When the Twins signed free agent starter Kevin Correia to a 2 year, $10 million contract this year there were two distinct reactions from fans - you either got "who?" or "oh please god no tell me you're kidding what why?" I was in the second group. Correia had been a distinctly pedestrian pitcher for the Pirates and Padres, rolling up a grand total of 0.3 wins above a replacement level player in the last three years. After kicking around three organizations going back to 2003 and only once having what might be called a "quality" year, the $10 million seemed to be a bit of a ridiculous outlay for another Nick Blackburn.
That's basically what Correia was, an NL version of Correia. He doesn't strike people out (less than 5 K/9 each of the last two years), doesn't walk anybody (less than 2.5 BB/9 last two years), throws his fastball right around 90mph, and relies on groundballs to get outs. Basically your best case scenario was probably 180 innings with an ERA around the mid 4s - certainly not worth $10 million. However Correia has pitched very well this year, going 7+ innings while giving up 3 or fewer runs in all three of his starts, giving him 3 quality starts and a very nice 2.95 ERA. So that begs the question, is this luck (same old guy just a hot streak) or is this a brand new Correia? By the way I honestly don't know, but I suspect it's luck. Let's find out.
First, let's check out the quickest way to see if he's getting lucky: BABIP (and I will include links to all the nerd stats, although you should at least be somewhat familiar with most of them by now it's the 21st century grandpa). This year Correia is at .292 vs. his career number of .294. This is good news for Correia. Perhaps he is a better pitcher this year. Next up, Fielding Independent Pitching (both versions). This is not as good news. Correia's ERA (2.95) is significantly better than his FIP (3.92) and xFIP (4.20), which are both more in line with his career numbers. This suggests that so far this year Correia is pitching very similarly to how he always has, but something is affecting how many runs have actually crossed the plate.
Looking a little deeper two things immediately stand out: his LOB% and his HR/FB. LOB% simply means how many runners reach base against him and then fail to score. Generally this number will be higher for strikeout pitchers which Correia most assuredly is not, yet so far this year 81.9% of his baserunners have failed to score, which rates as excellent and would have been the second best of any starter last season. Comparing that to his career mark of 71%, which is slightly below average, and clearly something is happening here.
Similarly, his HR/FB (simply what % of fly balls he allows end up as home runs) is a very solid 8.7% this year, which is above average. Once again, when we compare that to his career mark of 10.7% we see a pretty drastic difference. One point you'd like to make here if you were defending Correia would be that Target Field is a tough park to hit home runs at so it wouldn't be out of line to see a low number here and you're right - From 2010-2012 Target Field saw 86 home runs hit the same number of at-bats it would take an average park to see 100. However in that same time frame Correia pitched at two extreme pitchers parks - PNC in Pittsburgh (74 HR) and Petco in San Diego (78 HR) - so, much like the Karate Kid in My Cousin Vinny, your case doesn't hold water.
Basically Correia is getting zero swings and misses which is resulting in the fewest strikeouts in his career (a laughable 3.4 per 9 right now) and more base runners. So far he's done a great job "scattering" his hits and avoiding the long ball and that's accounting for the low ERA and quality outings thus far. It's up to you if you believe that is something he can sustain despite being so much better than his career numbers, particularly when there's nothing here to suggest he's pitching any better than usual and might even be pitching a little bit worse. Personally? I'm thinking we're going to see some hard regression to the mean, and it's going to be ugly.
Get used to this, bromigos
Adding this because I find it fascinating, but Starlin Castro has yet to walk this year in 54 at-bats (prior to tonight where he still didn't walk). Turns out he's tied with Torii Hunter with those 54 ABs for most at-bats this year without a walk. In fourth place with 42 ABs is your guy Carlos Gomez. The most interesting thing looking at this list of guys without a walk is that they all suck. Seriously other than Castro and Hunter it's a bunch of crap like Daniel Descalso, Chris Getz, and Brent Lillibridge. I don't know if you can see this without a subscription but just look at - seriously look, it's terrible. Know the worst part? Ron Gardenhire would KILL to have most of these guys on his team. Don't deny it.