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Kyle Seager overadjusted

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In his worst offensive season since his rookie year, Kyle Seager exhibited some worrying trends.

Houston Astros v Seattle Mariners Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

Since his debut in 2011, Kyle Seager has improved his play consistently, year-over-year. First, it was a focus on his defense, culminating in a Gold Glove award in 2014. Then, it was reaching 30 home runs and posting a career high walk rate in 2016. You’d be forgiven if you expected even greater things from Seager in 2017. Instead he came crashing down, posting his worst wRC+ and fWAR total since his rookie year.

Since 2012, his first full year in the majors, Seager has posted 25.9 fWAR, the fourth highest mark for a third baseman and 14th highest among all position players. His 3.5 fWAR this season basically matched what he did in 2012, when he was a 24-year-old. By fWAR, he was the eighth most valuable third baseman in the majors in 2017. To an outside observer, the year Kyle Seager had in 2017 would be considered a very successful year in the majors. But to a Mariners fan, it was a big disappointment.

Discerning what went wrong for Seager isn’t difficult. Let me present to you a table containing his batted ball profile since 2012.

Kyle Seager Batted Ball Profile

Year GB% LD% FB%
Year GB% LD% FB%
2012 35.9% 21.9% 42.3%
2013 34.3% 20.8% 45.0%
2014 36.7% 22.2% 41.1%
2015 35.2% 24.0% 40.8%
2016 36.1% 21.9% 42.0%
2017 31.3% 17.1% 51.6%

For five seasons, Kyle Seager’s batted ball distribution was a model of consistency. Each of those batted ball buckets fluctuated by a couple of percentage points each year—until this season. His fly ball rate exploded. It was the second highest fly ball rate among all qualified batters. Seager’s batted ball distribution closely resembled Joey Gallo’s. Joey Gallo is built to take advantage of an extreme fly ball rate. He hit 30% of his fly balls out of the park. Kyle Seager is not built like Joey Gallo. Seager hit just 11.2% of his fly balls out of the park. A majority of the rest found leather, leading to a career low BABIP.

It’s easy to say that Seager should have hit fewer fly balls and more line drives. A readjustment to his previous norms seems like a simple solution. But with Statcast, we can dig a little deeper into what really went wrong. Based on quality of contact—exit velocity and launch angle—we can calculate an expected wOBA (xwOBA) for each batted ball event. Here’s a table with a selection of metrics from Statcast over the last three years.

Kyle Seager Statcast Profile

Year Avg Exit Velocity Avg Launch Angle xwOBA (CON) wOBA (CON)
Year Avg Exit Velocity Avg Launch Angle xwOBA (CON) wOBA (CON)
2015 88.9 16.4 0.384 0.361
2016 90.1 16.5 0.421 0.401
2017 87.8 20.3 0.375 0.362
xwOBA and wOBA figures reflect batted ball events on contact, including home runs, and do not include walks, strikeouts, or other non-contact events.

As you’d expect, Seager’s average launch angle increased by almost four degrees in 2017. That higher launch angle was paired with a drop in average exit velocity. That’s not a great combination and it’s borne out in his expected wOBA. Since each batted ball event has an expected wOBA, we can single out individual balls in play that should have been productive but weren’t. To illustrate my point, I’ll present three fly outs with the highest expected wOBA.

1. May 28 at BOS

Exit Velocity: 103.9 mph
Launch Angle: 31.7 degrees
Estimated Distance: 399 feet
Expected wOBA: 1.538
Hit Probability: 79%

2. September 17 at HOU

Exit Velocity: 99.5 mph
Launch Angle: 27.5 degrees
Estimated Distance: 379 feet
Expected wOBA: 1.153
Hit Probability: 65%

3. June 6 vs. MIN

Exit Velocity: 100.4 mph
Launch Angle: 27.7 degrees
Estimated Distance: 388 feet
Expected wOBA: 1.153
Hit Probability: 64%

All three of these fly balls were hit to deep center field. Each of them died on the warning track. Glancing at the top ten fly outs with the highest expected wOBA shows another worrying trend—almost all of them were hit to center field. Below is a gif comparing Seager’s fly ball spray charts over the last two seasons.

You’ll notice that he hit way more fly balls to center field than he did last year (46% vs 33%). His power throughout his career has come when he’s pulled the ball. He’s capable of hitting the ball out of the park in center field but that’s not his strength.

With so many batters focused on hitting more and more fly balls, we have to remember that more isn’t always the desired outcome. After reaching career highs in almost every offensive category last year, Kyle Seager saw his batted ball profile fall apart. I don’t know if he was looking to hit the ball in the air more often or not, but it’s clear that the results were a significant step back. Rather than adding more and more fly balls, Seager (and every other batter) should be focused on working towards an optimal batted ball distribution to maximize their quality of contact.

After flying out against Chris Gimenez in that game against the Twins, Gimenez got Seager’s attention as he was jogging back to the dugout:

It’s easy to see that a return to his previous career norms would solve a lot of Seager’s troubles from 2017. But that’s easier said than done. If an extreme fly ball rate is Seager’s new norm, then he’ll definitely need to hit the gym like Gimenez playfully suggested. I believe Seager is capable of making intentional adjustments—we’ve seen it before—but he’s going to have to decide which adjustments he needs to make to return to the level of offensive production we’ve seen from him in the past.