Picking the Twins' first-half MVP: Carlos Correa, Willi Castro and two healthy feet

At times last year it was tough just to watch Carlos Correa as he struggled through plantar fasciitis in his left foot for six months. He called it the most painful injury of his career and described each step as registering between discomfort and agony, yet Correa was determined to stay in the Minnesota Twins’ lineup until they had the division title wrapped up.

Correa played a team-high 135 of the first 151 games before sitting out the last two weeks to rest for the playoffs, but the injury had a clear effect on his performance. He grounded into an MLB-high 30 double plays and he posted the lowest full-season marks of his career in batting average (.230), on-base percentage (.312) and slugging percentage (.399).

Despite the frustrating nature of his 2023 season, Correa and Twins officials repeatedly expressed optimism the injury would naturally get better on its own from a whole offseason of rest, without requiring surgery. Sure enough, Correa declared himself fully healthy upon arriving at spring training and it was immediately apparent he was feeling like his pre-injury self again.

Correa started the season strong, hitting .306/.432/.444 through 11 games, but then missed two weeks with a core-muscle strain and initially slumped upon returning in late April, batting .229/.282/.415 over a month-plus span. And then Correa caught fire like few Twins hitters ever have before, putting together one of the hottest extended stretches in team history.

Beginning on June 6 and continuing through this weekend’s series, Correa has hit .425 with five homers and a 1.129 OPS over his last 22 games, raising his batting average from .247 to .311, third-highest in the American League. He has MLB’s highest batting average in that time, and only Aaron Judge, Bryce Harper, Shohei Ohtani, CJ Abrams and Gunnar Henderson have a higher OPS.

“I’m playing on two feet this year,” Correa said. “Last year, I played on one foot. I feel a lot better. I’m moving a lot better.”

Correa was named team MVP in 2022, his first year in Minnesota, and his numbers this season are better across the board. In fact, Correa’s numbers through half (or 51.9 percent, to be exact) of this season are in line with the best year of his career for the World Series-winning Houston Astros in 2017, when he hit .315/.391/.550 in 109 games as a 22-year-old first-time All-Star.

At first glance, this year’s .311/.380/.502 line falls well short of that, but this season’s MLB-wide OPS is just .704, compared to .750 in 2017. It’s tougher to hit now than it was then, so raw stats don’t tell the full story. Correa posted a 155 OPS+ in 2017, out-hitting the league by 191 points of OPS. He has a 150 OPS+ this season, out-hitting the league by 178 points of OPS. He’s raking.

Two of Correa’s three best OPS+ seasons have come in a Twins uniform:

Prior to Correa’s arrival, no Twins shortstop had ever managed a 125 OPS+ in a season and only Roy Smalley (122 OPS+ in 1978), Jorge Polanco (121 in 2019) and Zoilo Versalles (115 in 1965) had cracked 115. Correa immediately took over the top spot with a 138 OPS+ in 2022 and now he’s blowing that out of the water with a 150 OPS+ this season while also grading well defensively.

Despite missing a little April action with an injury, Correa leads the Twins and ranks 11th in the AL with 3.1 wins above replacement in 65 games, a 7.0 WAR pace if he stays healthy for the rest of the season. Correa’s career-high is 7.2 WAR in 2021 for Houston, the year before he came to Minnesota, and Joe Mauer (7.8 WAR in 2009) is the last Twins hitter to reach 7.0 WAR.

Correa has also taken his game to another level in clutch spots, hitting .310 with runners in scoring position and .365 in high-leverage situations to lead the Twins and rank 13th among AL hitters with 1.45 Win Probability Added, a measure of the impact each plate appearance has on a team’s chances of winning and losing. Oh, and he’s grounded into just three double plays.

It turns out, Correa with two functioning feet is really good. He’s been the Twins’ first-half MVP.

Runner-up: Willi Castro

Signed to a non-guaranteed minor-league contract by the Twins two weeks before they re-signed Correa to a $200 million deal, Willi Castro has become a similarly productive, essential piece of the everyday lineup by combining outstanding offensive production from both sides of the plate with close to limitless defensive flexibility.

Castro has become the epitome of a super-utility player, appearing in all 84 games this season despite not having a so-called “set” position and leading the Twins with 333 plate appearances. Castro ranks second on the Twins to Correa in WAR and WPA, and the value of his fielding versatility isn’t fully captured by all-in-one metrics.

Castro took over as the starting third baseman after Royce Lewis got hurt on Opening Day, slid to shortstop when Correa was sidelined in mid-April, moved out to center field when Byron Buxton was injured in May and spent June as the main second baseman following Edouard Julien’s demotion to the minors. He’s also been a semi-regular in left field, with 19 starts there.

In just half a season, Castro has played at least 20 games, and made at least 10 starts, at five different positions. That ability to consistently step up as a productive fill-in starter, wherever and whenever needed, has been hugely valuable to the lineup, and his gift for seamlessly making in-game position switches opens up all sorts of strategic possibilities.

“When you have Willi Castro, you can do pretty much anything you want,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “Because of his defensive ability.”

At no point in MLB history has defensive flexibility been more valued and sought after, but Castro’s offensive ability is what truly sets him apart from his super-utility counterparts. He’s batted .276/.357/.452 and leads the team with 33 extra-base hits, 10 steals and 51 runs scored, posting a 130 OPS+ to rank 17th among qualified AL hitters.

It takes a lot of time and energy to stay ready to play nearly any position on the field at any time, and the switch-hitting Castro has an extra challenge of keeping two swings calibrated. Before games, he can be found taking infield practice, outfield practice and a double dose of batting practice, and during games he can be found putting every bit of that talent and versatility to use.

Correa is a $200 million superstar on track for one of the best seasons of his career, so it’s a testament to how far Castro has come since being cut by the Detroit Tigers, and how indispensable he’s made himself in Minnesota, that he has a legit case for the Twins’ first-half MVP. Not bad for a minor-league signing who wasn’t even supposed to make the team two springs ago.

(Photo: Carlos Correa and Willi Castro: Alika Jenner / Getty Images)

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