Scan the fWAR leaders for third basemen sometime. Go ahead. I’ll wait. Other than Yangervis Solarte somehow being the most valuable third basemen in New York this season, the sight of the Seattle Mariners’ Kyle Seager sitting third surprised me the most[i]. Sure, he’s a fine player, and I fully expected him to put up solid numbers this season, but he’s running neck-and-neck with Josh Donaldson for the best 3B in the AL. He’s also been the most valuable (by fWAR, so take a deep breath) player on the Mariners not named Felix Hernandez. That’s right. Seager, who makes this season what Robinson Cano makes in approximately 30 innings, is the best Mariner position player by a fair margin.
What exactly is going on in Seattle right now? The Mariners are five games above .500, have the third best run differential in the AL (one run behind the Dodgers for 4th in MLB), and would be in line for one of the Wild Card spots if baseball suddenly reverted back to 1870s schedules and played only 80 or so games
Seager, obviously, is a major part of the Mariners’ success this season, but what is he doing that’s so valuable in the great Northwest?
Flashing Some Leather
Defensively, Seager doesn’t garner the accolades of AL West cohorts Josh Donaldson or Adrian Beltre, but this season Seager holds his own. Seager is fourth in MLB for third basemen at 4.0 UZR (through half a season of ball, this values would definitely qualify Seager as being an above average third sacker), and he is tied for seventh in Range Runs at 1.5. Looking at RF/9 Seager is seventh in MLB at 2.75 and he is second only to Donaldson in Total Zone Runs at 11. In other words, he’s been pretty good. Looking at the following table, though, can show that his defense has improved quite a bit over the past few years.
Seager Defensive Metrics
One of the things to take note of is that in 2011 Seager played a grand total of 53 games, so keep that in mind when looking at the stats above and to follow. I don’t want to make too much out of that season, but I added it into this table, and all subsequent tables, more for completeness than to draw any real conclusions.
Make no mistake, I’m not talking about the second-coming of Brooks Robinson here, but being competent in the field provides real value over the course of a season. Make plays, create value, and soon you’re Ben Zobrist. Just saying.
As if knowing this article was being written, Seager pulled off this nifty double-play on Sunday against Cleveland. Sometimes it feels good when a play in the field validates the numbers, even if it’s just an isolated event. Vindication!
Ability to Hit Lefties
At first, looking through traditional statistics, part of Seager’s improvement seemed to be his increasing ability to hit left handers. Wow, I thought. Look at that vast improvement in regards to his batting line.
Seager Traditional Batting Splits vs Lefties
Ok, so going by the table above, if we just look at the more traditional numbers, Seager is hitting for a higher average and getting on base more against lefties this year than in seasons past. Probably it’s attributed to some luck, seeing that his BABIP is significantly higher than in prior years, but there we have it.
No so fast. What if we look at more advanced metrics?
Seager Advanced Batting Splits vs Lefties
While Seager’s batting average this season would imply that he’s been passable against left-handers, his wOBA (a “measure of a hitter’s overall offensive value,” as per FanGraphs) is sitting at awful, looking up at poor. Whatever Seager is doing he’s not doing it against left-handers with any increased regularity.
No. We can attribute much of Seager’s success this season to his extreme home/away splits. The numbers are pretty startling when you look at them. Before looking at the splits, for a little added context, I think it would be beneficial to include Seager’s raw numbers for the last few years.
Seager’s Career Batting
And, here are the traditional statistics as shown with home/away splits.
Seager Traditional Home/Away Splits
Before making too much out of this (sort of my “That’s ridiculous!” moment), I’ll go into additional detail below when I look at the advanced numbers. However, look at what Seager has done at Safeco this season. His batting average is nearly 30% higher, his BABIP is 26.75% higher, and his OPS is 33.27% higher. Of course, we can make a similar case that he has been equally as disastrous on the road as he has been successful at home, so that’s why I included the season numbers above. You could look at Seager’s away numbers (an area that for his career he’s been at least average) as the yin, balancing out the extreme increase at home, but going off his seasonal stats, the production at home has mattered very much. He’s having a career year carried exclusively by his comfort at home.
Now, take a look at those numbers through the lens of advanced metrics:
|Year||Home/Away||HR||AB per HR||ISO||wOBA||wRC+|
Seager Advanced Home/Away Splits
Somehow, using advanced metrics, Seager’s road/away splits are even more startling. Away from Safeco, Seager has been pretty awful. But, at Safeco, he’s been unbelievable this year.
