Kyle Seager hasn’t changed, but maybe that’s the problem

Last year was a different year for Kyle Seager. Although it was ultimately a solid year for Seager, it was also his lowest WAR output (3.6 fWAR) since his rookie season. Despite this, Seager played a lot more like someone referred to as Corey’s Brother than Mr. Consistent.

His 2017 triple slash (.249/.323/.450) does not deviate very far from his yearly numbers in the past. However, his advanced stats better illustrate his regression in 2017. His wOBA (.326) and 106 wRC+ were both career lows (excluding his rookie season).

xwOBA (expected weighted on-base average) is a fun statistic to play with, because it uses Statcast’s exit velocity and launch angle metrics to assign batted balls a hit probability. These probabilities are then calculated and used to convert into xwOBA, which is directly comparable to wOBA, and so players’ skills can be compared with defense quite literally taken out of the equation.

According to xwOBA, Seager’s 2017 wOBA was expected to be .352. This is a far cry from his actual wOBA of .326. By subtracting Seager’s wOBA from his xwOBA, this shows that Seager’s wOBA was 0.025 less than expected compared to similarly batted balls.

This can be interpreted in a couple different ways. One of the most common viewpoints may be to say that Kyle Seager was one the wrong side of luck. A lot.

Rather, I think there has been a change in the way that teams have treated Kyle Seager. For years, teams have utilized variations of the ‘Ted Williams’ shift against Seager. This includes stacking the right side of the infield in a manner in which the third basemen moves to closer to second base, the shortstop plays to the right field side of second base, and the second basemen plays in shallow right field. This is commonly used against extreme pull lefty hitters, and Seager is no exception.

As MLB.com notes, Seager is one of the most shifted against players in the MLB. Anthony Rizzo led the league with 370 shifts faced, while Seager ranked second with 369. In other words, Seager is in a virtual tie for the most shifted against player in the league. Consequently, he is also one of the most affected by the shift.

This trend doesn’t appear to be slowing anytime soon. As teams have utilized the shift against Seager more and more, he has gotten worse at hitting against it by year.

Seager vs. shift

With statistics such as these (i.e., defensive shifts), they are often imperfect, and there are likely some errors in categorization of shifts and outcomes. Regardless, what this table tells us is Seager has been shifted against more every year, and it seems to be effective against him. This year, the differential appears to getting even more extreme, as Seager has 2 PAs with no shift and 14 PAs with a shift. The sample is ridiculously small, though, so it’s early to say with confidence.

The league has been adjusting to Kyle Seager. Kyle Seager does not seem to be adjusting back. Every so often, we will see Seager bunt to try and beat the shift, but this has not sufficiently dissuaded teams from using the shift any less. Seager may need to effectively bunt against it more often, but teams could simply be willing to give up bunt singles in exchange for more effective protection against the doubles that Seager is so inclined to hit into right field.

Defensive positioning isn’t the only way in which Seager has been dealt with differently. Pitchers made slight tweaks to how they attacked him in 2017 with great success.

Over the years, teams have learned to stay farther and farther away from Kyle Seager’s hands because he loves to pull the ball. Pitchers have always known to pitch away from him, but in 2017 the lower right quadrant was targeted more than ever, and he started getting pitched off of the edge of the plate like never before. Seager responded with a career high in swinging strike percentage and a career low in contact percentage.

While the location has changed, the types of pitches have changed as well. In 2016, Seager’s pitch breakdown was 59.25% hard pitches, 27.20% breaking pitches, and 13.55% offspeed pitches. In 2017, it changed to 55.14% hard pitches, 29.55% breaking pitches, and 15.20% offspeed pitches. These changes may seem minute, but when considering the large amount of pitches hitters see per year, it is more consequential than it appears.

Given this, it is unclear what adjustments Seager can make.  It doesn’t appear that Seager will benefit from the fly ball revolution, as his 2017 fly ball percentage (51.6%) was significantly higher than his career average (43.7%). At 20.2 degrees, his launch angle is already the 11th highest in the MLB. You could say he needs to learn to go the other way, but at 30 years old, that seems unlikely. If you are a believer in lineup protection, then maybe Seager would benefit from hitting ahead of Cruz or Canó.

Taken together, there seems to be a lot going on. Teams have positioned their defenses more extremely, pitchers have made adjustments, and Seager’s offensive production has suffered. There’s are reasons why his BABIP has plummeted to .262 (i.e., defensive shifting), although I reckon that a small portion of that is due to bad luck.

Kyle Seager hits the ball plenty hard. It may be time to venture into changing how he’s hitting the ball both horizontally (i.e., towards opposite field) and vertically (i.e., at a lower angle). Even if Seager can’t recreate his 2014 or 2016 offensive production, the criticisms Seager has received in the infancy of the 2018 season are irresponsible. With a few adjustments, we could see more consistency out of the player deemed Mr. Consistency.

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