thought it was a super all-encompassing perspective that was created. Once I went to a couple, I was like, ‘This is pretty cool. I’m gonna keep coming.'”
By the end of the 2021 season, Gardner was learning things from Carroll, who would notice tiny details in real time and check an iPad to see if the numbers captured on a pitch or swing reflected that. Cognizant that Carroll’s mental approach was every bit as special as his physical tools, the Diamondbacks moved him to Double-A to start the 2022 season and after fewer than 60 games promoted him again to Triple-A. By August, Carroll was back at Chase, ready to take to the plate all he’d learned sitting behind it.
“Part of what makes him great is his ability to analyze without paralysis by analysis,” Gardner said. “He analyzes it, but he uses whatever he analyzed just to make him better. You watch him play and you watch him strike out on a pitch or something and you can almost see the computer starting.”
As reductive as it might be to suggest Carroll’s excellence is robot-like, some of his feats do seem superhuman. Take, for example, his baserunning. To see Corbin Carroll traverse the basepaths is to see an exercise in efficiency. By no means does Carroll look like he would be the fastest runner in the big leagues, but then his lean legs start to churn, and he eschews the standard banana route around first base for an almost straight-on approach to the bag that somehow doesn’t slow him down, and the afterburners kick in. As a spectator, one can’t help but marvel.
“I don’t think I’ve seen somebody cut the corners as fast as him, have that body control and run as gracefully as he does,” Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo said. “It’s pretty impressive. He’s gotta be up there. I don’t know who’s faster.”
Nobody, actually. Carroll’s 4.05-second dash to first base is the fastest in the big leagues this season. When he gets going, it’s Carroll vs. everyone else: His 3.67-second top-end 90-foot split is 0.11 seconds faster than Bobby Witt Jr. — and the runner 0.11 slower than Witt is 15th overall.
“I love winning and I hate losing,” Carroll said. “So any avenue that I can kind of dive into and learn and grow and better contribute, I’m gonna do it. And I think that base running is an example of that. Scott Rolen talked about baserunning being a measure of a player’s character — and I like that, right? It’s not always the flashy thing. It’s not always the thing that’s gonna get noticed. But it can help you in volume.”
Causing chaos on the basepaths is a priority for all the Diamondbacks. Among Carroll, Jake McCarthy, Josh Rojas, Ketel Marte and Alek Thomas, they’re loaded with left-handed hitters who can burn. (And they traded another, outfielder Daulton Varsho, to get catcher Gabriel Moreno from Toronto over the winter.) Arizona’s ascent amid the new rules that try to emphasize athleticism isn’t altogether surprising, and despite some growing pains — the Diamondbacks have drawn the fewest walks of any team and rank 25th in home runs — they are making opportunities count. While they’re hitting .257/.302/.413 as a team on the season, that line leaps to .312/.354/.511 with runners in scoring position — and includes the lowest strikeout rate with RISP in the big leagues.
Among the clutch hitting, one of the best defenses in the big leagues and a pitching staff outpacing its peripherals, the Diamondbacks are setting the stage for the arrival of more top prospects — shortstop Jordan Lawlar, center fielder Druw Jones and right-hander Brandon Pfaadt are the best — and have plenty of payroll room to supplement them. Much like Carroll, who is hitting .274 and slugging .516 with a team-leading four home runs and 11 runs, their future is decidedly on the upswing.
There are still failures (Carroll didn’t take his first walk of the season until Monday) and foibles (as he told Gardner recently, in his own Carrollian way, “I’m starting to get the proper answers on the ball at the top of the zone”). There always will be, but baseball is the perfect sport for a player with a need to flop to spur improvement: A game in which failure is a feature, not a bug.
“I don’t even want to project what he is gonna do, but whatever he does will not surprise me,” Gardner said. “He could end up being the greatest player of all time and it wouldn’t surprise me. I’m not putting that on him. It’s just I wouldn’t be surprised by anything he does.”