With the supernova that has been Cody Bellinger’s Dodger debut upon us this season, the Dodgers have taken yet another step towards embedding their future within their present. Step-by-step, the core of this team is evolving from high-priced acquisitions like Adrian Gonzalez and Scott Kazmir (remember him?) to eventually high priced homegrown talent like Joc Pederson and Julio Urias. The crown jewel of that latter group remains, however, the player manning shortstop for the Dodgers, Corey Seager.
Last night (5.24.17), Seager came up in a crucial spot and on a 3-1 pitch, meekly grounded out. I was at the game, and it came on the heels of the Dodgers’ 2-1 victory over St. Louis on Tuesday night, one in which Seager went 0-4 with two strikeouts and a walk. No matter how many games I watch and how much research I do, my lizard brain still instinctively goes to snap judgments prompted by one-moment sample sizes (even moreso if I am at the game). These judgments then trigger anecdotal archives that reinforce whatever “conclusion” I’ve reached. In this case, I asked myself, “What’s wrong with Corey Seager?”
It doesn’t take long before you realize that ultimately the answer is “Nothing, Dummy.” However, it is reasonable to ask the question “What’s different about Corey Seager?” because even though the dummy asking is the same one who asked the previous question, there is much more to the latter question than the former.
Seager’s season helps illustrate why batting average in isolation is such a dubious metric. In 2016, Seager slashed .308/.365/.512 and did so with a BABIP of .355. This season he is hitting .284/.384/.485 with a .325 BABIP. Fixate solely on the average and you start asking “What’s wrong?” when the truth is that in reality there are a couple of really good things happening to Seager’s hitting that bode well for the future.
He was never gonna sustain a .355 BABIP, so the drop in average was inevitable. However, Seager is walking more this year, which is why he’s actually reaching base at a higher rate than last season despite the drop in hits. Last season he had an 8% walk rate and this year that number if up to 14%. His K% is essentially the same, so it’s not like he’s staring at strike threes at the expense of more walks.
As pitchers and teams get more data about him, they are going to pitch him far more selectively than when he was a rookie. As a proven commodity now, there are times when they are going to pitch around him, and his ability to assimilate and adjust to this reality is a big deal, because it means he’s not acquiescing to the opposition and getting himself out.
Seager has had a dip in May. He’s slashing .244/.365/.410 for the month with a 107 wRC+. So even “Slumping Seager” is a slightly better than average player. Again, don’t be vexed by the batting average. He’s had another dip in batted ball luck (.283 BABIP), but he’s still getting on base at a good clip. We should all have slumps like this. More importantly, he’s not grounding out meekly as much as my anecdotally-biased lizard brain would believe.
Seager has in fact reduced his groundball rate this year from 41% to 36%. His line drive rate remains basically the same as it was last year, further confirming the notion that there’s nothing “wrong” with Seager other than the fact that he’s chosen to play a staggeringly difficult and frustrating game for a living.
There has been an interesting development with regard to his heat map, according to FanGraphs. Generally speaking, he’s increased his plate coverage at the expense of increased vulnerability to balls on the inner third. Seager’s heat map from last year looks like a giant red Jackson Pollack. He was basically Hansel-level hot in 2016. Seager even had a hot patch at the area way inside and above the letters. As we said, teams were probing locations on Seager, and as such he mashed pretty much everywhere.
This season, teams have refined their approach to Seager merging where they pitch him with a change in how they are pitching him. This season, he’s seeing more cutters such that his heat map is far more concentrated. Basically, as you get further from Seager himself, he hits pitches that are higher up in the zone. To stay in the red of his heat map as you go inside, you have to go lower. Put another way: Seager has been vulnerable up and in and low and away in 2017 more than last year.
Seager has said he really doesn’t want more than the basic info about pitchers coming into the game (velo, repertoire) but he undoubtedly knows how teams have changed their strategy against him this year. He’ll adjust. The biggest takeaway here is that he’s becoming a more selective hitter who is increasingly elevating the ball. Every once in a while someone’s gonna get in his kitchen, but he’s still the star his cumulative numbers say he is, regardless of what the lizards think.