Kyle Seager has a well-earned reputation for steadiness. From 2012-2017 he’s been the Mariners’ most valuable player (including pitchers) by fWAR, their leader in games played and plate appearances, and solidly above-average at the plate at minimum in each of those years. He also has a well-earned reputation for streakiness. His month-to-month splits show a narrowly above-average hitter in April (albeit much worse in the season’s first two weeks), followed by elite stretches in May and July. Monthly splits are a tricky thing to pin down, particularly mid-season ones, but even Seager’s vacillation from good to great and back again have been fairly consistent.
Until this year. Kyle supposedly came into Spring Training with a new approach. Scott Servais had good things to say:
“(He’s hitting) hard ground balls, line drives into left-center field – we’ve all seen Kyle hit so many balls off the bat that get caught right at the wall. You know, those long, high fly balls into left-center field at Safeco,” Servais said. “… I think as far as his approach and what he’s trying to do, I don’t think it’s necessarily geared to beating the shift. (But) I think that’s going to be the end result of it because he’s using the whole field more to hit, which makes him a more dangerous hitter.
One part of that equation has been true. Kyle has hit 25 grounders classified as “Hard” by Fangraphs, well on his way to outpacing last year’s 37. Unfortunately, if you are a human being, or at least a nearby hungry mammal or reptile who has seen Kyle Seager run, you know sprint speed isn’t where the man makes his hay. More grounders = more troubles, especially when they’re coming at the expense of what could otherwise be alternate hard contact. That’s where the second component of the aforementioned Spring Training plan falls apart. Kyle is going the opposite way less than he ever has in his career.
There’s nothing inherently devastating about that tendency. Spraying the ball all over the field is great for many players, including Jean Segura and Carlos Correa. Yanking the ball overwhelmingly to your pull side is not a debilitating condition, however, just ask José Ramirez, Mookie Betts, or Kris Bryant! When you hit the ball to your pull side, simply by physics and the ability for your body to get further into its rotation you have a better chance at hitting the ball harder! But Kyle is pulling grounders, and not nearly enough fly balls, and his hard contact is rolling right into the shift. He’s even reached a career-low Barrel rate, further emphasizing how all that hard contact (and lack of soft contact) goes for naught when you hit it into the ground or straight up, instead of on a line.
Every tribulation listed above is worrisome, particularly for a player now in his age-30 season. But the hard contact rate, at least for now, offers hope that Seager’s fortunes can fall a hair more favorably than his .222/.270/.408 and 86 wRC+ thus far. It’s the things beyond when he makes contact that worry me more. Specifically, that as his contact profile has slipped, his plate discipline results have cratered.
Even amidst his struggles last season, Seager’s BB% and K% were about in line with his career numbers, and his power was actually improved. The slumping of 2017 seemed BABIP related, and was likely tied to the extreme shifting Kyle continues to face. In 2018 it’s fallen apart. Since September of his first full season in 2012, Kyle has never had a month where he walked less than 5.8% of the time. This year he’s sub-5%, and added insult to injury by spiking his strikeouts to over 21%. While that isn’t an egregious total in today’s MLB (league-average is 22.5%), much like his fellow corner infielder Ryon Healy, running a 21-23% is a tougher sell when you don’t earn free passes.
To pair this with an extreme case, here is Seager over the past three seasons paired with his good friend Mike Zunino, whose strikeout rates are the stuff of legend Kyle is far from challenging.
Kyle & Mike and the 2018 Crater
|Kyle Seager 2016||10.2%||16.0%||132|
|Mike Zunino 2016||10.9%||33.9%||115|
|Kyle Seager 2017||8.9%||16.9%||106|
|Mike Zunino 2017||9.0%||36.8%||126|
|Kyle Seager 2018||4.9%||21.4%||86|
|Mike Zunino 2018||5.0%||40.6%||92|
Neither player comes off looking rosy here, and thus far both have sustained their value to the team with excellent defensive prowess. The struggle for Kyle is, of course, there’s only so much a 3rd baseman can do defensively, while catchers typically have a far more forgiving floor as long as they provide an elite glove.
The Mariners don’t “need” Kyle Seager to pick it up at the plate, per se, but he’s the least tapped source of potential remaining. Mitch Haniger is playing about as well as anyone could’ve hoped for, Nelson Cruz is back in form, Jean Segura is hitting like every stadium is Chase Field, and the rest of the lineup has been solid. Kyle is under the microscope because he’s shown he can be better than this, and just as importantly, there is nobody in the entire system capable of replacing him. To maximize this team’s ceiling, something has to change for Kyle himself. Here’s hoping it’s soon.