What to Make of Carlos Correa

Is Fernando Tatis Jr. the next Carlos Correa? The question has lingered in my mind in the wake of last week’s piece about Tatis’ already-substantial Hall of Fame chances, itself a response to the Padres’ shortstop landing a 14-year, $340 million deal at the tender age of 22. Digging into some of my previous research, I illustrated that even given the fairly slim sample sizes, the vast majority of players who perform as Tatis has through his age-21 season — whether based merely on offensive prowess or full value as estimated by WAR — are bound for the Hall of Fame.

That provocative conclusion certainly stirred the pot, perhaps even moreso than I intended, with critics offering a range of counterexamples, some of them so far off base as to be laughable (left fielder/designated hitter Joe Charboneau, AL Rookie of the Year at age 25, out of the majors by age 28), others a bit more subtle (Vern Stephens, a slugging shortstop who had some of his best years against lesser competition during World War II). The one that stuck in my mind, however was the example of Correa, whose performance through his age-21 season bore some striking similarities to that of Tatis, to the point that the pair were adjacent on multiple leaderboards. The comparison, which also includes some key differences, was still on my mind when I discussed the two shortstops and a small handful of other young players — most notably Francisco Lindor, Juan Soto, and Wander Franco — during a FanGraphs Audio podcast spot with Kevin Goldstein, who had a front-row seat to the professional progress of Correa, whom the Astros drafted with the first overall pick just three months before he joined their front office.

Correa, now heading into his age-26 season as well as his final year before eligibility for free agency, has had his ups and downs at the major league level. He won AL Rookie of the Year honors in 2015 while helping the Astros to their first playoff appearance in a decade. While he’s helped Houston to four more playoff appearances, including a World Series victory in 2017 and an AL pennant two years later, he’s been an All-Star just once, mainly due to injuries that have limited him to just one season with more than 110 games played: 2016, his age-21 season, when he played 153 games and set an as-yet-unsurpassed career high in WAR, whether by FanGraphs’ measure (5.2) or that of Baseball-Reference (7.0). More on that gap, which is driven by widely divergent defensive metrics, below.

Correa did play 58 out of the Astros’ 60 games last year, but hit just .264/.326/.383, setting career lows in slugging percentage and wRC+ (98) as well as more obviously counting-dependent stats like home runs (five) and WAR (0.9 by FanGraphs, 1.8 by B-Ref). To be fair, he was hitting .301/.367/.441 (125 wRC+) through September 7 before suffering through a 5-for-44 slump from September 8-22, so it’s not like his entire season was a slog; he had a very bad fortnight. He even hit his way out of that skid, closing the season by going 5-for-14 over his final four games and then batting a sizzling .362/.455/.766 with six homers in 55 PA in the postseason. That would have lifted his season line to .282/.340/.456 if we were to add it all up.

Theres no obvious explanation for Correa’s middling showing with the stick. He was healthy save for a scary moment when he fouled a ball off his left ankle on September 15, but x-rays were negative. Diagnosed with a bone bruise, he was in the lineup the next day and for nine days after that before taking a break in the penultimate game of the season; the injury was at the midway point of his slide. Attributing his overall downturn to the discovery of the Astros’ involvement in illegal sign-stealing certainly doesn’t add up (that activity dates to 2017-18) nor does the arc of his season suggest some crisis of confidence that caused him to struggle early in the wake of so much criticism and anger; he hit .373/.458/.569 through August 8. Goldstein, much closer to the matter than I was, didn’t have any particular insight into Correa’s offseason except to note that there were a few hundred such players who had puzzling performances whose causes we can’t necessarily put a finger on.

A few things do stand out about Correa’s performance. He was more aggressive at the plate than ever, seeing fewer pitches per plate appearance than in any season before (3.95, down from 4.10 in 2019) and walking a career-low 7.2% after finishing in the 11% range for four straight years. Meanwhile, he saw fewer pitches in the zone than ever (37.6%, down from 42.0% both in 2019 and as a previous career mark), and set a career high in terms of swinging at pitches outside the zone (33.9%, 4.3% above his previous career mark). When he made contact with pitches outside the zone, he hit just .154 and slugged .215 on such pitches; only in 2019 was he worse.

Correa’s 49.0% pull rate was by far the highest of his career, more than a 10-point jump from 2019, and more than a 13-point jump from his previous career mark. Yet when he pulled the ball, he had a 64.0% groundball rate; his 109 wRC+ on balls that he pulled placed him in just the 13th percentile among batters with at least 60 such events. He also had a higher overall groundball rate (49.7%) than any year since 2016, and an astronomical 22.2% infield fly rate, second among all major league qualifiers, this from a player with a career mark of 8.1% and a 2019 mark of 9.8%. His 5.9% barrel rate was the lowest of his career, down from his previous 8.2% career mark.

