The 2017 World Series is a showcase of two of baseball’s most talented teams and several of its most compelling players, headlined by a litany of narratively rich individual matchups. There’s the power pitching of best-of-their-era starters Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander; the finesse southpaw stylings of late-blooming aces Rich Hill and Dallas Keuchel; the unorthodox dominance of once-underrated superstars Justin Turner and José Altuve; the potential last bows of future divisive Cooperstown candidates Chase Utley and Carlos Beltrán; and the all-around excellence of precocious franchise shortstops Corey Seager and Carlos Correa. Throw in the presence of two of the sport’s most GIF-able international icons (Yasiel Puig, Yu Darvish), supporting roles for lesser stars who could command the spotlight in a more mundane series (George Springer, Alex Bregman, Cody Bellinger), and two decades-long title droughts, and this year’s Fall Classic includes all the elements of the most marquee matchup imaginable.
The only problem is that the structure of baseball doesn’t lend itself to hyping up individual matchups, especially compared to sports with more fluid on-field play and one-on-one action that goes beyond the batter and pitcher. Verlander and Kershaw, and Keuchel and Hill, aren’t pitching opposite each other; even if they were, their actual faceoffs at the plate would be the least entertaining parts of their starts. Less scintillating still, the closest encounters between rival position players feature one hitting a ball that the opposing player fields (or tries to). Although Seager and Correa traded clutch hits in Game 2, with Seager hitting a two-run homer and Correa singling in a run and then launching a homer of his own in extra innings, the series’ most exciting seconds of those two testing each other may have come in Game 1, when the former singled over the latter’s ineffectual leap.
But even if baseball can’t deliver the true LeBron-guarding-Durant adrenaline we crave, we can still manufacture it artificially. Enter the latest installment of our continuing feature “Who Ya Got?,” or, as I once dubbed it, “the series where we perversely insist on making impossible choices between two superstars instead of simply celebrating the fact that they both exist.”
Two years ago, I welcomed Manny Machado and Nolan Arenado into the “Who Ya Got” arena for what I thought might be an unresolvable debate about the best active third baseman. Since that piece was published, the two have battled to a draw, with Arenado insignificantly WARing Machado, 13.0 to 12.6. If anything, though, today’s battle between foundational shortstops is an even closer call: Correa vs. Seager.
Why This Argument Is Impossible
Correa and Seager are both former first-round picks from the 2012 draft (although Correa went first overall and Seager fell all the way to 18th). They’re both former no. 1 prospects and former Rookies of the Year. They’re both 23 years old, they’re both in their third MLB seasons, they’re both 6-foot-4, and they’re both shortstops.
The similarity of their stats mirrors the similarity of their biographical breakdowns. Each of them is, statistically, the other’s closest comp. Baseball-Reference publishes career-level player similarity scores, based on batting stats and defensive position. Correa’s most similar player? Seager. Seager’s most similar player? Correa. Whichever we pick, we’re splitting hairs here. But split them we must.
Who’s Been the Better Hitter to Date?
It’s too close to call. In 361 games and 1,573 regular-season plate appearances, Correa has generated a .288/.366/.498 slash line—35 percent better than a league-average hitter, after adjustments for park and league. In 32 fewer games and 160 fewer plate appearances, Seager has posted a .305/.374/.503 line—also exactly 35 percent better than a league-average hitter, with the same adjustments applied. They haven’t even arrived at identical offensive value in dramatically different ways; Correa walks slightly more often, and Seager has a higher average when he puts the ball in play, but both have been high-average hitters with above-average patience and power. On a list of average exit velocity of the 300 hitters with at least 500 balls in play from 2015–17, Correa (no. 30, at 90.5 mph) and Seager (no. 35, at 90.4) are nearly next to each other.
On the bases, it’s almost the same story. Correa, who’s slightly faster (with a sprint speed edge of half a foot per second) was more of a base stealer in his first two seasons, but he all but stopped going in 2017, attempting only three steals (half as many as Seager). Correa has accumulated more career base-stealing value, but Seager has been better at advancing in other ways. Overall, it’s a wash: Correa, in slightly more playing time, has racked up 7.7 baserunning runs, via FanGraphs; Seager, 7.2.
Who’s Been the Better Defender to Date?
Defense seems to be a possible separator between two otherwise neck-and-neck players.
As you can glean from the lack of agreement between columns in the table above, though, zone-based defensive stats aren’t as dependable as offensive stats (and publicly available Statcast metrics are agnostic on infielders). Defensive runs saved, ultimate zone rating, and Baseball Prospectus’s Fielding Runs Above Average disagree about whether Correa and Seager are good or bad relative to other shortstops, but they do agree that Seager is good relative to Correa, despite the speed edge that Correa has shown on the bases. On the other hand, fielding stats from Inside Edge—the ones in the right-most columns that display the percentage of plays each infielder has completed in each makeability bucket—give Correa an edge in every category.
There’s considerable uncertainty here, and the fact that Correa plays for the shift-happy Astros only further fuzzes the picture, but the bulk of the statistical evidence points toward Seager being the more effective fielder.
Smooooooth. #EarnHistory pic.twitter.com/4iRqOSyMhg— Houston Astros (@astros) October 21, 2017
Who’s Been Better (and Made the Most Progress) in 2017?
