Going Deep: Kyle Seager Has Gotten Away From What He’s Good At
Last year, Kyle Seager wasn’t very good. That should come as a surprise, as Seager has ranked 17th in WAR since becoming the Seattle Mariners‘ starting third baseman in 2012. Now, two years ago he wasn’t great, but he certainly wasn’t bad. This past year, though, was pretty dreadful. Normally, I take great pleasure in writing about players undergoing radical, beneficial changes that have helped them develop as players. This…is not one of those articles, unfortunately, and it is actually the opposite. There are quite a few layers to peel back here.
On June 27th, the Mariners reported that Seager was dealing with a minor toe issue. Manager Scott Servais said it was not a “DL situation” and that Seager could pinch-hit immediately if needed.
What Seager was dealing with was decidedly not a minor issue. Per the Seattle Times:
X-rays revealed an avulsion fracture in his toe, where a tendon or ligament pulled off a piece of the bone.
Seager didn’t miss a game.
In the aforementioned article, Seager very reluctantly divulges details of his struggles in 2018. It helps to contextualize both how bad his injury was and what kind of adjustments were forced upon him to stop his year from being a complete trainwreck. Seager claims that the shift doesn’t bother him nowadays—he hits the ball how and where he wants to, regardless of defensive positioning. One remark was telling, though:
“I was trying to hit the ball over there (left field) more than I had in years past,” he said. “In years past, I was trying to drive balls and let them go where they go. This year I was more trying to place balls the other way at times.”
Without a doubt, injuries have had a hand in Seager’s struggles. Because Seager is the type of player to play through injuries and not be vocal about them, it’s generally difficult to know how much they affect him. That tendency also raises questions about how much a role his hampered hip played in his 2017 struggles.
Since we know Seager’s injury occurred on June 27th, we can track how he was doing up to that point and compare it to his performance in previous years. This is where I will begin to bombard you with an abundance of bulleted lists.
Through June 27th, by year:
- 2014: 137 wRC+
- 2015: 108 wRC+
- 2016: 125 wRC+
- 2017: 91 wRC+
- 2018: 91 wRC+
There are multiple tidbits here. First, there appears to be legitimate regression taking place: Seager is depreciating as a hitter. Now, it’s hard to say with certainty that the trend will continue—as I previously mentioned, he has had some pesky injuries over the past few years that could have affected his performance. Secondly, Seager posted a 91 wRC+ to this point in 2017 and 2018, which is pretty damning evidence that his broken toe did, in fact, hamper him substantially. With that, I feel comfortable saying Seager is more of the 107 wRC+ hitter he was in 2017 than the 84 wRC+ hitter he was in 2018. In hindsight, this seems obvious, right? His K% was way up, his BB% and ISO were down, and he looked uncomfortable at the plate.
But it’s not all injury. As you know, a few of the newest fads in baseball include the fly ball revolution and the shift. Some players have been helped by the former, and some have been hurt. As for the latter, players have mostly been hurt: Seager without a doubt falls into this category.
First off: the obvious. Seager’s shift percentage has increased considerably in the past few years:
- 2016: 47.1% (45th)
- 2017: 54.8% (27th)
- 2018: 70.9% (19th)
Before, Seager saw the shift about half the time. More recently, he sees it almost two-thirds of the time, and that number is only going to rise.
Now, just because teams are shifting Seager more doesn’t mean that they should be. Russell Carleton of Baseball Prospectus has argued that, across the league, the shift has done more harm than good. This is because teams are not judicious in their usage of it: They shift against players they should not, and they don’t shift against players they should.
Fortunately, there’s a simple way to determine whether or not it is worthwhile to put the shift on. Per Russell Carleton:
The defensive team needs to believe that a hitter will pull his grounders about three times as often as he will go oppo with them in order for The Shift to break even.
Fair enough. So for the defensive shift to be worth employing, a player needs to pull grounders about three and a half times as often as he hits them the other way.
