When Carlos Correa was in New York last month accepting his Rookie of the Year award, he ran into some unexpected weather. The massive blizzard that bombarded the east coast was on full display, but that didn't stop Correa from doing the thing that he does best.
This time, it was in several feet of snow instead of a perfectly manicured MLB stadium, but it was baseball just the same.
It’s that type of unbridled love of the game that has Correa on the precipice of becoming one of the game’s elite players. In an era where young stars are becoming more and more prevalent, the former No. 1 overall pick is in position to make the jump from hot prospect to legit superstar.
“Correa already is [a star], and if there's one player who can challenge Mike Trout and Bryce Harper for best-player-in-the-game honors, it's Correa,” David Schoenfield of ESPN.com wrote last month.
Statistically Sensational First Season In Depth
Correa, who turned 21 in September, was called up to The Show in June, and it didn’t take long for him to show why the Astros selected him over Byron Buxton in the 2012 MLB Draft.
He homered twice in his first four big league games and went on to hit .279 with 22 home runs and 14 stolen bases in his rookie campaign. Additionally, Correa led all shortstops in home runs, weighted runs created plus (wRC+), OPS and adjusted OPS+, even though he played in only 99 games whereas most of his competitors played a full season.
To put those fantastic numbers into perspective, the last four players to record a higher OPS+ than Correa in their age-20 season are Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr.
That takes the term “elite company” to another level.
Correa showed in 2015 that he has the entire package, a transcendent superstar who can impact the game in every facet. He displayed incredible consistency—hitting at least five homers with an .827 OPS in every month he played—highlight-reel defensive prowess at shortstop and rare poise under pressure.
The young shortstop hit .350 in the Astros’ biggest series of the season—the ALDS against the Kansas City Royals—and clubbed two home runs in Game 4, Houston’s biggest game of the year. The Royals found a way to come back, win the series, and eventually grab the Commissioner’s Trophy, but it was in spite of Correa’s truly sensational performance.
"My mind is bulletproof, man. Nobody can tell me I'm not going to get better, nobody can tell me I'm not going to do this or that. I'm going to go out there and try to perform and do the best for the team."
As Correa reports for duty at the Astros’ Spring Training facility in Kissimmee, Florida, the possibility of a sophomore slump remains on the horizon. After all, he is barely old enough to legally drink alcohol and the sample size with which we have to evaluate him is relatively small.
For one, he hit only 28 home runs in his entire minor league career (282 games). He surpassed that total in only 99 big league games, where the pitching is better and most of the ballparks are bigger. His homerun-to-flyball ratio was the sixth-highest in all of baseball.
Are the power numbers legit or are they a fluke? Only time will tell.
What we do know, however, is that Correa is already arguably the best shortstop in baseball and he is only going to get better.
"I never doubt myself because I prepare every offseason to have a lot of confidence when I step on the field," Correa said, via Brian McTaggart of MLB.com. "My mind is bulletproof, man. Nobody can tell me I'm not going to get better, nobody can tell me I'm not going to do this or that. I'm going to go out there and try to perform and do the best for the team."
If the question is whether Correa will get better or worse going forward, it's got to be the former. While it is true that pitchers will know what to expect when they face the phenom in 2016, Correa did not show any major weaknesses in his swing during his rookie season and displayed a tremendous ability to hit to all fields.
He squared the ball up to left, center, and right field with about the same regularity in 2015, according to FanGraphs’ batted ball data, which means that he can cover both sides of the plate and has the patience to hit the ball where it is pitched rather than trying to pull balls into the Crawford Boxes at every opportunity.
His advanced approach is impressive, especially for someone of his youth. He told reporters on Friday that even though he had success last year, he will approach this Spring Training the same he has done the previous ones in his career.
"I'm going to go out there like I'm competing for a spot and I'm just going to go out there and work hard every single day and try to impress people," he said. "It's no different. In your mind, you know you're going to be the starting shortstop, but at the end of the day, I want to go out there and compete and play hard every single game."
If Correa stays true to his word—there is no evidence that suggests he won’t—and continues to improve, his ceiling is unlimited. He could easily be the only shortstop to surpass the 30-homer mark in 2016.
There are several different ways that manager A.J. Hinch can structure his lineup, but either way, Correa will have plenty of protection in the order. Your humble correspondant sees him hitting third, meaning he could potentially have George Springer and Jose Altuve hitting in front of him and Carlos Gomez and Colby Rasmus hitting behind him.
Houston has the pieces in place to boast an offense that is all kinds of potent and Correa will be an integral part of it. He is an incredibly talented player who can hit for average and power while also offering excellent defense at a premium position.
All told, Correa has already cemented his status as the best shortstop in baseball—there’s not much question about that.
However, what he does in 2016 will be pivotal to the trajectory of his career. If he struggles to adjust to pitchers who attack him differently, he will still be the best shortstop in the game. The gap between him and the second-best just won’t be as large.
But if he can build on last year’s greatness and continue to improve as he matures, he might have a chance to play in the snow against next year too.
Only this time, it would be as the American League’s Most Valuable Player.