If the defense section favored Seager, Correa can pull even again (or go ahead) here. Physically, neither player made it through the season unscathed. Seager, who missed much of spring training with an oblique strain, also played through nagging elbow and ankle injuries in August and September before sustaining the back injury that sidelined him during the NLCS. Correa, meanwhile, missed a month and a half after mid-July surgery for a torn ligament in his left thumb, which he originally injured on a slide into home and then aggravated while swinging.
Because Correa missed more time than Seager, his overall value may look lower according to some systems, but under the hood, he made greater strides. Not only did he top his 2016 extra-base output, adding 58 points of isolated power and hitting four more home runs in 44 fewer games, but he did it while lowering his strikeout rate, improving his plate discipline, and making more use of the whole field. Correa’s pull rate sank from 39 percent in 2016 to 30.5 percent in 2017, and his chase rate fell from 33.1 percent to 26.8 percent—the third- and fourth-largest decreases among players who made at least 450 trips to the plate in both years.
After a slow start to the season, Correa hit .336/.411/.601 over the rest of the year, good for a 170 wRC+. Nor is that type of performance necessarily unsustainable, in light of his underlying gains and the offensive excellence that was also foreseen for him. “I think Correa is the kind of player who produces 170 wRC+ every year at his peak,” one scout told me on Wednesday, without any mention of that figure from me.
Seager, meanwhile, made much more modest strides, although there’s no telling how much his day-to-day ailments held him back. Both players hit the ball hard more often than they had the previous year, with improved ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratios, but Correa took the far larger leap, while drawing a much more difficult group of opposing pitchers.
Who’s the Statistical Projections’ Pick?
ESPN analyst Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS system projects the rest-of-career WAR for every player in baseball, based largely on each player’s performance record and age. Although Correa’s and Seager’s birthdays are only about five months apart (Correa is younger) and the two have next to no WAR gap to date, ZiPS does foresee a sizable separation in the future, projecting Correa for 72.2 rest-of-career WAR and Seager for 58.5. Either of those figures would be big enough to put these two players in the Hall of Fame, given what they’ve already accomplished, and only a few active players’ projections can compare. Correa’s rest-of-career projection ranks second, and Seager’s ranks fifth, with only Francisco Lindor (who would have been just as qualified as Correa for a “Who Ya Got?” with Seager if the Indians had won the pennant) and Machado between them.
(The first-place projection, of course, goes to Mike Trout, who has a projected 16-WAR edge on Correa despite being three years older. ZiPS considers Trout such a safe bet that he might have the most projected future value of any MLB player until he’s well into his late 20s.)
Huge homer. AMAZING reactions.— MLB (@MLB) October 26, 2017
There’s nothing like the #WorldSeries. pic.twitter.com/hJsla6b9jx
Who’s the Scouts’ Pick?
I surveyed several scouts from different major league teams (other than the Astros and Dodgers) via text or email this week to ask them the “Who Ya Got?” question. Only one of seven respondents picked Seager, calling him slightly more well-rounded thanks to his superiority in the field. The rest chose Correa, although they all expressed that the difference is slim.
Even some of the scouts in the Correa camp held conflicting options. Although four of them asserted that Correa has the higher offensive upside, particularly in the power department, an NL scout expressed a slight preference for Seager at the plate, mostly because his left-handedness gives him the platoon advantage more often. That scout concluded that “Correa’s body is slightly better and should maintain his athleticism longer” and also gave a “slight edge to Correa in makeup/intangibles,” noting that “both are baseball rats and great clubhouse guys, but Correa has a special leadership quality in him that you just don’t see very often.”
A second scout, thinking along similar lines, chose Seager’s on-field value, thanks to his defense and left-sided swing, but still opted for Correa overall because of his bilingual abilities and reputation for forging bonds between teammates across linguistic lines. And another NL scout said he picked Correa not because he prefers Correa’s performance profile, but because he’s concerned that Seager’s back problems could recur. When the performance gaps are this small, the “doesn’t show up in the box score” stuff can easily swing the decision. “It’s kind of crazy to me how many similarities there are between these guys,” one scout said. And an AL scout (who expressed surprise that defensive stats don’t give Correa higher marks than Seager) concluded, “This is a bit like asking ‘Nomar or Jeter?,’ really, and that was settled only by injuries after years of head-to-head.”
Only one of the scouts seemed worried about either player (in this case, Correa) having to switch positions anytime soon, a caveat that accompanied both shortstops on their trips through the minors thanks to their size and non-elite speed. As another NL scout said, “We thought both those guys would slide over to third, and both have proved the ability to stick at short for different reasons. Correa can throw himself out of trouble, and Seager has an advanced feel for the position.”
So, Who Ya Got?
There’s no reason to think that Correa and Seager won’t be two of the top five players in baseball for the next decade or more, or that this debate will be settled anytime soon. Even ZiPs, which prefers Correa to anyone other than Trout, thinks that the difference between Correa and Seager is somewhere in the neighborhood of one win a year, slim enough that Seager would still have his supporters in future “Who Ya Got?” discussions even if the projections are spot on.
In this case, though, the stats and scouts are on the same page, and it happens to be a page on which I was already writing. At the All-Star break—following two and a half months of torrid production by Correa—I predicted that he would be MLB’s most valuable non-Trout player in the second half of the season. His injury days later derailed that call, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him pick up next spring where he left off in July.
Seager’s current gear is great, but he may not have another. At his best (and his healthiest), Correa seems almost certain to surpass Seager, possibly as soon as next year. For the week of the World Series, though, neutral fans needn’t choose sides. Luckily for us, baseball’s got both.