The Houston Astros may have disappointed in 2016 after their big coming-out party in 2015, but don't worry. They could be a juggernaut in 2017 if everything goes right.
That entails a lot of things, of course. But perhaps the most pressing matter at hand is Carlos Correa living up to his potential with the stick.
That might read like a segue into a finger-wagging segment in which Correa is derided for having a bad sophomore year after winning the American League Rookie of the Year in 2015. But the thing is, he was mostly quite good in 2016.
Correa played in 153 games and put up an .811 OPS with 20 home runs and 13 stolen bases. Per FanGraphs' WAR stat, he was a top-five shortstop. Per Baseball-Reference.com's WAR stat, he only narrowly missed being the best shortstop in the league:
- Corey Seager: 6.1
- Carlos Correa: 5.9
By this measure, the 22-year-old already owns 10.1 career WAR. That's the fourth-most in history for a shortstop in his first two seasons. This is all happening just a few years after Correa was the No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft. Nobody can say the dude's been a bust.
But if you feel like you still need to see more from Correa going into 2017, know this: You're not alone.
While his 2016 season was a success on the whole, it did fall short of expectations in the one area where Correa showed the most potential as a rookie. After posting an .857 OPS with 22 home runs in only 99 games in 2015, it was a letdown to watch him hit two fewer home runs with an OPS 46 points lower despite playing in 54 more games.
The bright side is that Correa didn't get reality checks across the board.
His batting average stayed roughly the same, and his on-base percentage actually got better. Two related stories involve him sticking with an advanced approach and making even harder contact. According to Baseball Savant, Correa's average exit velocity went from 90.8 to 91.8 mph.
In light of that, it raises one's eyebrows that power is where Correa took the biggest step backward in 2016. He went from a .512 slugging percentage to a .451 slugging percentage, a 61-point downturn.
Some of that was caused by circumstances beyond Correa's control. Although he played in all but nine of Houston's games, he hinted in September that he wasn't a picture of health throughout 2016.
“Some of those things people don’t know,” Correa told Eno Sarris of FanGraphs. “Some parts of the body are hurting so you have to lay off some things and deal with some things. It’s something that people don’t know, but obviously you know.”
Sarris compared the timing of Correa's two most notable injuries—a rolled ankle in June and a sprained left shoulder in September—with how well he was driving the ball. He found that Correa's injuries correlated not just with downturns in his exit velocity but also with downturns in his launch angle. Put simply: His injuries made it difficult for him to drive the ball.
Knowing this, Correa reversing the power decline that marred an otherwise successful season in 2016 could be a simple matter of staying healthy in 2017. So there's that, anyway.
But since suggesting a ballplayer not get hurt in a 162-game season is like suggesting a rock star not get wasted while on tour, let's look at some real-world solutions to Correa's power conundrum.
It's a good sign that Correa upped his overall exit velocity in 2016 despite occasional injury-related downturns. However, he couldn't do the same with his average launch angle. It was 6.5 degrees in 2015 and 6.5 degrees in 2016.
For perspective, Rob Arthur of FiveThirtyEight found the sweet spot for power hitting to be around 25 degrees. Some power hitters (i.e., Kris Bryant, Brandon Belt and Chris Carter) averaged fairly close to that mark in 2016. Correa, however, was on the opposite side of the spectrum.
One of the effects of Correa's low launch angle is that much of his hard contact is wasted on the ground. Correa hit ground balls 50.1 percent of the time he put the ball in play in 2016. That's not an ideal rate for such a powerful hitter.
Fixing this won't be simple, as this actually points to the true nature of Correa's swing. Even in praising him for having plus raw power back in 2015, Baseball America's Vince Lara-Cinisomo also noted his swing lacked loft and could potentially struggle to produce consistent power from season to season.
Still, never say never.
It's not unheard of for a hitter to make changes that improve his launch angle. Jose Altuve, Correa's double-play partner in Houston, did it last year. Ditto Mark Trumbo, who led baseball in home runs. And Freddie Freeman, who had a long-awaited power breakout.
If Correa makes an effort to alter his swing mechanics in a way that would make it easier to get under the ball, he could follow in those guys' footsteps in 2017.
Failing that, he could always go back to what worked in 2015.
While Correa's overall swing rates basically remained static from 2015 to 2016, there was a noticeable change in his plan of attack. Courtesy of Brooks Baseball, these were his swings in 2015:
And these were his swings in 2016:
The difference isn't subtle. As a rookie, Correa covered the whole strike zone. Last season, he went hunting on the zone's inner half.
Not surprisingly, this made Correa vulnerable to whiffs on pitches away. That would have been an acceptable trade-off if his new approach brought the expected benefit of more pull power. But it didn't. While he did pull the ball more, upping his pull percentage from 35.5 to 39.0, his slugging percentage to his pull side decreased from .721 to .587.
This wasn't an exit-velocity problem. Correa's average exit velocity on the zone's inner two-thirds and beyond shot up from 91.0 to 93.0 mph. But since his launch angle in these areas didn't budge, that didn't translate into more slugging in those areas.
Going into pull-power mode also resulted in Correa neglecting one of his primary strengths at the plate: his opposite-field power.
The Baseball America report mentioned above noted Correa earned comparisons to Albert Pujols for his "ability to hammer the ball to the opposite field." That ability remained alive and well in 2016 but was used sparingly:
|Year||Total Games||Batted Balls||HR||AVG||SLUG|
Bottom line: Correa didn't necessarily have the wrong idea in chasing more pull power in 2016, but it did more harm than good. If he's not going to drive more balls by upping his launch angle, he should at least recalibrate his power approach to all fields rather than just one.
Of course, Correa could change nothing from 2016 and still be a well above average hitter. His .811 OPS from this past season equated to an adjusted OPS+ of 123, meaning he was 23 points better than the average hitter.
And yet there's also no question Correa can be significantly better than that. He's proved he's an advanced hitter capable of working good at-bats and making consistent hard contact. All he needs to do is make his power show up more consistently. There are a number of avenues to that end available to him.
If he finds any one of them in 2017, just watch his numbers rise.