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Francisco Lindor: Better Than Correa?

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David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

"The more that I see, the less that I know for sure."--John Lennon

Knowledge sometimes points toward conclusions that seem obvious, and the conclusions, once disseminated, become conventional wisdom. When the truth of an idea reaches this sort of consensus, that truth becomes ripe for reevaluation, and the challenge itself often produces unexpected insights.

For instance, among AL shortstops entering 2016, is it possible to argue that Francisco Lindor is a better fantasy player than Carlos Correa?

According to fantasypros.com, Correa's average draft position across three different sites is 7th overall, while Lindor's is 77th. This reflects a strong consensus in favor of Correa. My question, purposefully bold, is not whether the ADP gap between Correa and Lindor is too wide but whether there ought to be a gap at all.

The Case for Correa

In 2012, Houston made Correa the MLB draft's #1 overall pick, and the young shortstop has more than justified the selection. "If all goes well," a Baseball America writer predicted later that year, "he could reach Houston as early as 2015." Suffice it to say that all has gone well. Correa excelled in 2013, when he made his full-season debut as an eighteen-year-old with the Low-A Midwest League's Quad Cities River Bandits, and was tearing up the California League when a broken fibula ended his 2014 season after 62 games. A scorching start to 2015 put Correa on the fast track through Double-A (29 games) and Triple-A (24 games), earning him a promotion to the Majors on June 8. Ninety-nine games, 22 HR, 14 SB, a .279 average, some eye-popping plays, and a postseason appearance later, Correa appears entrenched as an elite player and first-round fantasy pick for the foreseeable future. In fact, at 6'4"-210 lb., blessed with all the physical tools necessary to remain at shortstop, and penciled in as the #3 hitter in an impressive Astros' lineup, Correa would surprise no one if he were to challenge for AL MVP honors as soon as 2016.

Unlike the imposing Correa, Cleveland's Lindor stands a mere 5'11" and weighs 190 lbs. Nearly a year older than Correa--and five inches shorter--Lindor's projectability is comparatively limited. Selected 8th overall in 2011, Lindor took a bit longer to reach the Majors, making his debut for the Indians on June 14, 2015, six days after Correa. By stroke of serendipity--at least for this article's purposes--Lindor also appeared in 99 games, finishing with an impressive .313 average, 12 HR, and 12 SB. Not only did those counting numbers fall short of Correa's, but the power numbers in particular exceeded expectations based on Lindor's offensive profile and minor-league performance (21 HR in 416 career games). This, along with a .348 BABIP, helps explain why many forecasters, including Ryan Boyer at Rotoworld and Matt R. Lyons at SB Nation's Let's Go Tribe, view Lindor as overvalued in fantasy drafts and even predict some regression in 2016.

The Case for Lindor

Profile, projectability, and performance aside, there remains a case for Lindor as at least Correa's equal, now and in the future. Consider Lindor's .348 BABIP (for newbies: batting average on non-home-run balls put into play), everyone's new favorite indicator, which Boyer, Lyons, and no doubt others have used as an argument for Lindor's likely regression, with Lyons going so far as to call Lindor's BABIP "ridiculous." Consider also that in 2015 Correa posted a .296 BABIP--annual league average hovers around .300--and my contrived comparison of the two young shortstops surely must come to an end, for there is no way Lindor can sustain his high BABIP, while Correa's is about to skyrocket, right?

Well, perhaps not. Depending on a hitter's overall talent--how hard he hits the ball, how fast he is, how well controls the strike zone, etc.--a .348 BABIP is not, in and of itself, a sign of impending regression. Elite players who hit the ball very hard (Miguel Cabrera: .356, .346, .384 BABIP in 2013, ‘14, and ‘15, respectively) tend to sustain a high BABIP. So do players who hit the ball hard and run pretty well (Paul Goldschmidt: .343, .368, .382). Even players who hit the ball hard and run exceptionally well but at times show poor pitch selectivity (Starling Marte: .363, .373, .333) can hover well above average. That's because these skills and traits have nothing to do with luck, which BABIP in part is designed to measure.

In 2015, Lindor hit the ball at least as hard as Correa did, ran as well, and showed slightly superior plate discipline. According to baseballsavant.com, a greater percentage of the pitches Lindor saw turned into batted balls with an exit velocity of 97 MPH or higher. As expected, Correa hit a few more scorchers of 100+ MPH, but the overall percentages favor Lindor, which is counter-intuitive considering Correa's power profile. Correa's 14 SB were more helpful to fantasy owners than Lindor's 12, but Lindor also put down 20 bunts compared to Correa's 0, which cost Lindor some otherwise-aggressive and potentially-productive (for fantasy purposes) plate appearances. Their minor-league numbers suggest that Lindor should develop into a consistent threat for 25-30 SB, while Correa, assuming he grows into his 6'4" frame, could lose some of his speed. Finally, last season Correa took a whopping 104 more called strikes than did Lindor. This number might partially be attributable to the presence atop Houston's lineup of speedsters Jose Altuve and George Springer, whose potential to steal bases forced Correa to take a few pitches, but that lineup arrangement will not change in 2016, so it will continue to put Correa behind in counts.

All of this is meant to suggest not that Correa will struggle in 2016 but that Lindor's inability to sustain a .348 BABIP is by no means a given. We do not yet know what kind of hitter Lindor will be (or Correa, for that matter), but Lindor does appear to possess the skill set of a player who could settle into the .330s or .340s in BABIP without much luck required.

Finally, if there's a candidate for regression--or what used to be called a "sophomore slump"--who's to say it's not Correa rather than Lindor? One important factor in a player's development is seasoning. How do you give a player all the time he needs in the minors without keeping him there too long? For GMs and player-development directors, there's no easy answer; like most questions of consequence, it's a matter of judgment. We do know, however, that Lindor received 812 combined at-bats between Double-A and Triple-A, whereas Correa, the fast-moving phenom, received only 215 such at-bats. Lindor, in other words, received a full season's worth of additional experience in the high minors. Correa, it now seems, will have to work out his inevitable struggles at the Major-League level. This fact alone does not condemn Correa to mediocrity, neither should it be dismissed.

Conclusion

Having made the obvious case for Correa and a less obvious one for Lindor, I'm afraid I still must cast my lot with the majority: Correa's power-speed combo and overall potential are simply too magnificent to ignore. He is a better fantasy player than Lindor and likely will remain so.

Nonetheless, while BABIP-focused analysis and speculations about the effect of minor-league seasoning are not enough to elevate Lindor at Correa's expense, I do hope the comparison has been a useful one for fantasy owners who otherwise might assume that a) Correa's first-round worthiness in 2016 is well established and beyond question, or b) Lindor's numbers are due for a correction. Neither, I would argue, is true, which means Lindor, while still the lesser fantasy player in absolute terms, could provide more relative value--something we all crave during draft season.