Carlos Correa’s Slow Start Should Turn Around Quickly
There are a few star shortstops off to slow starts with the bat this season. Trea Turner and Willy Adames are two of them, but the one I want to focus on for this piece is Carlos Correa. Through Saturday’s games, he ranked 11th among qualified shortstops with a 90 wRC+. The good news is that his defense and speed look great! But 2023 represents the slowest start at the plate of his career. Over a quarter of the way through the season, Correa is still looking to turn it around with the stick.
Like many of the Padawans of the Astros’ hitting development system over the last 10 years, Correa has always run above-average whiff and strikeout rates. That’s the M.O. of the core of hitters who came up in Houston – they don’t strike out too much and still hit for good power. Correa has typically paired that with above-average walk rates as well, and this year is no different. But for the first time since 2016, Correa is running a 39th-percentile whiff rate and a 38th-percentile strikeout rate. So what’s going on?
My first thought was to see if Correa has experienced any deterioration in his bat speed. Sometimes hitters lose a bit of bat speed and take a second to adjust; while that adjustment is ongoing, their whiffs tick up. But Correa’s bat speed indicators are all fairly typical for him. Here are some peripherals showing where Correa stands relative to his peers over the last few seasons:
|Season||HardHit%||Barrel%||Max EV||Avg. EV|
Nothing out of the ordinary! Other than a slight downtick in average exit velocity, everything still looks darn good for Correa. The decrease in average exit velocity is probably indicative of more mishits than usual, but it’s a good sign that he is still capable of hitting the ball as hard as anybody. The next step is to check in on my hunch of him producing more mishits. Below are some additional details on his batted ball profile:
Right away, my eyes are drawn to Correa’s opposite field and popup rates. Correa has had the greatest success when he has kept his opposite field mark under 30%; the uptick here is worth looking into. It doesn’t appear to be related to Correa’s swing decisions — his chase and swing rates are in line with career norms. That makes me think it could be related to his contact point, which is tied into his swing mechanics. We might expect this type of change if his contact has gotten a little too deep and Correa isn’t impacting the ball on the upswing as frequently; we’d also expect more mishits, as seen in the increase in popup rate. Making deeper contact isn’t always a bad thing, but it seems like Correa’s bat angle is being thrown off by the change in depth. While we don’t have public access to contact point (the depth in the strike zone at contact), we can look at Vertical Bat Angle (VBA) courtesy of SwingGraphs.
VBA is the angle of a player’s bat at impact. A player’s average VBA doesn’t always tell the entire story because the number is highly dependent on pitch height. But it can help inform our understanding of fluctuations in a player’s bat path and contact point. If a player swings at higher pitch heights on average, their VBA should decrease. If they swing at lower pitch heights on average, it should increase. It’s about a hitter matching their barrel to the pitches they see. If they’re making deeper contact than usual, you’d expect their VBA to decrease because they haven’t gotten to their peak upswing. Typically, a hitter is better able to get their bat on an upswing farther out in front of the plate.
First, I’ll try to control for pitch height to make sure my hunch is valid. Using Baseball Savant, I searched for the average height of the all pitches Correa made contact with last season and this season. In 2022, that mark was 2.54 feet, while this year, it’s 2.52 feet – a negligible difference. Because of that, you’d expect that his VBA year-over-year would be somewhat close as well. In 2022, his average VBA was 33.6 degrees, and fluctuated between 33.5 and 34.1 degrees in the final three months of the season. This year, that number is 30.6 degrees. Basically, his swing is flatter at impact than it was last year, which perfectly tracks with making deeper contact, adding popups, and increasing his oppo rate.
Correa may be expecting his barrel to be in one place when it’s actually in another. For a hitter with fantastic barrel accuracy, this difference might well be enough to throw off his sense of how his body is moving. In this case, his increased whiff rate and career-high popup rate make sense. To provide even more context, we can look at how Correa fares when pulling the ball. If he’s making deeper contact than usual to the pull side, I’d expect there to be a change from previous seasons. The below table focuses on Correa’s hard-hit balls (>= 95 mph) to the pull side from 2021 through this season:
Well that’s interesting! Correa isn’t getting nearly as much out of these batted balls as he has in the past. His average launch angle has decreased by over 4.2 degrees since last year, and his xwOBACON has shot down as a result. This tracks with the theory of him having a deeper contact point than in the past and explains why Correa’s overall xwOBACON sits at .385 despite an overall barrel rate of 80%. That’s still pretty good, but for a player who routinely runs an xwOBACON greater than .415, it’s a bit underwhelming. If Correa can adjust his timing to be earlier and move his impact point further in front of the plate, I’d expect this to turn around quickly. He is still hitting the ball as hard as ever has. Sometimes a hitter takes a little more time than usual to get their timing down, and that’s what I’m leaning towards here. What’s more, against fastballs this year, Correa’s xwOBA is .372, but his actual wOBA is .292. On top of his timing being slightly off, he has gotten a bit unlucky.
All of this is to say, we shouldn’t be too worried about Correa’s profile. His 107 wRC+ and .224 ISO in the month of May suggest that he is working his way back to his career norms. This is still a very good hitter, one we should expect to continue to be as successful at the plate as he always has been.
All statistics are through May 20.
An edit was made to reflect that the relationship between VBA and pitch height is inverse.
Esteban is a contributing writer at FanGraphs. You can also find his work at Pinstripe Alley if you so dare to read about the Yankees. Find him on Twitter @esteerivera42 for endless talk about swing mechanics.