It’s almost as though the Mariners instituted a new rule that opposing teams can only pitch righties against him at home. Or Lloyd McClendon put Seager under a hypnotic trance. I’m not ruling anything out at this point. Up until 2014, in terms of wOBA, Seager has been awful to poor. To clarify what I mean when I’m qualifying Seager’s wOBA, here’s how it’s described on FanGraphs’ site:
These ratings were based upon numbers calculated for the 2011 season, based upon 0.316 being league average for wOBA, but if anything, in 2014 the numbers might be a little more extreme since league average wOBA in the current season in 0.312. Without losing our analytical minds here, we’ll use the classification above.
Seager, at best, would be considered poor offensively at home over the seasons prior to this one. Last year you argue that he was below average (basing that on the league average of 0.314 wOBA), but still we’re discussing someone hovering between poor and below average. This season? If Excellent begins at 0.400 then All-Star (more on this in a bit) might be a nice description for his Safeco performance.
Keeping with this what the heck is happening in Seattle theme, look at Seager’s wRC+ splits for the season. Once more, let me show the chart from FanGraphs for a quick explanation as to what the numbers mean:
In terms of wRC+, Seager fares much better over the years than wOBA. In 2012 and ’13, Seager was 11 and 9% below league average in terms of runs created, but that number balloons to an obscene 104% in 2014 at home. I won’t even pretend to argue that the current levels of production are sustainable, or we’ll be having this same conversation at the end of the year. Hey, ride the momentum wave while you can.
Perhaps one of the most interesting items to consider in Seager’s level of production at home is how well he’s hit for power. His previous high for home runs at home was eight in 2013, and he’s already surpassed that number with 11. He’s hitting a home run 1 in every 12.36 home at-bats, which isn’t exactly approaching Barry Bonds in 2001 territory but would certainly make him among the league leaders if he could carry that production on the road with him. (Nelson Cruz currently is second in the AL with a home run per every 12.24 at-bats if you’d like a point of reference.) Even after moving in the fences last season (left-center by 12 feet and both center and right-center by 4 feet) Safeco has been a park that suppresses home runs, particularly to left-handers. Here are the park factors for Safeco:
Safeco Park Factors
The most dramatic increase from the moving of the fences was for right-handed batters, with a marginal increase for lefties. Seager has somehow turned Safeco into his own personal launching pad. Surely, then, he’s using those new cozy dimensions in left-center to his advantage. No. Seager is about as pull happy a power hitter as you’re likely to see. In fact, in his career, he’s hit precisely two home runs that weren’t to right field.
2014 Home Run Spray Chart
Is it a case of a player growing into his power? I went over to baseballheatmaps.com to see if Seager is suddenly hitting the ball with more authority.
Fly Ball Distances 2014
The average distance on Seager’s fly balls has increased this season from previous years. This year he’s averaging 279.43 feet per fly ball, with an average of 364.7 per home run. Prior to 2014, Seager’s fly ball chart looked like this:
Fly Ball Distances Prior to 2014
Between 2011-13, Seager averaged 276.71 feet per fly ball and 362.94 feet per home run. Both are slight increases, 0.98% for fly balls overall and 0.48% per home run, in each respective category, and as the summer months come on I’d be curious to see how the numbers hold up.
All Star Balloting
Speaking of numbers, do you know who’s not in the top five for the AL in terms of All Star voting at 3B? I wouldn’t exactly call this a travesty of the highest order, but I’d like to see him make the trip to Minnesota. With Donaldson all but locking up the starting nod and Beltre likely being his backup, it might come down to if John Farrell wants to carry a third 3B on the team. Seattle will definitely have both Cano and Hernandez on the team, but it’d be cool to see Seager make it as well.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that there will be regression in terms of Seager’s home/away splits. Both figures are so extreme compared to his career averages that movement in both directions is in evitable. Unfortunately, the home numbers are due for a crash while his away numbers will even out gradually. The good news, though, is that Seager is 26, will be 27 by close of ‘14, and coming into his own as an All Star caliber player. That’s good news for Seager obviously, but that’s great news for Seattle’s playoff chances this year.
[i] As an aside, look at the list of fWAR leaders for 3B in detail. Notice anything interesting? Everyone in the top six is 28 years old or younger. Three of the six will be 29 by the close of 2014. Get used to this list. All of these guys are hitting their prime or soon will be. Welcome to the changing of the guard.