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Seager Revisited

Seattle is officially tearing it down. How interested should the Cardinals be in Kyle Seager?

Seattle Mariners v Houston Astros Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Back in late October, I penned a column in which I envisioned a hypothetical trade between the Cardinals and the Seattle Mariners involving Dexter Fowler and Kyle Seager. The idea of such a deal was basically to try and rid the Cardinals of their worst contract, and probably their most extraneous player, by trading for a less bad but still worrisome contract from the M’s. Such a deal was predicated on two suppositions: one, that the Cardinals would have to add some sweetener on their end to try and bring the relative values of the players closer together, and two, that the Mariners were going to look to cut payroll and reset their club this winter. This was right around the time we heard the very first rumblings of Jerry DiPoto eyeballing a reset, if I remember correctly.

Well, sitting here now a week out from the Winter Meetings, the Mariners have indeed decided to go full fire sale, as they are currently working on/may have already completed a deal to send Jean Segura to Philadelphia in exchange for J.P. Crawford, are still reportedly trying to get the Robinson Cano to the Mets trade done, and have obviously already made a couple other deals to send off important pieces. Thus, it would seem much more likely now that Seattle will, in fact, try to move Kyle Seager, making my hypothetical of late October just a touch less hypothetical.

Now, that obviously doesn’t mean I’m saying it will definitely happen; the Cards appear for now to still be in negotiations with Arizona regarding a possible Paul Goldschmidt deal, and bringing in a corner infielder like Goldschmidt would really leave them without any room/need for Kyle Seager. However, if the Cards have kicked the tires on what Mike Moustakas would cost — and for the record, I think Moustakas is a bad idea, but could see some interesting platoon ideas with him on the club — then I think they would have to be interested in a possible Seager swap, considering he’s a lefty-hitting third baseman whose value is, right now, at one of its lower points.

I’m not really interested in revisiting the mechanics of a trade for Seager right now, though; I stand by the thought of a Fowler-Seager swap, with the Cardinals adding some prospect value on their end, being one of the better ways to try and reshape this very difficult roster in a meaningful way. Rather, what I want to do here is take a little deeper dive into Kyle Seager himself, and try to determine whether he’s actually a good bet to bounce back and be productive again in the future.

First things first: we must start out by acknowledging that Kyle Seager played much of the 2018 season injured. He broke his left big toe in late June — a specific, fairly uncommon type of break called an avulsion fracture, actually, in which a ligament pulls off a piece of bone — and just played through the injury the rest of the season. He received treatment, obviously, but never actually took any time off. Despite having an injury to the foundation of his body, Seager still appeared in 155 games in 2018. There is obviously a long history of players toughing things out and just playing through pain or injury, but I have to say, that seems above and beyond to me. Also, I have to further say, potentially self-defeating.

So let’s start there. We have to keep in mind this was a player who was physically compromised for roughly half the season, and just played through the issue. For the season, he produced a .221/.273/.400 batting line that translated to just an 84 wRC+. Walks were down, strikeouts were up, power was down.

In the first half of the year, Seager produced a 94 wRC+. Now, that’s not ideal, and he was overly aggressive at the plate pretty much the whole season, for whatever reason. However, that’s also not that bad. A little bit better luck, or just a slight adjustment to be a bit more patient, and a 94 can become a 110 pretty quickly. A 94 wRC+ hitter isn’t something to get excited over, obviously, but when it’s a guy with a track record of production you don’t worry too much about that level of performance, because it suggests he’s not that far off from being where he needs to be.

In the second half, after the toe injury in late June, Seager’s wRC+ was...67. That is not a number where you convince yourself the player is okay, and close to getting back to his usual self.

For an even more stark illustration of how Seager’s season curve appears to reflect an injury at the end of June, here are his wRC+ splits by month:

  • April: 91
  • May: 92
  • June: 102
  • July: 63
  • August: 57
  • September: 95

Wow. As I said, Seager wasn’t having a great season even up to the point when he hurt his toe, seemingly struggling with his plate approach, but that’s a pretty amazing illustration there, I think.

