Carlos Correa is a third baseman now. Well, he’s a third baseman for the next couple weeks, anyway. That was the determination of the brass at Team Puerto Rico, ensuring that Correa, Francisco Lindor, and Javier Baez would all fit into the starting lineup throughout the World Baseball Classic as Puerto Rico chases its first WBC title.Of course, the idea of Correa making a permanent move to the hot corner isn’t a new one. The impending arrival of fellow shortstop Alex Bregman meant that Correa’s position would be a real question for GM Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch to answer.
No immediate plans are yet being made. Bregman made some starts at shortstop in the Grapefruit League before joining the United States WBC roster, so Luhnow and Hinch are interested in giving him a run-out there. By all accounts, though, Bregman will start the regular season at third while Correa stays in the hole.
The question is, is this the best use of the Astros’ young infielders? Would they, in fact, benefit from swapping positions in the long run?
The first thing to note is that Correa is almost certainly the better player in the here and now. FanGraphs projects him to put up a 5.2-fWAR season in 2017; Baseball Prospectus thinks he’ll tally 4.5 WARP. Meanwhile, Bregman is projected by both sites to sit in the 3.0-to-3.5-win range.
Now, there are a couple of caveats to these projections. For one, both systems believe that Correa will rack up about 50-70 more plate appearances, thus increasing his value. So, if we normalize their projected WAR totals on a per-600-plate-appearances rate, we find that Correa will put up 4.8 WAR/600 and 4.4 WARP/600, with Bregman adding 3.2 WAR/600 and 3.9 WARP/600. They look a bit more even, but Correa is still superior by true talent, according to the projections.
The other element to account for–and the most germane to this discussion–is the positional adjustment. All three publicly-available WAR models credit or debit a player a certain number of runs based on playing time and the position they played. Shortstop is the second-hardest position to play on the defensive spectrum, and so those players get a boost in their WAR totals, since they are (theoretically) providing a lot more defensive value, and are thus less expected to hit.
In other words, if we applied a third base positional adjustment to Correa and a shortstop adjustment to Bregman, their projected WAR totals would change. There has recently been some debate as to how much of a positional adjustment needs to be made, with recent research by Jeff Zimmerman suggesting that the defensive spectrum is much narrower than it used to be. Indeed, Zimmerman’s new values indicate that there’s only a three-run-per-162-game difference between shortstop and third base. FanGraphs uses a five-run split between the two positions in their WAR calculations.
If we buy into Zimmerman’s new numbers, then Bregman and Correa’s WAR projections would barely budge. Bregman would bump up to around four wins at shortstop, while Correa would contract to around four or 4.5 wins. In other words, they’d basically be the same player.
If their projections would more or less even out if they switched positions, then there doesn’t seem to be much reason to do so. Correa is projected for a 127 wRC+ and a .294 True Average; Bregman’s 110 wRC+ and .281 TAv is not quite up to that task. A big-hitting shortstop is way more valuable to a team. Just ask the Dodgers and Corey Seager, or Cleveland and Lindor, or the Rockies and Trevor Story. You can more easily find quality offense at third base; for a player like Correa to look like Alex Rodriguez? It’s just too delectable.
But who cares about the WAR adjustments? Even if Correa’s bat plays up more at shortstop and Bregman’s will almost certainly hold muster at third, why not switch them if Bregman could be the better defender?
This whole discussion has always revolved around Correa’s body type. He is listed at 6-foot-4, 215 pounds. That’s positively massive for a shortstop. He’s got a strong arm and good reaction times, but his range has always been a question. Correa’s -8.3 Ultimate Zone Rating, -3 Defensive Runs Saved, and -11.5 Fieldings Runs Above Average over his two major league seasons suggest that he’s a poor defender whose skills might be better served at third base.
As has been frequently noted, advanced defensive metrics are better ways to evaluate defense than web gems and fielding percentage, yet they are far from perfect. For example, the numbers have a tough time adjusting for defensive shifts, something the Astros employ with great regularity. The metrics could very well be underrating Correa’s glove.
If there’s a compelling reason to move Correa to shortstop, Bregman would have to be a major improvement. Bregman has always been scouted as a quality defender, but it’s not clear that he would be that much better than Correa, especially considering how much more value Correa’s bat holds by staying where he is. Bregman has only 386 big-league innings on the left side of the infield under his belt, too small a sample size to be certain of what kind of defender he’s going to be at this level.
Luhnow and Hinch sense this, too. They want Bregman at the corner and Correa in the hole. If Correa’s defense really does get exposed this year, then there will be plenty of time to make the change. Until he forces the issue, though, Correa will remain the face of the new generation of young, slugging shortstops making the game so much fun. It could win him an MVP award, and the Astros a World Series ring.
By Evan Davis