In early-April baseball, small sample sizes are often the name of the game. Shoot, just a week ago at this time, the Astros were a 2-4 team who had just dropped an embarrassing series to their cross state rivals thanks in part to hitting with runners in scoring position that felt like what you would get by letting Santiago Casilla stand at the plate with a salami stick.
But that was mostly just a spot of bad luck that was bound to let up eventually, even if none of the hitters made any material changes to their approach at the plate. And sure enough, after that pair of losses in three tries in Arlington, the Astros returned home to face two of their strongest competitors in the A’s and Yankees…and promptly swept them both while averaging 6 runs a game and mounting several clutch rallies.
So yeah, I don’t blame you if you’re still not totally abandoning your pre-season predictions just yet in favor of just two weeks of games. I’m not at that stage either, for the most part. But, the little bit of data that we do have isn’t totally without merit, which is why I think the performance of Carlos Correa is both meaningful and the most encouraging thing so far this season.
Correa’s down 2018 season was a big reason the Houston offense didn’t live up to what many people predicted in the pre-season. Correa blamed that in part of his June back problems that landed him on the injured list and cost him all of July, and it’s not particularly hard to see why. In his final 37 games, the shortstop batted an abysmal .180/.261/.256. But even in the first half, his .268/.352/.480 line was a clear step back from the .315/.391/.550 slash he put up at age 22. I think it’s very possible that his back was bothering him even before he actually missed time.
When he sat out the last few Spring Training games and the first few regular season ones, I took that as a sign of the worst; his various injuries had flared up again, and would continue to nag at him through the year. The Astros had enough depth that it wouldn’t be a death sentence, but that’s never something you want to see in the opening week of the season.
And that’s why I actually feel like there’s more reason to take stock in Correa’s early season numbers. There was a real question entering the year whether he would be healthy enough to reach his full potential, the kind of question that even the smartest and most informed of us can only shrug at and say “wait and see”. And while ten games is still barely anything, ten games of .316/.381/.579 baseball is both not terribly out of line with what we know a healthy Correa is capable of, and a heck of a lot more encouraging than ten games of, say, .216/.281/.429.
Moreover, it’s worth looking at the underlying numbers driving that batting line, which tend to stabilize a little quicker than traditional hitting stats (although there is still volatility this early in the year). Last year, Correa struck out at a higher rate than he has in any other season (23.7%, versus 20.7% for his career), saw his power drop substantially (.167 isolated slugging instead of .200), and saw fewer balls in play falling in for hits (.282 BABIP against a career .317 mark). His drop in hard-hit balls, relatively poor fielding numbers, and loss of hits up the middle/increase in hits to the opposite field all also seem pretty consistent with what we would from a player suffering from a major core injury.
Once again, these all seem to have returned to normal, if not career bests, so far in 2019. His walk and K rates are in line with what we’d expect, and his ISO (.263), line drive percentage (26.1%), BABIP (.400), and hard-hit percentage (34.8% before last night’s single, double, and homer) don’t seem like the work of someone fighting a lingering back injury. Even though some of those obviously aren’t sustainable, they also don’t seem like they’re in danger of suddenly dropping to 2017 levels, either.
The six wins in the books against major rivals is also nice of course, but teams can get hot or cold at the flip of a switch, sometimes without reason. But the things we can see in Correa’s batting line this far feels like it clears up one of the major question marks we had entering 2019. A healthy Carlos Correa makes this lineup look so much better, and makes me feel like it actually might be able to live up to or even surpass the pre-season predictions.