The case has been made for Carlos Correa. It was even made on this very site last year. He was the number one overall draft pick. He was last year’s American League Rookie of the Year. He’s been called Alex Rodriguez, with better makeup. He’s even been called the best player in the major leagues (maybe). When we ran our preseason staff predictions a couple months back, 11 of 55 FanGraphs employees chose Correa to win the American League MVP. Beside he and Mike Trout, no other player received more than four votes. The public opinion on the matter seems almost unanimous: Carlos Correa is viewed as baseball’s best shortstop, just 126 games into the 21-year-old’s major league career.
But there’s a 22-year-old, just 123 games into his major league career, who wasn’t Rookie of the Year and received zero preseason MVP picks, whose case for baseball’s best shortstop might be just as strong as Correa’s. It’s time we consider whether it’s actually Francisco Lindor who is baseball’s best shortstop.
The argument might not have to be complicated. Correa gained his status so quickly due to the hype and the performance. Both need to be present for a player to be accepted as a bonafide superstar in less than a calendar year. It’s when the two collide that lofty claims like “baseball’s best shortstop” or “MVP candidate” start to seem reasonable. So let’s start with the hype.
Correa was the number one overall pick in the 2012 draft, Lindor the number eight overall pick in 2011. When FanGraphs’ prospect analyst Kiley McDaniel evaluated Correa last offseason, he put a 65 future value on him. Lindor was given a 60. In Baseball Prospectus’ evaluations, Correa was given a 70, and Lindor was given a 70. ESPN’s Keith Law ranked Correa third and Lindor sixth. As prospects, Correa was regarded slightly higher, but the difference was essentially negligible. With similar pedigrees, then, we move onto production since their debuts.
Over the last calendar year, Lindor has been one of the 15 best position players in baseball by our WAR calculation, the top shortstop in the game, and he didn’t debut until more than a month from this point last year. He and Correa have essentially equal playing time, and Lindor’s got the edge on Correa by nearly two wins, comfortably beyond the margin of error. If you prefer Baseball-Reference’s WAR model, Lindor’s got the edge by a full win. If you prefer Baseball Prospectus’ WAR model, it’s still Lindor by a full win.
Correa’s been dubbed baseball’s best shortstop less than a year into his career based on his prospect pedigree combined with his major league performance, and yet Lindor had nearly the same pedigree, and has unquestionably outperformed his Puerto Rican peer to date, according to any method of player evaluation you might prefer. So why the discrepancy?
Well, there’s probably the exposure, for one. Correa has had the benefit of the shiny number one overall pick label, plus his team made the playoff’s last year and he doesn’t play his home games at the worst-attended stadium in baseball. But there’s also the way they accrue their value. Correa is seen as the bat-first shortstop, while Lindor is the glove-first player, and folks (rightfully) tend to put more stock in offensive numbers than defensive numbers. Except, Correa’s offensive edge over Lindor thus far has been negligible (85 runs created to 79), while Lindor’s gap over Correa, defensively, has been massive.
Lindor has, unsurprisingly, graded out as one of baseball’s elite defensive shortstops. The glove was always his carrying tool, and, I mean:
Correa, on the other hand, has quietly graded out as arguably baseball’s worst defensive shortstop since his debut. Thus far, the metrics have seen the defensive gap between Lindor and Andrelton Simmons as no different than the defensive gap between Correa and Marcus Semien.
To this point, we’ve only dealt with which shortstop has been the better player. Lindor has been the better player. But the question we really want to know is: who is the better player? That’s when we take to the projections. The projections see Correa as the top shortstop, a true-talent 4.4 WAR player over 600 plate appearances, with Lindor as the runner-up at 3.7 WAR per 600 plate appearances. That 0.7 WAR difference is close to being within WAR’s margin of error, and we can easily make up that gap, so long as we believe these two key points:
1. Lindor turned a corner offensively
The difference between Correa and Lindor at the plate thus far has been that we expected this from Correa. Lindor was never seen as an elite bat, especially after he hit .207/.239/.264 over his first 94 plate appearances. Since then, though, Lindor’s been not only the best offensive shortstop in baseball, but one of the best hitters in the entire game. Dating back to July 9 of last season, over his last 449 plate appearances, Lindor’s hit .334/.382/.516, good for a 148 wRC+. Over that same time frame, Correa’s ran a 137 wRC+. If you believe that sometime around July of last year, Lindor flipped a proverbial switch, then maybe you think the projections are missing something, and you mentally bump up his offensive projection a bit.
2. Lindor can sustain a high BABIP
It’s impossible to ignore that the brunt of Lindor’s offensive production has been thanks to one of the highest BABIPs in baseball. At .351, there’s still 14 names ahead of him since last year, so he’s not an outlier, but he also never showed this ability in the minors. That brings us back to point one, that he unexpectedly turned a corner, but we can also look to see if Lindor passes the test of players who can sustain high BABIPs. Is the player fast? Check. Does the player spray the ball all over the field? Check. Does the player avoid easy outs on fly balls and pop-ups? Check. If the projections are missing something with Lindor’s bat, perhaps it’s that his turning of the corner is coming in the form of his ability to run a higher-than-average BABIP.
Since his debut, it’s tough to argue that any shortstop has outplayed Francisco Lindor. He’s done everything Carlos Correa’s done and more, just without the awards, accolades, exposure, or mainstream hype. What’s tougher to argue is who the best shortstop is. Really, it’s a question without an answer, but the gap between the two leading candidates is closer than most seem to think. Based on past production, it’s Lindor. Based on the projections, it’s Correa. If you give yourself reasons to buy Lindor’s bat, it shifts back to being him. But what’s the point in debate, anyway? The two best shortstops in baseball are both younger than 23, and we haven’t seen anything like them in some time. Turns out everyone’s a winner.
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