Here are Seager’s isolated slugging percentages by month:

  • April: .179
  • May: .202
  • June: .221
  • July: .092
  • August: .183
  • September: .165

Again, wow. Seager’s ISO went from .190 in the first half to .157 in the second, and even that seems to understate just how brutal the post-injury falloff was. Basically, we had a career producer working on a mediocre season, and then Seager essentially just lost two months almost completely after the toe injury. By the time September rolled around he appears to have been recovered somewhat, but you don’t put up a 60 wRC+ for two months in the middle of the season without tanking your overall numbers, hard. And I don’t know that I believe something like that happens without the injury occurring.

An interesting aspect to Seager’s season was the fact he performed just fine against same-handed pitchers, but struggled mightily in 2018 to hit righties. Now, that’s not the case for Seager in his career; his career splits are a 99 wRC+ against lefties and a 120 wRC+ against right-handers. In other words, for his career Seager has been roughly an average hitter against southpaws and has beaten up on righties pretty well. That’s about what you would expect from a left-handed hitter, right?

Well, in 2018 Seager posted a 96 wRC+ against left-handed pitchers, or basically about what he always does. Against right-handers, though, his wRC+ in 2018 was just 78. That’s an amazing contrast to his career numbers, and can largely but not entirely be explained by a .225 BABIP against righties vs a .283 mark for his career. He also had a big gap in terms of walk rate in 2018 vs his career, but his plate approach in general was bad this past season, so there may be something else going on there.

That falloff in terms of plate approach is actually one of the things that gives me real pause about the idea of trying to acquire Seager, if I’m being honest. In his 2016 season, which was the most productive offensive year of his career, Seager walked 10.2% of the time. In 2017 that number fell to 8.9%, which obviously isn’t as good, but also isn’t really a red flag. It doesn’t take much for a player to see a one percentage point variance in walk rate year over year. This past season, however, Seager’s walk rate dropped all the way to 6%, which I find harder to accept as normal variance. It isn’t just the three percentage point drop from 2017 to ‘18; it’s the fact that from 2016 to 2018 he saw his walk rate drop by over 40 percent.

That, to me, is potentially a very bad trend. It could be indicative of a player who has lost his approach, either trying to hit for more power and selling out too early in his swing to be selective, it could be indicative of a shift in team philosophy, away from a patient, grinding approach toward putting the ball in play more often, or it could be indicative of a hitter whom pitchers are far more willing to challenge now than in the past. Worst of all, and this one really sort of dovetails with that notion of pitchers challenging a hitter with impunity, such a loss of plate discipline could indicate a player whose physical skills, most notably bat speed, have meaningfully declined to the point he is no longer able to physically react fast enough to maintain previous levels of patience at the plate.

Think of the way Albert Pujols declined; the first place we saw his physical dropoff coming was in his plate discipline numbers. Albert at his peak had one of the quickest bats in baseball, and his ungodly reaction speed made him capable of simply waiting longer than most other hitters, and thus allowed him longer to look at and judge a pitch on its way to the plate. Sure, we’re talking fractions of a second here, but when dealing with reaction speeds of the sort major league hitters possess, fractions of a second are meaningful differences. As Albert began to really decline physically, it showed up first in that walk rate cratering. He was no longer able to wait on pitches nearly as long, was no longer able to judge them as well, and his slower bat was no longer as dangerous, compounding his issues by allowing pitchers to come after him inside the zone with far less fear than they had previously.

Now, whether or not that’s the case with Seager I can’t say. I’ve seen a fair bit of him playing, but no nearly enough to have a good feel for how he looks physically day to day. If pressed, I would say the drop in plate discipline in 2018 had more to do with a player struggling, then pressing, and then playing hurt. The ‘playing hurt’ part really kind of changes so much of the context here, at least for me. His modest struggles in the first half of the season look like relatively normal variation, with a little bad luck and some bad habits thrown in the mix. What happened after he got hurt, however, is something completely different.

If we go over to Statcast, we find that Seager’s expected numbers are better than his actual numbers, but still not great. His xwOBA for the season was .309, while his actual wOBA was .288. Neither of those numbers are good, but his actual production still lagged his expected numbers by a fair bit. To be fair, Seager has typically underperformed his expected numbers in his career, probably due to be a left-handed hitter who is vulnerable to shifting, but still, we’re looking at a pretty stark picture in 2018.

