In 2016, Seattle Mariners third baseman Kyle Seager enjoyed his best offensive season ever. Two years later, the 31-year-old endured his worst. This rapid decline exacerbated an already frustrated fan base.

Inevitably, testy fans turned to social media imploring general manager Jerry Dipoto to rid their team of Seager. Although not entirely impossible, such a move could prove problematic.

The Mariners owe Seager at least $57.5 million through 2021. A tidy sum for a 30-something coming off a down year. Furthermore, Seattle Times beat writer Ryan Divish recently noted a stipulation in Seager’s contract stating a trade converts a $15 million club option for 2022 into a player option.

Assume for now Seager remains a Mariner in 2019. Can he return to his former excellence? I believe the answer is yes, although it’s not a slam-dunk.

Seager can flourish again, but several aspects of his offensive profile must improve. That said; we should also consider what exactly “former excellence” means for the one-time All-Star. I suspect opinions vary.

First, let’s review Seager’s production in recent seasons and consider how it compares to 2018. From there, we can dig into potential reasons for his offensive swoon.

History Lesson

A four-year lookback at Seager’s stat line should suffice. The left-handed hitter has over 2,600 plate appearances since 2015. Moreover, STATCAST data goes back four seasons and will be a key resource as we go along.

 
2B
HR
OBP
SLG
wOBA
wRC+
2015
37
26
.328
.451
.335
115
2016
36
30
.359
.499
.363
134
2017
33
27
.323
.450
.326
107
2018
36
22
.273
.400
.288
84
MLB
.318
.409
.315
100

It’s not hard to see why some fans have soured on Seager. Last year, he was below the MLB average in every slash category, wRC+, and wOBA. The eight-year big leaguer did manage 30-plus doubles for a fourth consecutive season, although his home run tally was its lowest since 2013.

I don’t utilize wOBA (weighted on-base average) often, but it’ll be useful during this discussion. The sabermetric version of OBP credits hitters for how they reached base rather than just treating every on-base event equally, as OBP does. A double provides more value to run production than a single or walk, a triple more than a double, etc.

Defensive Countermeasures

Clearly, something went wrong with Seager last year. The most frequent explanation delivered via the airwaves and blogosphere is defensive shifts diminished his effectiveness.

Seager encountered shifts during 70.5-percent of his plate appearances making him one of the most shifted against players in MLB in 2018. He was one of seven left-handed hitters to face defensive shifts at least 400 times last season.

 
TM
PA
Shfts
Shft%
Chris Davis
BAL
522
474
90.8%
Joey Gallo
TEX
577
481
83.4%
Matt Carpenter
STL
677
546
80.6%
Kole Calhoun
LAA
552
402
72.8%
Kyle Seager
SEA
630
444
70.5%
Freddie Freeman
ATL
707
464
65.6%
Anthony Rizzo
CHC
665
403
60.6%

Positioning the majority of infielders on one side of the field has to affect a hitter’s approach and ultimately his effectiveness. That said; several players listed above were productive. More than one was outstanding.

 
HR
SLG
wOBA
wRC+
Chris Davis
16
.296
.239
46
Joey Gallo
40
.498
.343
110
Matt Carpenter
36
.523
.375
138
Kole Calhoun
19
.369
.283
79
Kyle Seager
22
.400
.288
84
Freddie Freeman
23
.505
.378
137
Anthony Rizzo
25
.470
.359
125
LGE AVG
.409
.315
100

At times, opponents would use four outfielders when Joey Gallo was at the dish. Yet, he managed to deliver value with his bat. Three others listed above – Matt Carpenter, Freddie Freeman, and Anthony Rizzo – all received MVP votes in 2018.

The success of others regularly facing shifts creates a quandary. Were shifts the true cause of Seager’s 2018 production challenges or did other issues have a role in his downturn?

It’s a question worth delving into.

Seager Through A Different Lens

Let’s begin by removing defense from the equation. Doing so isolates factors not directly tied to defensive shifts. To help, I’m using my go-to saber-stat: expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA).

This STATCAST product is calculated using quality of contact (exit velocity, launch angle) and outcomes not requiring defense (strikeouts and walks). Some of the most potent bats in MLB, including Freeman and Carpenter, were top-10 in xwOBA last season.

 
Team
xwOBA
Mookie Betts
BOS
.431
Mike Trout
LAA
.428
J.D. Martinez
BOS
.417
Christian Yelich
MIL
.409
Joey Votto
CIN
.394
Nelson Cruz
SEA
.392
Freddie Freeman
ATL
.389
Matt Carpenter
STL
.387
Anthony Rendon
WSN
.387
Bryce Harper
WSN
.386
LGE AVG
.311

Since xwOBA suggests the expected outcome of batted balls sans defense and wOBA represents the actual outcome, a side-by-side comparison should provide insight into the effect defensive alignments had on our “Shifted Seven.”

 
wOBA
xwOBA
Diff
Chris Davis
.239
.272
-.033
Joey Gallo
.343
.366
-.023
Matt Carpenter
.376
.387
-.011
Kole Calhoun
.283
.334
-.051
Kyle Seager
.288
.308
-.020
Freddie Freeman
.378
.389
-.011
Anthony Rizzo
.359
.365
-.006
LGE AVG
.315
.311
.004

All players were affected to some degree. However, those with a strong xwOBA (Gallo, Carpenter, Freeman, Rizzo) were productive. Conversely, hitters with a poor xwOBA (Chris Davis and Seager) were not.

The lone outlier was Kole Calhoun, who experienced two seasons within one. Calhoun was terrible through the end of May (1 HR/.172 wOBA/.260 xwOBA). But his production after mid-June was significantly better (18 HR/.340 wOBA/.372 xwOBA).