Seager’s pull-to-oppo ratio on grounders:
- 2015: 4.4
- 2016: 5.0
- 2017: 5.8
- 2018: 10.1
Seager was an excellent candidate for the shift in 2015, but he has only become more vulnerable to it since then. Seager’s ISO has been relatively stable since 2014—even in these past two down years. To me, that stat means Seager’s production is lacking singles. From 2012 to 2016, Seager averaged around 100 singles annually. In 2017 his singles dipped to 83 and they fell even further to 70 in the 2018 season. Surely this must be the devious work of the shift.
On grounders to right field:
- 2014: -19 wRC+
- 2015: -39 wRC+
- 2016: 18 wRC+
- 2017: -19 wRC+
- 2018: -36 wRC+
On all batted balls to right field:
- 2014: 213 wRC+
- 2015: 177 wRC+
- 2016: 228 wRC+
- 2017: 194 wRC+
- 2018: 207 wRC+
It seems that the shift hasn’t actually done what it’s supposed to do. Instead, it caused Seager to change his approach. He’s specifically talked about hitting the ball the other way more, as recently as this previous offseason, even though he’s become more pull-heavy with balls batted on the ground.
Before the Mariners changed the dimensions of Safeco Field, players—on both the Mariners and visiting teams—complained that hitting, especially to the left-center power alley, felt impossible. For Seager and other left-handed pull hitters, the same psychological effects are changing their approach as hitters.
As a result of this change in approach, Seager has seen losses in production. Some are more subtle, like on batted balls to the opposite field:
- 2015: 54 wRC+
- 2016: 60 wRC+
- 2017: 49 wRC+
- 2018: 33 wRC+
But others have been pretty clear-cut. On batted balls to the middle of the field:
- 2015: 133 wRC+
- 2016: 154 wRC+
- 2017: 106 wRC+
- 2018: 61 wRC+
Yikes! There’s our smoking gun.
Overall, it’s evident that the shift has taken away some singles, but more than anything it has changed the success Seager has had hitting when he’s not pulling the ball.
In 2017, Seager attempted to lift the ball more than he ever has before. His fly ball rate jumped from his career average of 29.8% to 35.7% and his average launch angle leaped from his career average of 17.8 degrees to 20.2 degrees. Seager’s fly ball experiment was a disaster of sorts. It’s not that he wasn’t lifting the ball more, it’s that he was lifting it the other way. On fly balls, Seager’s pull percentage dropped to 20.7% in 2017 after posting rates of 25.9%, 28.5%, and 28.3% in the previous three years. In 2018, he posted a 22.2%, still down from his norm.
That’s bad! Seager has made a career out of hitting balls over the right field fence: He has 134 career homers towards right field and just 35 career homers towards left and center field combined. Over his career, his wRC+ to his pull-side is 209, 105 up the middle, and 57 going opposite field. For reference, former teammate Robinson Cano has a 151 wRC+ to his pull-side, 144 up the middle, and 144 going the opposite way. Seager was not, is not, and never will be an all-fields hitter.
To Seager’s credit, he still has value if and when the bat deteriorates. Although DRS and UZR refuse to agree with each other on how competent Seager is in the hot corner, he ranks ninth in both UZR and DRS since 2015. That props up his value and ensures that he won’t become a complete albatross, regardless of what happens with his bat. In addition, he has played in at least 154 games each season since 2012 and he’s a veteran leader in the clubhouse, if that’s your thing.
To some degree, Seager is at the mercy of the shift. He’s going to lose a few singles as a result of it and there’s no way around that. Seager would be hard-pressed to return to his 2016 form, but it isn’t out of the question for him to get back to being an above-average hitter. In fact, that production is what I tentatively anticipate for him. Seager is already working proactively to keep his body healthier, but what is of equal importance is that he isn’t changing his approach at the plate because of the shift. It’s easier said than done, but he would be best served leaning into what is familiar for him: squaring the ball up hard to his pull-side. Kyle Seager could turn his career around with that One Weird Trick.
(Photo by Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sportswire)