Interestingly, Seager’s overall exit velocity for the 2018 season was slightly higher than in 2017, 89.7 mph to 87.9 mph, but his percentage of barreled balls was way, way down. In 2016 and ‘17 he recorded barrel percentages of 9.2 and 8.6%. That number fell all the way to 5.6% in 2018. For those who don’t remember, barrel% is literally the percentage of batted balls a hitter struck in a roughly optimal way. Those are the batted balls most likely to become hits, and also the most likely to do real damage. Kyle Seager simply didn’t barrel up that many balls in 2018.

What this all says to me is that Kyle Seager is, undoubtedly, a risky pickup. He’s 31 years old, saw pretty much all of his peripherals decline sharply in 2018, and overall just put up a completely miserable season. His defensive metrics are strange; UZR still thinks he was a very good defender in 2018, while DRS and plus/minus both think he was horrible. I don’t know what to say about all that, other than it would surprise me if he managed to not have any falloff in terms of defensive ability playing half the season on a busted foot. Stranger things have happened, though, I suppose.

And really, it’s the injury midseason that puts so much extra context into this picture, isn’t it? We can see, digging into Seager’s season, that his performance pretty clearly reflects something bad happening around the end of June or early July; the fact we know he broke his big toe (which is incredibly painful, by the way, speaking from experience), in late June gives us the context to judge his season through an entirely different lens. Still, even if we believe he will be healthy in 2019, there are concerns about his performance, I think.

I will say this one final thing: Kyle Seager is a left-handed hitter, and one who generally puts the ball in the air. Of all the parks in major league baseball, he is in one of the very worst in which to be that sort of hitter. Safeco Field in Seattle has the third-lowest park factor for left-handed hitters in general at just 85; only Minute Maid Park in Houston and the Oakland Coliseum are tougher places for a lefty to hit. Interestingly, you’ll note both of those stadiums are in the AL West; this means that Kyle Seager, lefty fly ball slugger, plays almost 120 games a year in the three toughest ballparks in all of baseball for left-handed hitters. I find that to be a rather fascinating micro insight into how environment might have an effect on a hitter, personally.

By contrast, Busch Stadium III is much closer to neutral when it comes to left-handed hitters, with a park factor of 95. Busch is actually tougher on righties than lefties, in fact, and while it’s a tough place to hit, it’s nowhere near Safeco levels in terms of what it does to hitters of Seager’s ilk specifically. Even more specifically, Safeco Field is the second hardest park in all of baseball in which to hit a double; only Citi Field in New York kills more two-baggers than Seattle. Safeco’s park factor on doubles is .799, meaning there are fewer than 80% as many doubles in that park as there would be in a hypothetical true neutral stadium. (Of course, true neutral is maybe the toughest alignment to play, and I would really encourage any prospective stadium to stay away from it, particularly if your Dungeon Master isn’t all that experienced.) Given that Kyle Seager is, in a typical season, a very doubles-heavy hitter, I do wonder what getting out of Safeco could do for his offense. I know that theoretically, park-adjusted numbers should account for differences in playing environment, and those numbers should stay roughly the same when a hitter changes parks or league or whatever else. In reality, though, I think we understand that hypothetical construct really only goes so far, and taking a player from one environment and putting him in another is going to affect him specifically in ways the overall algorithms don’t always capture.

In the end, I still believe Kyle Seager could be a very good target for the Cardinals to pursue this offseason, should certain other things fall through. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t reasons to question his production, and to worry whether or not he’ll be worth the acquisition cost. If Seager could be had as part of a bad contract swap as I postulated before, even with the Cards kicking in some prospect value to try and entice the Mariners into the deal, then I think betting on a healthy Seager in 2019 would be a slam dunk chance to take. If, however, the M’s hold out for something closer to retail price on Seager as a perennial 3.5+ win player, then the risks, I think, might very well outweigh the potential benefit. Regardless, though, I will say I think getting Seager out of the AL West in general, and Safeco Field in particular, could lead to a pretty remarkable offensive renaissance for a guy who has played his entire career up to this point in basically the worst possible situation for the type of hitter he is.