Incredible Coincidence Part of Dylan Carter’s Return to Arkansas

Dylan Carter, Arkansas baseball
photo credit: Carter family / Baumology / Carter family

FAYETTEVILLE — Dylan Carter has been to Omaha. He has the pictures to prove it. Now he’s aiming to return to college baseball’s mecca for another photo, this time on the mound at Charles Schwab Field and in an Arkansas baseball uniform.

That dream is what drove the right-hander’s decision to return to the Razorbacks for his final year of eligibility in 2025, which he announced on June 7. Including two years at Crowder C.C., it will be his sixth season of college baseball.

“It’s a dream come true to play here,” Carter told Best of Arkansas Sports. “I haven’t really been my best self, so using this last year of eligibility I have, I want to be a really good pitcher for this team and not only a good pitcher, but a leader and a guy that can push us to get back to Omaha.”

Although he was on the roster, Carter redshirted his first year at Arkansas, so he wasn’t part of the team that reached the College World Series semifinals in 2022.

The Bentonville native then emerged as a key member of the pitching staff that helped the Razorbacks win the SEC regular-season title last year, but an injury forced him to watch from the sideline as they were knocked out of the Fayetteville Regional.

Against all odds, Carter managed to return from Tommy John and contribute on a team that won the SEC West, but Arkansas once again failed to make it out of the regional round as a top-8 national seed.

“The years have been really good…but in postseason play, it hasn’t been what we wanted and what we dreamed of,” Carter said. “This last year — and a lot of our last years — we want to push to be the best we can be and get us over that hump and win the last game in June.”

Thanks to the eligibility relief granted by the NCAA to all players active in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, coupled with his redshirt year at Arkansas, Carter has the opportunity to do just that.

Dylan Carter’s Decision

On the surface, fans may think Dylan Carter’s decision to return for his final year of eligibility was cut and dry. After all, he posted a team-worst 8.18 ERA in 11 innings across eight appearances this past season.

However, the MLB Draft is very unique. Unlike its counterparts in the NBA and NFL, players have the opportunity to get drafted and still return to school. In fact, that ability is a central piece of the puzzle, as remaining collegiate eligibility serves as leverage for players in contract negotiations.

While high school kids, JUCO players, draft-eligible sophomores and juniors typically receive six- and seven-figure signing bonuses when drafted, seniors regularly get $20,000 or less, regardless of their draft positioning. That’s why it’s rare for pro-level prospects to return as seniors — they have no leverage.

Carter is certainly not viewed as one of Arkansas’ top pro prospects, but he did touch 97 mph in a game this season and was pretty effective before his injury, posting a 3.65 ERA in 37 innings last season. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that a team would bet on his development with a late-round pick or even consider signing him as an undrafted free agent, both of which would still command a larger signing bonus this summer than next.

That developmental aspect is what he’s heard in the little feedback he’s received from scouts.

“I really have to learn how to pitch again,” Carter said. “That was really the only feedback. The velocity’s there. Now I just have to be able to put pitching back into the mix again.”

Then there’s also the fact that he turns 23 in August and will be entering his sixth year of college. That’s an age when a lot of people have begun their careers and/or started a family.

All of those things went into the process of Carter making a decision, but ultimately, he wasn’t ready to give up his dream of leading Arkansas baseball to the promised land.

“It wasn’t really tough at all,” Carter said. “I would do anything for this program and the last couple years, seeing it end the way it has, it’s one of those decisions like, ‘Okay, it’s time to quit messing around and time to get it done.’ It was a pretty easy decision.”

What it Means for Arkansas Baseball

The return of a pitcher with Dylan Carter’s numbers might not excite the average fan, but there’s legitimate reason to believe he’ll be much improved in 2025.

He is only just now 13.5 months removed from undergoing Tommy John surgery, which is about the time most pitchers begin throwing in live action. Carter did that after only 10 months. It was a rushed recovery in an effort to help his team, but given the benefit of hindsight, he now admits he wasn’t fully back from the injury.

“There were a few times I felt really good and I felt like I was close to 100%, but I don’t think I was ever there,” Carter said. “At one point, I got hit with a little shoulder injury and it sidelined me for a couple weeks. So I wouldn’t really say I was ever 100%. I’m still working to get there, but there were flashes of being close to it.”

It’s relatively common for pitchers to make a big jump in their second year back from Tommy John.

The most recent example of that at Arkansas is Cody Scroggins, who had the surgery early in 2017, pitched in limited action in 2018 (4.60 ERA in 15.2 IP) and became a workhorse on the 2019 staff, with a 4.01 ERA in 49.1 innings.

Isaiah Campbell didn’t have Tommy John, but did miss most of 2017 with an elbow injury. He followed that up with an up-and-down 2018 season before breaking out as the Razorbacks’ ace in 2019 – when Carter, who had recently graduated from Bentonville West, watched him warm up in the bullpen in Omaha:

Despite still working his way back to full strength, Dylan Carter experienced a significant increase in his velocity.

After sitting 90-92 mph and typically maxing out at 93 — with two pitches that touched 94 — in 2023, the Bentonville native came back from Tommy John throwing 93-95. Over his last few outings, he was consistently in the mid- to upper-90s, even touching 97.6 mph against Florida on April 27.

“Coming back from the surgery, you have nothing but hours on end trying to make your arm stronger and letting that UCL figure out how to be a UCL again,” Carter said. 

“I spent five months doing nothing but getting stronger, so I really worked on getting stronger lower body wise, but also arm wise. All the time off I had from not throwing, I was able to gain a lot of strength, which was able to increase my velocity numbers.”

The focus is now on what the scouts have told him — learning how to pitch again. He can’t just get by on velocity alone, so he’s working on adding a split-changeup to his repertoire.

At the top of the priority list, though, is regaining his slider. It was his best off-speed pitch and a major key to his success in 2023, but he struggled to land it upon his return this year. That led to him not being able to throw it in certain counts, which allowed opponents to sit on the fastball.

The result was opponents hitting .286 and slugging .535 against him while striking out just six times in 11 innings.

“Through the rehab process, like in my bullpens and live sessions, I was throwing a specific amount of sliders (and) I was never really getting to work on it,” Carter said. “So throughout the season, it was constantly just trying to work on it, figuring out how to land it for a strike, how to land it for swing-and-miss.”

Carter also said he’s still adjusting to a new arm slot as he incorporates a “tighter arm action,” which means staying more compact as he delivers his pitches. When that gets out of whack, a pitcher loses command.

All of that will be at the center of his offseason goals, but for now, he’s sticking around Fayetteville instead of playing summer ball and taking 4-6 weeks to get his body right in the weight room while also giving his arm a break. He’ll ramp up throwing after that to get ready for fall ball.

Even if he doesn’t end up eating a bunch of innings for the Razorbacks in 2025, Carter will at the least be a key veteran voice on a pitching staff that’s losing at least 50% of its innings from this past season.

Of course, the last Arkansas pitcher to return as a sixth-year player after posting an 8.18 ERA turned out to be pretty good. It’d be unfair for the coaches to expect that kind of production, but there’s a reason they were excited when Dylan Carter told them his decision.

“They loved whenever I told them I wanted to come back,” Carter said. “They told me, ‘Hey, this is what you need to do to get better. You’re one of our older guys. You have a little experience. We’d love to have you back,’ so they were thrilled.”

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