The constellation of anomalies suggests a changed approach that didn’t fully work for one reason or another. Correa was more aggressive than before, he pulled the ball more often, but his quality of contact suffered, as he got more popups than ever, and not enough fly balls. Given a longer season, maybe the numbers would have evened out, or maybe he would have made enough adjustments to improve his course. For whatever reason, it didn’t happen — that’s 2020 for you.

On the other side of the ball, Correa’s defense received mixed reviews. For the second year in a row, he was about average in terms of UZR (-0.7), but well into the black in DRS (8). Here it’s worth noting that the two metrics have differed vastly over the course of his career (-15.1 UZR, 42 DRS) in a way that contrasts to his peers; the other half dozen shortstops with at least 20 DRS since 2015 all have UZRs in the black. For many players, the choice of defensive metric can greatly shift our perception of their value, and for Correa, that’s especially true. Over the course of his career, the swing comes out to about 15 runs per 150 games (-4.4 UZR/150, 10.8 DRS/150).

Note that UZR does not account for infield shifting, and that the Astros have shifted far more than any other team in the majors during his career. Via Statcast, the 49,755 pitches on which they’ve shifted since the start of 2015 is over 9,000 more than the second-ranked Rays, and over 16,000 more than the third-ranked Orioles. Via our splits leaderboard, their 10,393 balls in play (not balls on contact, which would include homers) is 41 ahead of the Rays in that span, and more than 800 ahead of the third-ranked Pirates. Thanks to a change in methodology that was rolled out last year and retroactively updated, DRS now accounts for shifting at the team level, and so at least in theory Correa isn’t being unduly credited or debited for his positioning on shifts, which constitutes a substantial portion of his time in the field. Due to that, and the fact that DRS additionally figures into Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR and thus my Hall of Fame stuff, I prefer the latter for such evaluations.

Given the inevitable emphasis on offense, Correa’s 2020 obviously wouldn’t be an ideal platform season from which to launch into free agency, but fortunately for him, he gets a do-over. A mega-deal on the scale of Tatis or Mookie Betts is probably out of the question barring a strong showing in 2021, and looking at a 10-year ZiPS projection provided by Dan Szymborski, even $200 million could be a reach:

ZiPS Projection – Carlos Correa
2021 .278 .354 .496 446 67 124 23 1 24 91 53 113 2 127 1 3.9
2022 .276 .354 .507 434 66 120 23 1 25 91 52 112 2 130 1 3.9
2023 .275 .352 .507 426 65 117 22 1 25 90 51 111 2 129 1 3.7
2024 .277 .356 .508 415 64 115 22 1 24 88 51 104 2 131 0 3.7
2025 .281 .357 .516 405 62 114 21 1 24 86 48 96 2 133 -1 3.6
2026 .279 .354 .505 390 58 109 20 1 22 81 45 90 2 130 -2 3.2
2027 .275 .349 .481 374 54 103 18 1 19 74 42 83 1 122 -3 2.6
2028 .270 .342 .465 355 49 96 16 1 17 66 38 75 1 116 -4 2.0
2029 .263 .332 .437 334 43 88 14 1 14 58 34 66 1 106 -5 1.3
2030 .259 .320 .409 313 37 81 12 1 11 49 28 57 1 96 -7 0.6
2031 .253 .308 .381 289 32 73 10 0 9 41 23 48 1 86 -8 -0.1

With his playing time suppressed due to his track record for injuries to the point that he never reaches 500 PA (in this case, at-bats plus walks since Dan didn’t provide hit-by-pitch projections), Correa projects to produce “only” 24.5 WAR from 2022-31, his age-27 to age-36 seasons. That might be underselling him, given that ZiPS’s defensive input is (if I understand Dan correctly) an average of UZR and DRS with some age-based regression built in. Particularly given the extent to which Correa’s numbers differ, his value would be higher if the projection were relying only on DRS.

Anyway, via Szymborski’s model, that projection still equates to a 10-year, $202 million deal, though of course, a team might reasonably opt to go for a shorter contract given the near-total disappearance of regular shortstops older than 35. Derek Jeter and Jimmy Rollins are the only ones to reach 100 games at the position in a single season in the past 13 years, and there have been just 13 such seasons since the start of the Wild Card era, six of them by Hall of Famers (four by Jeter, two by Barry Larkin). They’re an endangered species.