For anyone wondering, here are Seager’s wOBA and xwOBA since 2015.

 
% Shift
wOBA
xwOBA
Diff
2015
35.7
.335
.353
-.018
2016
47.1
.363
.380
-.017
2017
54.9
.327
.353
-.026
2018
70.5
.288
.309
-.021
AVG
.329
.348
-.019

The four-year average of Seager’s wOBA/xwOBA difference is -.019, which is very similar to his 2018 number. This further suggests something other than defensive positioning affected the North Carolina University alum.

With that in mind, let’s consider metrics associated with xwOBA that have everything to do with Seager in the batter’s box and not the opponent’s defense.

Hitting With Authority

As already noted, exit velocity and launch angle help determine xwOBA. A convenient way to capture and illustrate this difference-making contact is a metric referred to as “Barrels.”

A Barrel is a batted ball with optimal exit velocity and launch angle. To be classified a Barrel; a ball must achieve an exit velocity of at least 98-MPH and a launch angle between 26-30 degrees. The range of launch angles expands as the exit velocity increases.

Khris Davis led the majors with 70 Barrels last season with an impressive group of hard-hitters trailing him on the leaderboard. Among them; Mookie Betts, Christian Yelich, Mike Trout, J.D. Martinez, and former Mariner Nelson Cruz.

The following illustrates Seager’s total Barrels and Barrel rate during the past four seasons. Also included, his MLB ranking.

 
Brls
Brl%
MLB
2015
37
7
42
2016
45
9.2
25
2017
41
8.6
30
2018
25
5.6
121

After being top-30 in consecutive seasons, Seager cratered last year. He simply wasn’t hitting the ball with as much authority last season. In fact, former teammate Robinson Canó had just two fewer Barrels (23) despite playing just 80 games.

Control The Zone?

Seager’s plate discipline didn’t help his xwOBA either. He swung more often, chased balls outside the strike zone at a higher frequency and made less contact when doing so. Additionally, the former Tar Heel registered his worst strikeout and walk rates ever.

 
Sw%
Chs%
Chs Con%
SO%
BB%
2015
45.3
28.3
66.3
14.3
7.9
2016
42
24
68.3
16
10.2
2017
42.8
23.8
65.5
16.9
8.9
2018
47
27.3
59
21.9
6
MLB
46.5
28.2
60.2

21.4
8.2

Hit It Where They Ain’t!

Mariners Twitter routinely criticizes Seager for not hitting the ball to the opposite field more often to defeat shifts. In theory, that makes sense. However, he’s been a pull hitter for most of his career and that’s not likely to change.

On the other hand, Seager did hit balls to the opposite field with less frequency in 2018 than in recent campaigns.

 
Pull%
Straight%
Oppo%
2015
41
35.5
23.4
2016
39.3
32.6
28.1
2017
37.6
38.4
24.1
2018
41.9
38.3
19.8
AVG
39.9
36.1
23.9

Ironically, Brent Stecker of 710 ESPN Seattle noted manager Scott Servais commending Seager for hitting the ball to the opposite field with more authority last Spring Training. Unfortunately, that trend didn’t carry over into the regular season.

In a nutshell, a predominantly pull hitter went to the opposite field even less often, expanded his strike zone, and hit the ball with less authority. Sounds like a recipe for a bad season, doesn’t it?

Walking Wounded

Since 2012, Seager has appeared in more games (1,102) and logged more innings in the field (9,542.1) than any major leaguer. But the former Gold Glove defender has been banged up recently.

Tacoma News Tribune beat writer T.J. Cotterill notes Seager dealt with significant injuries during the last two seasons, but never went to the DL. In 2017, he suffered an oblique strain that flared up again last year. The former third round pick also broke a toe late last June.

Despite these challenges, Seager has missed just 15 games over the last two years. Still, it’s reasonable to believe health issues negatively affected his stat line.

In Cotterill’s piece, Seager acknowledged he needed to adjust his offseason routine. At Servais’ urging, the veteran planned to incorporate flexibility and mobility work designed to keep him healthy and productive. Perhaps this is all that’s needed for a Seager revival in 2019.

Shifting Expectations

Okay, let’s assume the following: Seager is healthy, hits the ball with greater authoritatively, goes to the opposite field slightly more often, and displays better plate discipline. What should fans expect from their third baseman in 2019?

A piece of advice first.

Forget 2016.

That’s right; erase Seager’s best season from the memory banks. That year looks like an outlier to me – much like 2018 does.

Sure, last year would still be disappointing and frustrating even if Seager’s career season never happened. But his 2018 decline probably wouldn’t seem as dramatic and a return to normalcy much easier to fathom.

 
PA
2B
HR
SLG
wOBA
wRC+
2015
686
37
26
.451
.335
115
2017
650
33
27
.450
.326
107
2018
630
36
22
.400
.288
84

A reasonable expectation for Seager entering this year is production similar to his 2015 and 2017 seasons.

It’s important to remember that, despite the negative hyperbole powering the Twitter-verse, Seager is just one year removed from being a good hitter. That’s why a return of the 2015/17 version of Kyle Seager is still a doable do.

Personally, I’m rooting for the guy.

Luke Arkins

Luke is a native New Yorker, who grew up a Mets fan. After the US Navy moved him to the Pacific Northwest in 2009, he decided to make Seattle his home.

In 2014, Luke joined the Prospect Insider team and is now a contributor at HERO Sports also. During baseball season, he can be often found observing the local team at Safeco Field.

You can follow Luke on Twitter @luke_arkins
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