Many storylines were coming into the season surrounding Houston Astros shortstop Carlos Correa. How will he perform in front of hostile crowds on the road? How will he bounce back from his first season of below-league average offensive production? How will he compare to the rest of the crop of young shortstops set to hit the free-agent market this winter? Fortunately for him, as well as to the chagrin of those rooting against him, Correa is having the best year of his career.
Throughout the course of his career, there has been little doubt about Correa’s ceiling. In his rookie season in 2015, he took home the Rookie of the Year hardware, accumulating 3.4 fWAR over a span of just 99 games. While the defensive didn’t quite agree, his 134 wRC+ was enough to make him one of the most valuable shortstops in baseball right from the jump.
Over the next two years, he combined his stellar bat with above-average defense, putting together consecutive seasons of 5+ fWAR production, with wRC+ marks of 123 in 2016 and 152 in 2017. Correa would have been in the MVP conversation in ‘17 had it not been for the fact that he only played 109 games that season, the first of three injury-riddled in a row. In 2018 and 2019, Correa played in just 110 and 75 games, respectively, thanks to some strange injuries like when he broke a rib during a massage.
Coming into 2020, healthy and with a lot to prove, Correa fell flat. Setting career lows in wRC+ (98), walk rate (7.2 percent), and isolated power (.119), Correa did not look like himself, slashing a respectable bit un-Correa like .264/.326/.383. Once the playoffs started though, Correa caught fire, slashing .362/.455/.766 and hitting more homers (6 in 13 games) than in the full regular season (5 in 58 games).
Projections liked a bounceback for Correa, and why wouldn’t they? ZiPS and Steamer both output a four fWAR season of better for the 26-year-old. So far, it appears that Correa is going to fly by those projections, as the 3.6 fWAR he has already amassed is the fourth highest in the American League.
Correa has made two big changes that have brought his bat back to life. One, Correa is pacing at career bests in both strikeout and walk rate:
Along with his increased proclivity to draw walks and cut strikeouts, Correa has virtually stopped chasing pitches outside the zone, something that was trending in the wrong direction since 2017:
Even though these graphs show how Correa has improved in these areas, it’s still a little difficult to put in context just how drastically he has improved his game. In 2020, Correa’s strikeout rate, walk rate, and chase rate ranked in the 54th, 29th, and 26th percentiles, respectively. In 2021, Correa ranks in the 80th, 90th, and 82nd percentile in those same metrics. By walk to strikeout ratio, Correa’s 0.80 mark ranks 11th in all of baseball, while his 0.33 mark a year ago was among the bottom 25 percent of the league for qualified hitters.
In particular, Correa’s success has been tied to him being able to better lay off of offspeed pitches out of the zone, as pitchers have been throwing him a steady diet of those pitches this season:
For a better visual of how well Correa’s approach has been at the plate, take a look at his swing rate heat map from 2020. You’ll notice that he was particularly vulnerable to expand below the zone and outside:
Compare that to the same chart for 2021, where he has mostly fixed that problem, cutting his chase rate in half in some of the most problematic areas:
It’s no wonder that Correa is on track to have the best offensive season of his career, slashing .296/.395/.521 with a 155 wRC+. This, of course, comes at the perfect time, as Correa’s free agency looms. Not only is he arguably the best of the crop of shortstops set to enter the open market this offseason, but he is also the youngest, as he will enter the 2022 season at just 27 years old.
If Correa keeps up this production, we could see yet another offseason with a record-breaking contract.
Brian Menéndez is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score, as well as a senior writer for DRaysBay and freelance contributor to FiveThirtyEight. He has also been featured in The Hardball Times. You can find Brian on Twitter at @briantalksbsb.