Carlos Correa Is OK With Being the Heel
HOUSTON — It was a small moment, and it was perhaps unnoticed by many watching Game 4 of the American League division series claimed by the disdained Houston Astros over the Chicago White Sox on Tuesday. But it captured exactly what Astros shortstop Carlos Correa has meant to his team.
When Jake Meyers, a rookie center fielder, slammed his left shoulder into the outfield wall while trying to rob Chicago of a second-inning home run and crumpled to the ground in pain, his fellow outfielders raced over to him, as did his manager and an athletic trainer.
Not only did Correa do the same, but he took charge. Meyers, 25, wanted to stay in the game and made a few practice throws, but Correa persuaded him not to.
“I said, ‘Papi, if you’re not able to make a throw to home plate when you need it the most, you should not stay in the game,’” Correa recounted later. Then, referring to the backup outfielder Chas McCormick, he said: “‘You should let Chas take over and trust your teammates. We got this.’”
Correa continued: “He gave his best. He almost caught that ball. He’s a special kid.”
For the Astros, it is Correa who has been special.
When the Astros won the 2017 World Series and fell one win short of another championship in 2019, he was their star shortstop leading the way. When their cheating in their title-winning season came to light in November 2019 and they were punished, he became the clubhouse’s de facto spokesman, delivering the most impassioned apologies and explanations of their actions. When faced with a firestorm of anger and resentment from fans and opposing players that exists to this day, he stepped up as the Astros’ best all-around player and the one most willing to push back publicly — with a hint of cockiness.
It was as if Correa, a professional wrestling fan, had embraced the role of a heel, the antagonist in the ring. To his teammates, he had grown into not only one of the best players in baseball, but also into even more of a leader, guiding them through their self-inflicted mess to their fifth consecutive appearance in the American League Championship Series, which begins Friday night against the Boston Red Sox in Houston.
“It’s just my job to go out there and do what’s best for the team, and that’s giving players the right information, inspire guys whenever they’re down, motivate them to go out there and perform for the team,” Correa said on the field in Chicago after his team toppled the White Sox on Tuesday.
“I feel like it just comes natural,” he continued. “It’s in me. It’s what I like to do. I like to make players better. Whenever somebody comes in this clubhouse, I try my best to give them the right information for them to become a better player.”
Selected out of the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy and High School by the Astros with the first overall pick in the 2012 draft, Correa has been Houston’s everyday shortstop since he was 20 in 2015. Even though he didn’t make his major league debut until June of that season and suffered injuries in later seasons, he is the third-most-valuable shortstop in the major leagues since, according to the FanGraphs wins above replacement statistic, trailing only Francisco Lindor, now of the Mets, and Xander Bogaerts of the Red Sox.
This season, Correa, who turned 27 last month, improved his steady fielding. He led the majors in defensive wins above replacement, according to Baseball Reference. A right-handed batter, he hit .279 with 26 home runs, 92 runs batted in and an .850 on-base plus slugging percentage in a lineup that led the major leagues in scoring and had the lowest strikeout rate.
“I’ve seen him come over here as a 17-year-old kid, a shy kid at that, and really mature into one of the best players in our game,” said Astros pitcher Lance McCullers Jr., who roomed with Correa in the minor leagues.
He continued, “To watch him grow and watch him be as successful as he’s become, the work he’s put in to get to this point, it’s pretty amazing.”
Correa is the vocal captain of a group of Astros — all infielders — who have carried the team through this five-year period of winning. No four teammates in major league history have played more postseason games together (61) than first baseman Yuli Gurriel, second baseman Jose Altuve, third baseman Alex Bregman and Correa.
“The core on each team is very important,” Correa said. “And the core of this team has been spectacular in the playoffs. The front office has done a great job of giving us a great team every single year to be able to compete.”
He added later, “We don’t get tired of these moments, so they’re special, and we perform our best when October comes.”
Gurriel noted how difficult it was in today’s game to keep a foursome together and win. He, Altuve and Bregman have all signed deals to stay with Houston. Correa, though, will be a free agent after the playoffs.
“Hopefully Carlos re-signs here to stay together,” Gurriel said in Spanish. “But it’s always hard, and this is a business, and we have to understand that. The last few years, he’s assumed that role of leadership and he’s done it well.”
Because Correa reached the major leagues so young, he will hit the free-agent market at a prime age for a massive long-term contract. Although he and the Astros owner Jim Crane have said they want the relationship to continue, the largest and longest deals Crane has handed out were contract extensions to Correa’s infield teammates: $151 million over five years to Altuve and $100 million over five years to Bregman.
Given Correa’s 2021 season and age, he is poised to top them and earn the largest deal of the loaded free-agent class of shortstops this winter. And given his October success — his 54 career postseason R.B.I. are tied with Albert Pujols for the most among active players — he is a proven performer.
“Carlos has been one of the greatest big-game players in the history of the Astros and even the history of the game, and I don’t hear him talking about it,” said Dusty Baker, who took over as manager for A.J. Hinch, who was fired by the Astros and suspended by Major League Baseball after its investigation.
In all aspects of the game, Correa has lifted the Astros.
“This guy has intangible leadership qualities that are way beyond his years and he knows how to act,” said Brent Strom, the Astros’ pitching coach. “When I go to the mound and talk to a pitcher, he’s right there with me confirming what I’m talking about, whether it be in English or in Spanish.”
As anger over the franchise’s cheating scandal raged on last season and this year, Correa was the former 2017 Astro most willing to talk frankly about it. (No players were suspended by M.L.B. as they were granted immunity in exchange for testimony.)
He defended Altuve, arguing that his quieter teammate was one of the few who had not used the illicit trash-can-banging system. He claimed that the Astros struggled to use their scheme during the 2017 playoffs and that they earned their championship rings. He shouldered blame for his role in the cheating, but criticized opposing players — such as Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Cody Bellinger in 2020 and White Sox reliever Ryan Tepera this week — who he felt had misplaced some of their condemnations.
“Everyone knows that Carlos isn’t afraid to wear it on the chin for the guys around him,” McCullers said.
When the Astros take the field in Houston on Friday, in a rematch of the 2018 A.L.C.S., which the Red Sox won on the way to a World Series title, Correa will have an admirer from afar.
Alex Cora, the manager of the Red Sox, was the bench coach during the Astros’ infamous 2017 season and led Boston the next season. He lost his Red Sox job and was suspended for the 2020 season for his role in the Astros’ cheating scandal, but he was cleared by M.L.B. of any wrongdoing in a lesser sign-stealing scheme by Boston in 2018. He was rehired by the Red Sox before the 2021 season and stays in touch with Correa.
“He’s become one of the best players in the big leagues, and he’s still young,” said Cora, a fellow Puerto Rican. “He understands what it takes to compete at this level. He understands the other part of the game, too, and the numbers that really matter. You talk to him and it’s actually eye-opening and refreshing the way he sees the game and the way he talks the game. I’m very proud of him. I love that kid.”
Joe Lemire contributed reporting.