Yesterday was a cathartic day for two Mariners veterans. Yusei Kikuchi, as Nick catalogued poignantly in his recap, had the best start of his MLB career after struggling immensely for the past few months. To give Kikuchi the first and only run he’d need on the day (though several other M’s got in on the fun), Kyle Seager went deep.
This is an abysmal pitch. Even if it’s 95 mph from Wilmer Font, it is 95 in the way Yovani Gallardo would throw 95 every once in a while, almost guaranteed to exit at a faster velocity than it entered. But punishing mistakes and spitting on bad pitches to hit is much of the battle for big league hitters, and for most of the last year-and-a-half Kyle Seager has been losing that fight. Now, with a few tweaks and the rust shaken off, Seager is back in his 2017 groove.
The year of 2017 was a disappointing one for the Mariners. Fresh off a close shave with the playoffs the year before, Seattle had added Jean Segura and Mitch Haniger, along with Drew Smyly, and snagged Hisashi Iwakuma for another go-around in the rotation. Injuries brutalized that club, which began with already-threadbare pitching depth. It was roster construction that needed too many things to go right and, surprise, they did not. But a component of the disappointment was a regression by Seattle’s stars. Robinson Canó was merely good instead of the superstar he’d been a year before, while Félix Hernández tragically pumpkined entirely.
Kyle Seager, then 29, had his worst year at the plate since his rookie season. His wRC+ dropped from 134 in 2016 to 107, his DRC+ from 128 to 106, his wOBA from .363 to .326, his OPS from .859 to .773, and, to the particular consternation of many lay appraisers, his BA from .278 to .249. It could’ve been chalked up to pure BABIP fluctuation, as he saw that number drop from .295 - close to his career rate to that point - to .262, but we’ve seen since then the culprit is largely savvy defensive shifts. To overcome defenses shifting on him more than ever, Kyle would have to either go around or over them.
Last year he tried to go around, then struggled through numerous adjustments, all to dismal effect. This year, after an offseason of transforming himself physically, a Spring Training injury that sidelined him half the season, and a slump built on rust and over-tinkering once again, Seager summed up his situation succinctly to Ryan Divish at the Seattle Times.
“Physically, I felt better. And my positioning (with his swing) has been much better. The swing feels better. Laker and those guy are awesome, and getting in there and picking their brain every day has been helpful ... A lot of [the mechanical struggles were] self-inflicted, I think the first 150 at-bats I tried some different things. This winter there was a lot of things that I tried to correct physically and kind of got away from the actual swing I had done in the past. It was kind of dumb on my part. I tried to fix myself physically so I’d be able to make my swing and then I went away from my swing. Those are self-inflicted wounds. But it definitely feels better.”
Feels better is an understatement. May thru July were a struggle for Seager. Despite pushing his walk rate back up beyond his career rate, he was not getting results on his contact. Then came the last couple weeks.
Seager has spent August hitting like a man possessed. On a grander scale, he’s dragged his year-long numbers up to a pace in keeping with 2015 and 2017 SeaBoss. In particular, his batted ball profile lines up nicely with 2017:
Seager is striking the ball solidly again, but he did that last year too. Looking at his mean numbers can be a bit confusing, since 2018 saw Seager dip and rip, pull the ball more than ever, with struggles aplenty to show for it. The Seager Uppercut made an easy target for criticism, and it was partly to blame for his struggles. But the truth is Seager’s swing now is more or less the same as the one that made him so successful for years. Here is Kyle in 2015...
Which, despite his raised hands pre-swing, differs at contact only slightly from his swing in 2017...
...and last week’s swing looks once again like the covered in gold Seager of 2013-2017. Look particularly at Seager’s back foot, driving forward off the ground in a burst at the point of impact with the ball:
That extra oomph is getting the ball over the wall and over the defense. It’s potentially an even more powerful swing than 2017, and may be part of how his average exit velocity this year is at 89.7 mph. That’s just shy of his career-high of 90.1 in 2016 and two mph above the MLB average of 87.5. By contrast, in the clip below from late May, Seager lines the ball up perfectly, but it Justin Smoaks shy of the wall, giving Danny Santana the chance to run it down.
Seager is still a pitch pulling padre, but he’s spraying the ball fairly well if he gets it into the air. That lets him get gap doubles to all fields despite being shifted on in the infield a staggering 75% of the time he steps in the box. That shift that nearly scuttled his career still hurts him, but it hasn’t scuppered him like the past couple years.
It’s a bit early to say he’s beaten the shift for good, but thus far Seager has managed to get past it by simply refusing to play its game. Kyle has pulled just 28 grounders to their doom on the right side of the infield this year. All but one of them have led to an out, good for an .036 BA that is the worst rate of his career, trailing his 2018 rate of 12-for-90 and a .133 BA my nearly 100 points. But while Seager isn’t countering the shift by slapping singles to third, he’s not pounding grounders into its hungry maw anymore either.
Kyle Seager Pulled Groundballs
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Hitting it as hard as he ever has, this is how Seager is having more success despite his mean launch angle increasing. It’s not necessarily that he’s hitting more moonshots. Seager is cutting down on the contact that leads to guaranteed outs. He’s on pace by fWAR, bWAR, and WARP to return to the above-average starter pace he held as a baseline for over half a decade. What this means for Seattle is still uncertain: even a rejuvenated Seager still has the trade kicker in his contract that guaranteed $15 million for the 2022 season if he is dealt. Even if he can be viewed as a talented veteran upgrade for a team looking to contend in 2020 with a gaping hole at the hot corner - I’m looking at you, Phillies - that poison pill might make them think twice.
But Seattle is still without a clear picture at 3rd base for the future, and through 2021 it will probably be Kyle Seager come hell or high fastballs. This version of Seager makes that vision a whole lot prettier.