If Correa were to match that projection (including for 2021), he’d finish his age-36 season with 54.7 career WAR, well short of the Hall of Fame standard for shortstops (67.5), though as he might be losing a win or more per year to the choice of defensive metric, I don’t think we need to take that conclusion literally; he could well land closer to the mark.

Again, since DRS and bWAR are the currency for my Hall of Fame evaluations, it’s worth checking in on Correa’s progress beyond ZiPS; there will be plenty of time to chew on what his next contract should be with a (hopefully) full season of data. He has 26.3 bWAR through age 25, a total that’s tied with Hall of Famer Tim Raines for 51st all-time. Among Hall of Fame position players, 31 had 26.3 WAR or more through their age-25 seasons, while 126 had less. Considering only shortstops, Correa’s still well ahead of the game:

Top Shortstops by WAR Through Age-25 Seasons
Rk Player Years G PA WAR WAR/650
1 Alex Rodriguez 1994-2001 952 4247 46.4 7.1
2 Arky Vaughan+ 1932-1937 849 3713 41.4 7.2
3 Cal Ripken Jr.+ 1981-1986 830 3562 34.6 6.3
4 Jim Fregosi 1961-1967 844 3488 28.7 5.3
5 Francisco Lindor* 2015-2019 717 3244 27.6 5.5
6 Travis Jackson+ 1922-1929 899 3634 27.6 4.9
7 Robin Yount+ 1974-1981 1084 4553 26.9 3.8
8 Carlos Correa* 2015-2020 604 2583 26.3 6.6
9 Joe Cronin+ 1926-1932 711 2991 26.1 5.7
10 Lou Boudreau+ 1938-1943 656 2899 24.2 5.4
11 Derek Jeter+ 1995-1999 638 2886 23.4 5.3
12 Hanley Ramirez 2005-2009 618 2753 23.3 5.5
13 Donie Bush 1908-1913 765 3406 22.9 4.4
14 Alan Trammell+ 1977-1983 850 3324 21.7 4.2
15 Cecil Travis 1933-1939 814 3368 20.7 4.0
16 Troy Tulowitzki 2006-2010 554 2368 20.4 5.6
17 Nomar Garciaparra 1996-1999 455 2074 20.4 6.4
18 Jose Reyes 2003-2008 755 3485 20.2 3.8
19 Rabbit Maranville+ 1912-1917 771 3297 20.0 3.9
20 Vern Stephens 1941-1946 694 2942 19.7 4.4
21 Joe Sewell+ 1920-1924 635 2793 19.5 4.5
22 Garry Templeton 1976-1981 713 3114 18.9 3.9
23 Joe Tinker+ 1902-1906 695 2810 18.6 4.3
24 Bill Dahlen 1891-1895 645 2990 18.5 4.0
25 Elvis Andrus* 2009-2014 914 3974 17.0 2.8
26 Chris Speier 1971-1975 742 3086 16.7 3.5
27 Woody English 1927-1931 659 3078 16.6 3.5
28 Ernie Banks+ 1953-1956 457 1928 16.4 5.5
29 Andrelton Simmons* 2012-2015 499 1999 15.9 5.2
30 Corey Seager* 2015-2019 489 2069 15.7 4.9
42 Barry Larkin+ 1986-1989 414 1666 13.6 5.3
51 Luis Aparicio+ 1956-1959 592 2513 12.2 3.2
69 Pee Wee Reese+ 1940-1942 387 1691 10.6 4.1
73 Phil Rizzuto+ 1941-1942 277 1161 10.4 5.8
75 Ozzie Smith+ 1978-1980 473 2029 10.0 3.2
98 Dave Bancroft+ 1915-1916 295 1237 7.4 3.9
116 Hughie Jennings+ 1891-1894 407 1747 6.4 2.4
241 Luke Appling+ 1930-1932 241 889 1.4 1.0
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
+ = Hall of Famer. * = active.

Though he’s behind his contemporary, Lindor, Correa is ahead of 16 of the 20 enshrined shortstops through their age-25 seasons, including eight of 10 elected by the BBWAA. He’s also substantially ahead of two recent players who probably had Hall-caliber talent but couldn’t stay clear of injuries, namely Tulowitzki and Garciaparra. Both would hit major potholes in their age-27 seasons, though Tulo, who debuted in the majors late in his age-21 season, had already missed substantial time during his age-23 season. Of the top 20 players here, a group that averaged 26.1 WAR to this point, nine are enshrined and six are ineligible (either active or not retired long enough to appear on a ballot), leaving five outside the Hall.

