At the start of training camp, Carlos Correa said he thinks he can have a better season. Nothing unusual there. Every player goes to spring training and says he's going to work hard to keep improving.
“I still have some holes in my game that people might not notice, but I do,” he told reporters. He wouldn’t elaborate on details, saying he didn’t want to give inside information to opponents, but added, “I want to be able to save more runs and be an elite defender, and I think if I can do that with the way I hit, it’s just going to be something special.”
Correa’s comments point to an idea: What can today’s young stars do to improve their games? Let’s look at Correa and some of the other top young position players and how they can get even better.
Carlos Correa, Houston Astros
He’s right about his defense: There might be room for improvement. Correa was credited with plus-4 defensive runs saved in 2017 (up from minus-3 in 2016), though other defensive metrics graded him a little lower. So maybe he’s an average defensive shortstop, maybe a little better. The thing about defense, however, is that it generally peaks early in a player’s career. Correa’s quickness and arm strength aren’t going to improve, so if he saves more runs, it would come from positioning and anticipation.
More likely, his improvement will come on offense. He hit .315/.391/.550 last year even though he got off to a slow start, hitting .233 with two home runs in April. He also didn’t hit quite as well after he returned from the torn thumb ligament, so give him six consistent months and the overall production will increase.
Here’s another reason Correa could post a monster 2018. In 2016, his chase rate on pitches outside the strike zone was 27.9 percent. That improved to 26.2 percent last season, which also led to a lower swing-and-miss rate. The league-average chase rate was 28 percent in 2017, so Correa is only a little better than average in this department. If he can get a little more selective -- remember, he just turned 23 in September -- he should be able to better tap into his power and get to 35 home runs.
As with Correa, it’s not fair to expect improvement, but there are holes for Seager to work on. The most interesting scenario is if Seager learns to pull the ball more. I’m not necessarily advocating this; it could be that his natural swing and approach are to hit the ball to center and left field. Some hitters -- Eric Hosmer is a prime example -- simply tend to roll over on the ball too much when they pull it. Here’s Seager’s hit chart for fly balls, line drives and popups in 2017:
Look at all those fly balls to left-center and left field and the very few to right field. Most of his home runs also go to center or the opposite field. The elite power hitters pull the majority of their home runs -- J.D. Martinez is a rare exception -- so if Seager wants to turn into a 30-plus-homer guy, he’ll have to pull more.
Another note: Seager hit just .133/.158/.235 after falling behind in the count 0-2. Of course, all hitters hit worse when down 0-2, but Seager’s numbers were actually worse than the MLB average of .164/.195/.254. Seager is too good to be worse than average in these counts -- and he faced 101 0-2 counts in 2017 (16.5 percent of all his plate appearances).
Staying healthy would be the primary goal, but Harper could also improve against lefties. He hit .311 against them in 2017, but with little power (three home runs in 119 at-bats) and a 36-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio. That ratio was especially discouraging considering he was almost even in his 2015 MVP campaign (32 walks, 34 strikeouts).
The platoon split for all left-handed batters in 2017 was 92 points -- lefties had a .775 OPS versus right-handed pitchers and .683 versus lefties. Harper’s platoon splits have been much larger than that in his career, although that’s in part because he crushes righties:
2015: 174 points of OPS worse versus lefties
2016: 69 points worse
2017: 285 points worse
Stay on the field and hit southpaws better and he could be looking at a second MVP trophy.
Everyone will be happy if Judge can simply match or come close to last year’s prodigious campaign in which he hit .284/.422/.627 and led the American League in FanGraphs WAR -- while playing through a shoulder injury in the second half. He put up those monster numbers while hitting .185 with three home runs in August, numbers perhaps affected by the sore shoulder, although Judge said early in spring training the injury wasn’t an excuse (and September was his best month).
With 209 strikeouts, the obvious area of improvement would be more contact, although, with his long levers, strikeouts will always be part of Judge’s game. He had the fourth-highest swing-and-miss rate among qualified batters last year -- although his chase rate was better than average, which helps explain why he still drew 127 walks. His kryptonite was sliders; he hit .153/.284/.274 against them. In 148 plate appearances that ended with a slider, 61 were strikeouts, and 38 percent of those came when he chased a pitch out of the zone. If he can lay off some of those sliders, maybe the walk rate increases or the batting average goes up. Easy to say, harder to execute.
Cody Bellinger, Los Angeles Dodgers
Bellinger’s swing is designed to do one thing: hit the ball in the air. He is the young prototype of the launch-angle revolution, with a higher fly ball percentage than even Judge. Unlike his teammate Seager, he pulled almost all of his home runs -- only three of his 39 home runs went to left field. He hit lefties nearly as well as righties, especially impressive for a rookie, and while he struggled against off-speed pitches in the postseason, he actually mashed them in the regular season, finishing with a higher slugging percentage against off-speed pitches than he did against fastballs.
In fact, that looks like an area of improvement: doing more damage against fastballs. While he hit .264/.339/.548 against them -- close to his overall line of .267/.352/.581 -- most batters fare better against fastballs. Out of 144 qualified regulars, Bellinger ranked fifth in the majors in wOBA against off-speed pitches (curves, sliders, changeups and splitters), but just 71st against fastballs.
Bryant has finished 11th, first and seventh in the MVP voting in his three seasons. He owns a career line of .288/.388/.527 and posted a .409 OBP in 2017. His strikeout rate has dropped from 30.6 percent as a rookie to 19.3 percent last season. In some fashion, he has become more of a hitter and less of a slugger, although I’ll take the over on the 29 home runs he hit last year.
There’s an obvious area that will make him more valuable, however: his situational hitting. Check his numbers the past two seasons:
Runners in scoring position: .237/.373/.458
Two outs, RISP: .209/.354/.343
Late and close: .181/.344/.347
Two outs, RISP: .230/.347/.410
Late and close: .253/.366/.392
It could be nothing more than a two-year coincidence -- he hit .350 with two outs and runners in scoring position as a rookie, for example, or it could be a real thing -- maybe he’s pressing more than he realizes. If he gets back to 39 bombs and hits better with men on base, he’ll be back in the MVP discussion.