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We’ve Never Really Seen This Kyle Seager

But we’re happy to be seeing him like this.

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve been writing about the Mariners since 2014, which means I’ve had quite a few opportunities to write about Kyle Seager. Until recently, that wasn’t all that necessary. Seager has been a perpetually underrated, underappreciated player since he earned a full-time role with the team in 2012, and so there was never much to talk about. He always played, and he was always good — at least over a full season. Of course, in 2017, the highs started to not be as high, and in 2018, the lows started to be quite low. Now that he’s logged a good stretch of games in which he’s actually healthy, Seager is starting to look like a productive player again, but in a much, much different way.

Two years ago, I wrote about how Seager had gotten away from what he was good at, and then a little more than six months later, I figured that Seager had legitimately returned to form, but that there may be some regression that may take place in 2020. The thing is, that hasn’t really happened. From August 1st through the end of the season, Seager had a 138 wRC+. As of Friday, Seager had a 138 wRC+ in 2020, too, but now he’s bumped that up to a 145 wRC+. He’s shifting his skill set, and in doing so, avoiding some of the nuisances that generally come with aging.

Seager’s rolling ground ball-fly ball ratio, since 2012:

Other than 2016 — which is notable, as that was his career year — Seager’s ground ball-fly ball ratio is as extreme as it’s been since 2012. Seager hasn’t really ever put the ball on the ground like this, and it’s not just a blip. This graph is showing results over a rolling sample of 20 games, and while he’s spent most of his career 20 points under a 1.00 GB/FB, he’s more than 20 points above a 1.00 GB/FB this year. If it’s not obvious, that means he’s hitting a lot more ground balls relative to how many fly balls he’s hitting. Right now, looking at Seager’s past performance is the closest we can get to understanding how unprecedented these supposed skills are, and boy is this looking unprecedented.

With 89 plate appearances on the year, there are a few statistics we can look at and feel comfortable about how credible (or reliable) they are at this given moment. For Seager, we can ostensibly have some confidence in the sustainability of his:

  • Swing percentage
  • Contact percentage
  • Ground ball percentage
  • Strikeout percentage
  • Walk percentage

Luckily, the “stabilization” points for these particularly statistics are germane to our understanding of who Seager will be as a player going forward. Given that we can have a certain level of confidence that Seager’s numbers will remain somewhat similar, we can compare his career numbers to his 2020 numbers thus far.

Comparing Seager’s career versus his 2020:

Kyle Seager, Career Versus 2020

Thru 2019 2020
Thru 2019 2020
Swing% 44.3 40
Contact% 81.8 86.9
GB% 34.5 44.1
K% 17.5 9.3
BB% 8.4 9.3

Across the board, we’re seeing pretty vast improvements. As expected, he’s putting the ball on the ground a lot more, but with that, he’s also leaned into a much more contact-oriented approach. The side effect that’s come with that is he’s able to BABIP his way into a much better batting average, but he’s also nearly halved his strikeout percentage, and he’s bumped up his walk percentage a touch, too. I’m not sure I would have necessarily advised Seager to take this route — in fact, I essentially said he should just accept who he is and sell out for pulled fly balls — but Seager has drastically transformed his entire profile, and for the better. It’s hard to imagine he keeps this level of performance up, but if the season ended today, this would be his most productive offensive year of his career. And, sustainability-wise, it all looks perfectly reasonable.

Now, the more that I think about it, the more I’m into Seager’s new profile. He’s drastically cut his batted balls going to opposite field, he’s swinging less, contact is up, and he’s still hitting the ball with plenty of authority. I don’t know what’s gotten into him, but perhaps this is what Seager should have been doing all along. After Saturday’s game, Seager’s walk percentage has eclipsed his strikeout percentage, and his batting average is over .300. That’s not something that we ever could have said about the Seager of past, and the more I consider what kind of hitter he’s becoming, the more I think he resembles another really, really good hitter. To elaborate my point, I’m now going to hit you over the head with a flurry of tables.

Seager and a mystery player, by output:

Kyle Seager Versus Player B, Output

Seager Player B
Seager Player B
Exit Velocity 11.3 10.7
Launch Angle 89.7 88.9
wRC+ 145 132
Brls/PA% 7 4.4
xwOBAcon 0.404 0.377

By plate discipline:

Kyle Seager Versus Player B, Plate Discipline

Seager Player B
Seager Player B
Swing% 40 43.7
Contact% 86.9 90.8
SwStr% 5.2 4
BB% 10.1 8
K% 9 10.4

And then by batted balls:

Kyle Seager Versus Player B, Batted Balls

Seager Player B
Seager Player B
GB/FB 1.3 1.47
Pull% 39.7 39
Straight% 42.6 34.9
Oppo% 17.6 26.1

It’s unclear as to how much Seager’s current numbers will hold, but in considering the above tables, I hope you are now somewhat convinced that, so far in 2020, Seager has looked a helluva lot like 2019 Michael Brantley. I don’t know how you feel about Brantley as a hitter, but he’s one of the most cerebral hitters in the game, pairing elite contact abilities and plate discipline to be a well above-average hitter — he’s a nightmare for pitchers to face.

It’s fascinating. Seager is continuing to pull the ball at the same rate, but he’s dropped his opposite field percentage from a career 23.8% to 17.6%. He’s refusing to go to the opposite field, where he has historically never been able to have any success, and is instead going up the middle more, while continuing to hit balls to his pull-side at the same rate. With that, he’s also folded in the ability to swing less, chase less, and make contact more, and these things all speak to Seager being able to be a completely different (but utterly effective) hitter.

Stabilization points notwithstanding, I have to imagine that there’s some reversion that’s going to take place for Seager. That’s not to say that he’s going to regress significantly, but it’s quite difficult to hold this many changes overnight (okay, over an offseason) and not waver at all. Whatever it is that Seager is doing, you would be hard-pressed to convince me that it’s not impressive. Even now, I think his approach from the last few months of 2019 of pulling balls into the air would have served him well, but this all just speaks to the player that Seager is.

The timing of all of this is amusing. The current juiced ball is perhaps one of the bounciest balls that has ever been used in baseball, and yet Seager — a player who stands to benefit more than most players — is choosing to hit the ball on the ground more. That’s not to say that it’s not the right choice, but it is a curious one. In any case, Seager appears to be in the midst of a career renaissance. The player he would have been would have been good, but apparently he thinks this newer version of himself is better. Whatever the case may be, you have to respect his willingness to take a risk. He’s quietly been one of the most productive hitters of this decade, and now he’s looking to squeeze all that he’s got out of the latter years of his career as a new and improved contact hitter who isn’t afraid to put the ball on the ground.