Correa has done all of this in a compressed amount of playing time, such that on a prorated basis, he trails only Vaughan and Rodriguez, and is just ahead of two polar opposite for durability, Garciaparra and Ripken. Again looking at the top 20, we have 10 Hall of Famers, three outsiders, and seven players not yet eligible. Those three outsiders all had far lower WAR/650 even by this juncture, two (Bush and Stephens) while playing prior to integration, the latter of whom had the additional advantage of playing while the best of his contemporaries (Vaughan, Rizzuto, and Reese) missed multiple seasons due to World War II.

All of which is to say that even given his ups and downs, Correa still appears to be on a path towards Cooperstown. His injuries do give cause for concern, but the handwringing over his 2020 season as a portent of things to come is probably premature given not only his postseason outburst but the extent to which the choice of defensive metrics serves as a Rorschach blot. At worst, in an abbreviated season, Correa was a bit more valuable than league average, prorated to somewhere between 2.2 and 2.4 WAR using UZR (depending upon rounding) and to a near All-Star caliber 4.6 to 5.1 using DRS.

Bringing Tatis back into the equation, one notable difference between the two is that through their age-21 seasons, the young Padre has been far better offensively, with a 154-129 advantage via OPS+, or 150-128 via wRC+. Correa’s greater playing time (by 463 PA) is nontrivial, but so is the mere company of having a 154 OPS+ through one’s age-21 season; the top 15 is virtually all Hall caliber players: Trout (166), Williams (161), Pujols (157), Foxx (157), Hornsby (156), Cobb (153)… with Juan Soto (151) and the migraine-suffering Hal Trotsky Sr. (148) the only exceptions. That portends a different career arc than Correa, though the defensive gap even at this stage (6 DRS/150 for Correa, -2 for Tatis) may do so as well, at least raising the possibility that the latter will have to move off the position, though given his improvement from age 20 to age 21, I think it’s fair to say the jury is still out. Despite their similarities as precociously phenomenal shortstops, the differences should remind us to take care in the ways we compare them.

There’s no doubt that this is a big year for Correa, as the same can be said for any player in his walk year. While there’s talk of an extension and mutual interest in his staying in Houston, and at the very least a lack of the pre-free agency panic that would key a trade (à la Lindor), we’re just going to have to see how this plays out, we’re lucky that we’ll get to watch.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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1 year ago

The idea that Correa is “on a path towards Cooperstown” is sickening. Not saying he shouldn’t have a job or that he hasn’t been an excellent player. This guy directly participated in a massive unprecedented cheating scheme, never came clean about the details of what happened, and then took it upon himself to be the face of the Astros non-apology tour. It’s nauseating to think that such a creep could enter the HOF.

1 year ago
Reply to  Chris

Honestly, the steroid guys are on the ballot. Schilling is. White supremacists and domestic abusers are in. Does the scandal (which, mind you, is very bad) really go anywhere near those levels? No.

If he has a Hall-worthy career, then he should get a vote.

1 year ago
Reply to  Chris

He will never play enough.

1 year ago
Reply to  padres458

Fair enough, but the scandal wouldn’t be a good reason to keep him out.

1 year ago
Reply to  darkness88

You’re right. It’d be a great reason. Just because the past has let in White Supremacists, domestic abusers and cheaters does not mean we should continue to do do. The Roid guys arent getting in. Schilling isnt getting in. Nor should Correa.

He made his bed taking on the role of the face of the cheating scandal. Now he has to sleep in it.

1 year ago
Reply to  amodicth

I am of the mind that the roid guys shouldn’t be in. Schilling I’m unsure. I understand that past mistakes should not allow for even more, but penalizing Correa for the scandal (if he gets to a Hall level) is very different.

1 year ago
Reply to  darkness88

Either let them all in or let none of them in. Cant pick and choose what level of cheating as acceptable and what isn’t.

1 year ago
Reply to  amodicth

Really? Bonds and Co. juiced along with off field issues (issues 8s a nice word) Schilling has his… stuff. Thats really not the same as Correa.

1 year ago
Reply to  Chris

Granted, he indeed directly participated in a sign stealing scandal and refused to admit to his wrongdoings. On the same hand, why would a sign-stealing scandal bar someone from the Hall, but not allegations of child predation (Roger Clemens), death threats to reporters (Curt Schilling), and breaking a legendary record on steroids and lying to court (That one’s obvious)?

1 year ago
Reply to  hombremomento

cry more

1 year ago
Reply to  Chris

I think it’ll be enough to raise the bar to a point that he’s unlikely to meet it. The other guys we’re talking about are absolute slam-dunk all time greats strictly on their playing numbers. Correa seems unlikely to get there (although he’s still young-ish). If he’s borderline at all on the merits of his playing career, he won’t make it.