Why yes: performance. If you want to argue that Carlos Correa is already baseball’s best shortstop, you can simply point to his performance, and to the performances of the other shortstops. What could be easier? Correa, of course, hasn’t played a full 2015 season, but he has batted a couple hundred times, so let’s look at the numbers and keep them all above a common, 600-plate-appearance denominator. Do that and Correa comes out as a top-10 position player. The closest shortstop, by WAR, is Brandon Crawford, who trails by just about two wins. Whatever you think of the error bars in WAR, two wins per 600 plate appearances is a big margin. The argument, in other words, has decent support.
Why no: projections. Statistics reflect talent, but they can also mislead. It can be better to refer to the projections, as they can be a decent proxy for current estimated true talent. Projections don’t suffer from recency bias. They don’t suffer from hype, and they don’t suffer from any sort of overreactions. Looking at the shortstop depth-chart projections, and putting WAR over 600 plate appearances, Correa is basically tied with Crawford and Jhonny Peralta, a win behind Troy Tulowitzki. Some months ago, Tulowitzki was the unquestioned best shortstop in baseball. How much should we really reconsider, after part of one season?
If you choose to believe Tulowitzki remains the best shortstop, that’s fine. It’s totally justifiable, and Correa still doesn’t have an extended track record. Could have a slump just ahead of him. Could be a bad one. But as absurd as it might sound, Correa really does have an argument of his own. He’s been that good to date, and if you don’t believe he’s better than Tulowitzki yet, it seems only a matter of time until the trend lines intersect. One of them turns 31 in two months. One of them can finally buy his own drink in a month and a half.
We have a pretty good idea that Correa’s defense is there. He didn’t draw negative evaluations in the minors, he’s so far avoided weight gain, and the small-sample defensive numbers are positive. It’s harder to believe his instant-impact offense. In fact, the projections don’t believe it — though Correa’s sitting on a .381 wOBA, he’s projected the rest of the way at .319. It’s here I point out Correa doesn’t have any sort of unsustainable ball-in-play luck. The projections are just reluctant to see a 20-year-old as being an immediate terror.
Which, yeah, we should all be. This isn’t normal. That’s informing the projection. Also informing the projection: Correa didn’t exactly blaze through Triple-A. But he did destroy Double-A, after destroying High-A, and he’s also destroyed the majors. With every passing week, there are fewer and fewer doubts. The presence of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper makes us vulnerable to the overrating of youth. Yet Correa seems challenging to overrate.
For an idea of something that makes Correa special, consider the following video highlights.
Big home run! Pulled with authority.
Big home run! Pushed with authority.
Correa, so far, has had outstanding success to left field, and also outstanding success to right. Pulling the ball, he has a 228 wRC+. Going the other way, he has a 213 wRC+. These are based on pretty small samples, but they’re still promising, because Correa has demonstrated his ability to hit with power to all fields. That’s a difficult thing to fake. For the sake of perspective, here’s the list of hitters who, since 2010, have managed a 200 or better wRC+ to the pull side and the other way:
That’s it. And Correa doesn’t have Davis’ whiffing habit. Relaxing the standards, here’s the list of hitters at 150 or better:
- Chris Davis
- Adrian Gonzalez
- Robinson Cano
- Miguel Cabrera
- Ryan Braun
- Hunter Pence
- Prince Fielder
- Nelson Cruz
- Buster Posey
- David Ortiz
- Adam Lind
- Freddie Freeman
- Matt Kemp
- Paul Goldschmidt
- Mike Napoli
- Giancarlo Stanton
- Josh Donaldson
- J.D. Martinez
- Bryce Harper
- Pedro Alvarez
- Brandon Belt
- Starling Marte
- Jeff Baker
- Wilin Rosario
Good hitters, almost every single one. Baker has a strange presence, but then he’s been heavily platooned, so this doesn’t reflect him as an everyday player. These players have proven more than Correa has. There’s a reason Correa isn’t included — he doesn’t have the track record yet, so we have to be gentle with his statistics. But this is why they’re so encouraging. He isn’t just feasting on balls he can pull. He’s showing both contact and plate coverage, and when you can do what Correa has already shown, you have to try really hard to be bad.
There’s this other interesting thing, too. Something that makes Correa look fairly unusual. Of his groundballs, he’s pulled 46% of them. He also has an ISO of .266. Here’s the relationship between those numbers, again since 2010:
Tends to be, power hitters pull more of their grounders. This has something to do with the swing paths, and at the top of the pulled-grounder list, you find names like Chris Davis and Chris Carter and Mark Teixeira. At the bottom are Jean Segura, Ben Revere, Ichiro Suzuki, and Nori Aoki. One weird exception I’ve written about before is Corey Dickerson, who you see all by himself toward the upper left. There’s also Ryan Zimmerman, Prince Fielder, and Yasmani Grandal. There’s a small group of hitters who can hit for power without pulling too many grounders. Correa might belong in that group, depending on where his numbers go from here. This isn’t as amazing as the information above, but it’s weird, further evidence that Correa isn’t like most other players or prospects.
As you’d expect, as Correa has gone along in his rookie season, opponents have tried to make adjustments. They’ve seen what he’s done, and they’ve looked for his weaknesses. Correa has played in 50 games, so I split his season in 25-game halves. In the second half, he’s gone from seeing 50% fastballs to 60% fastballs. He’s gone from seeing nearly half of all pitches in the strike zone to something closer to 40%. And yet, power’s still been there. Correa has dropped his chase rate. His K-BB% has improved from 17% to 6%. His batting average has dropped, but he’s remained successful, and it could be that whole drop is simple luck. The approach is good. The authority is good.
It isn’t unprecedented for a rookie to have immediate big-league success. Following the initial adjustment, though, there are adjustments to adjustments, opponents learning what a player is all about. Sometimes, this can mean an extended slump, as we saw last year with Xander Bogaerts. We could still see that with Correa, who has an awful lot left to learn. But at least so far, Correa has survived the adjustments. He’s been able to adjust back. He’s been able to look like baseball’s best shortstop. Maybe he hasn’t yet earned that title. If not, it feels like a matter of time.
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