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Mariner of the month: Kyle Seager is Slow Start Seager no more, if he ever was

Seattle’s iron man is once again anchoring the offense

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

The three signs of April in Seattle: tax time, having to pack both sunglasses and a rain jacket when you leave the house, and Kyle Seager having a slow start. However, a couple outlier years—2019, when Seager was hurt and missed basically all of April-May, and 2020, when the season didn’t begin until late July—have prompted me to wonder if the Slow Seager Start is backed up by the numbers, or just anecdotal evidence repeated enough times to gain the sheen of factual evidence. Since Seager is one of the few Mariners we have long-term data for, I pulled some of his season splits for each of his full years in the majors from FanGraphs, selecting the first month(s) of the season in March/April, followed by May and, for good measure, August, when one would assume that if Seager were a cold starter, he’d be good and warm by then. Here’s what the data says:

Kyle Seager early-season vs. season-end wRC+

Year March/April wRC+ May wRC+ August wRC+ Season wRC+
Year March/April wRC+ May wRC+ August wRC+ Season wRC+
2021 122 NA NA NA
2020 NA NA 114 118
2019 NA 43 (7 games) 192 110
2018 90 91 56 83
2017 100 107 80 106
2016 78 182 149 134
2015 100 137 101 115
2014 130 129 103 127
2013 139 108 86 116
2012 96 134 88 108
Career 108 123 111 112

In 2020, everyone had a good chuckle about Kyle Seager’s strong start, theorizing that you can’t have a cold April if there is no April in the season (guy tapping head meme). But so far this season, Seager is off to an even better start than his abbreviated start in 2020. He’s leading the team in fWAR thanks to his third base defense (Haniger is the team leader in most offensive categories); Statcast has him in the 94th percentile for Outs Above Average. And he might be leading the team offensively if his xSLG of .580 more closely matched his actual slugging percentage of .458. The offense is currently being held together by Mitch Haniger, Kyle Seager, and a suddenly cooling-off Ty France, and without Seager’s seemingly atypical hot start to the season, it’s doubtful the Mariners would have finished April over the .500 mark.

But poking into the numbers, it becomes clear that the myth of Slow Starting Seager is just that: a myth. Outside of a two-year stretch in 2015/16 where Seager posted some widely variant splits from the first month of the season to the second (including an absolutely dismal first month in 2016 followed up by one of the best months of his career), there’s no clear progression showing that Seager spends April shaking off the cobwebs and then steadily marches up from there. Five times, in fact, his August wRC+ is lower than it is in March/April. Looking at his July numbers, though, there could be an argument that Seager, like corn and fireworks sales, peaks around the Fourth of July, and then regresses back in August; how to explain, then, that his career wRC+ for June is lower (107) than it is in May?

Looking at some other players with similar careers to Seager, there are some players who fit the “slow start” archetype better, or even the mid-season crescendo-and-fall pattern better, such as Brett Gardner, who historically builds towards the All-Star Break and then falls off after that. (Paul Goldschmidt has a career wRC+ in the first month of the season that’s significantly lower than his wRC+ in other months, but since he starts at 130, he’s never been tagged with the “slow starter” label.) Seager’s AL West counterpart Anthony Rendon has a career wRC+ in March/April that is a little sluggish compared to the rest of his season numbers, driven largely by a career ISO in those months that’s just .167, suggesting he’s the one whose bat takes a while to power up.

Slow Start Seager makes for a tidy narrative and some nice alliteration, but the better narrative (and almost as good alliteration) might be Streaky Seager. That’s not new information to anyone who’s ever enjoyed the roller coaster ride of looking at Seager’s career wOBA page on FanGraphs. But it’s interesting to consider why this myth about Seager’s being a slower starter persists. Some of it is just the simple fact that it’s harder to shake a bad reputation than to earn it, and 2016—when Seager started dismally and ended with one of the best years of his career—did an outsized amount of myth-making damage. An injury-slowed 2019 and the bizarre 2020 season also cloud the data.

But some of it is attributable to the man himself, or at least the popularized idea of who Kyle Seager is. Kyle Seager is the model of hard work + talent = success, and there is something morally satisfying about creating, year after year, the story that the talented-but-not-generationally-so Kyle Seager—second fiddle to teammate Dustin Ackley in college, second fiddle to his younger brother in the majors—struggles initially, works hard, and succeeds. It’s a myth that reflects the myth of meritocracy in America itself, the idea that putting one’s head down and grinding day after day will result in unqualified, earned success. And the idea of Kyle Seager being streaky isn’t one that jives with the stoic, hard-working, strong-but-silent Seager, the one consistent thing Mariners fans have had to depend on this decade, who has weathered countless organizational changes, front office scandals, frustrating losing seasons and heartbreaking almost-made-its. Seager’s steady career numbers, in which highs and lows come out in the wash to paint a model of consistency, allow fans to tell the old familiar story of a man climbing a mountain year after year, only to tumble back down in October and start it all over again, an avatar for the Sisyphean task that is rooting for this franchise. But Kyle Seager deserves a more accurate story to be told about him, just as Mariners fans deserve a better story to be told to them.