Generally when I write about the Mariners, I prefer to write about players on the upswing. I prefer to write these articles because they are human beings, and it’s not fun to write about players sucking. Kyle Seager, for all intents and purposes, is not on the upswing. His swing, I suppose, is literally an uppercut swing, but that’s the closest he currently is to being on the upswing.
Many weeks ago, I wrote an article detailing how Kyle Seager hadn’t made changes despite teams adjusting to him. At the time, I was optimistic that Seager would make the necessary adjustments, but he has yet to show any signs of improvement.
Through this date in 2016:
Through this date last year:
To date this year:
There are very clear trends. First, no two years show any kind of similarities. Second, his numbers, overall, are trending down. The key thing here is that his BABIP, specifically, is negatively trending.
Normally, it would be wise to cite that his .238 BABIP is far below both his career average and league average. Someone may say, “The league average BABIP is around .300, and so surely it is inevitable that more balls will start falling in his favor and his production will go up!” While these things are true, the league has changed rapidly in the past couple years.
His wOBA is 28 points lower than his xwOBA (expected wOBA), but most of that is likely due to how teams are defending Seager. This was evidenced last year, as he underperformed his wOBA by a similar 25 points in 2017.
Here are three pictures, courtesy of Baseball Savant, depicting teams’ defensive positioning against Seager in 2016, 2017, and 2018.
As shown by the changes in fielder positioning (specifically the red blotches), teams are becoming more consistent and more extreme in their defensive positioning. More telling is that teams are starting to become much, much more aggressive in how often they shift him.
In 2016, teams shifted Seager 47.1% of the time, good for 45th in the MLB. Okay, that’s extreme, but not too extreme. Last year, Seager was shifted 54.9% of the time, which ranks him 27th in the league. Again, this is getting more extreme, but not yet ridiculous.
This year, teams have put the shift into play on 72.1% of his plate appearances(!), well above the league average of 30.2% against left-handed hitters. This means Seager is now the 14th most shifted against player in the MLB.
Interestingly, Russell Carleton of Baseball Prospectus has argued that the shift has actually done more harm than good for teams employing it. But, in a newer article he mentions how teams can assure that the shift will be worth it.
The defensive team needs to believe that a hitter will pull his grounders about three times as often as he will go oppo with them in order for The Shift to break even.
Last season, Seager had 17 at-bats that ended with a grounder to the opposite side of the field. As for grounders that were to the pull-side, Seager had 98.
But this isn’t a new problem! Surely we are aware of this. Over his career, Seager has pulled 722 ground balls while going the opposite way with 127 grounders. This means that Seager hits about 5.69 times more grounders to his pull-side than to the opposite field. So according to Russell Carleton, teams are more than justified in shifting against Seager, even though it may not be appropriate for other hitters.
Carleton then touches on why it is that the shift is effective.
The power outage (specifically, the home run loss) from The Shift exceeds the loss on balls in play. The Shift works, although not in the way that we think it does. It doesn’t make fielding the ball easier. It scares the batter from pulling the ball so much and saps his home run power as a result!
Coming out of the offseason, Seager spoke about how his swing was the best he has ever had. He specifically talked about handling balls away and hitting the ball into left field, and intuitively, this makes some sense. Over his career, Seager sports a .562 OPS on balls hit to opposite field. For reference, over their careers Nelson Cruz and Robinson Cano have OPS’d .878 and .932, respectively, going the other way. Why wouldn’t Seager want to improve on his greatest weakness as a hitter?
Kyle Seager seems to be at somewhat of a defining moment in his career. In trying to learn to go the other way with the ball more, his numbers have suffered as a result. It may be, then, that Seager should accept himself for the player he is. As Seager nears the age of 31, it is highly unlikely that he will learn how to hit the ball to all fields at this point in his career. It seems clear that he is someone who will always be exceptionally bad going the other way. Because of the shift, he may never be, offensively, what he was in 2014 or 2016. And that’s fine!
If anything, Seager should be making more of an effort to hit the ball towards the shift, not away from it. The reason that teams have shifted Seag for all of these years is because he’s known for hitting home runs and doubles. The shift isn’t going to stop most doubles, and it sure as heck isn’t going to stop any balls traveling over the fence. The greatest thing that Seager can do for himself at the present moment is to pretend that defenses are not shifting him, and to hit the ball hard. That, or he could imagine them all in their underwear.