Kyle Seager’s Problems with Patience

Kyle Seager has been the biggest unexpected surprise of the Mariners’ young season.  He’s been a bit streaky, and it’s not like he came completely out of nowhere, but he’s been arguably the best hitter on the team and has played a solid third base to boot.

Right now, Seager is sitting on a .295/.313/.491 slash line.  He’s already accumulated 1.4 WAR, which feels like it would have led the team last year, although it wouldn’t really have.  I don’t think.  Man, the offense was bad last year.  He has 4 homers and has ripped the ball pretty consistently.  He’s probably not ever going to have Evan Longoria power or anything like that at the hot corner, but he’s already showing more pop than anyone projected.

Even with the hot start, I’ve heard and read a few people who are unsure what to make of him.  The two main concerns I’ve heard are that he’s not likely to improve and that he’s too impatient.  Let’s tackle these questions head on!  I usually procrastinate and try to work around problems, so I have no idea how this will go, but it’s going to be exciting.

First is the question of whether he can improve, or if 2012 Kyle Seager is pretty much the best player he can ever be.  I don’t have any good data to back up my position, but I think that argument is ridiculous.  Of course he can get better!  He’s in his first full year in the majors and he’s 24.  It would be strange for him to not improve.  I’m not saying that it’s a guarantee that he’ll improve.  Plenty of young players bomb out after a hot start, and on occasion they do arrive as the exact player they’ll remain for their careers.  Anyone arguing that Seager won’t improve will have to provide a lot better argument than any I’ve yet heard, however.

Part of the argument I did hear is that Seager’s frame is slight, meaning he’s unlikely to add a great deal more muscle to jump to another level of power.  That’s possible, but considering he’s already hitting for significantly more power than anyone projected, it seems foolhardy to write off the possibility of more.  Seager has an immense talent for squaring up pitches, which is a huge part of hitting for power.  Seattle Sports Insider had a few posts a while back about Seager where they pointed out that players who pulled fly balls tend to be quite successful.  Seager does this with regularity, but he also has the talent and hitting ability to hit the ball with power up the middle or to left, as well.  He’s not Jose Lopez.  His talents match perfectly with Safeco’s short right field and big gaps in left and left center.  He may not hit it as far as Josh Hamilton, but for someone with his amount of power, he’s a perfect fit at Safeco.

The more realistic and common concern is that Seager never walks.  This year his walk rate is at 2.6% through 30 games played.  Miguel Olivo was 2.4% last season, for comparison.  2.6% is indisputably low, but the question is how important that is.  Since the rise of Moneyball and the increased importance given to on-base percentage, it’s become conventional wisdom that walks are a necessary part of a successful offensive attack.  They probably are, but the problem is that walks aren’t something a batter can generate on his own.  Anyone going up to home plate against Doug Fister looking for a walk and a walk only is probably going to strike out.  That approach will work on occasion against some pitchers, but walks are a byproduct of a patient approach, not the desired result.

As a side note, that is why I was okay with Eric Wedge stressing aggressiveness last year.  It led to quick outs, but it’s also necessary to get players into an attacking mindset.  The Mariners can’t be passive.  They need to make things happen, and they need to be looking for their moments.  The challenge comes this year and in future years as they try to balance that aggressiveness with patience in waiting for the right pitch to hit, and if it never comes, then taking that walk.  That’s what good players do.  Some players skew more towards the walks side, like Angels-era Chone Figgins.  Others attack more, like Vlad Guerrero as an extreme example (that’s a bad example, as he was able to hit anything, but I can’t think of anything better right now).  Some guys work it to a science where they either do damage with a hit or they walk.  Think Barry Bonds or Edgar.  Moving on.

Kyle Seager’s low walk rate could worry me for two reasons, at least that I can think of right now: if he were swinging at too many bad pitches and/or if he were striking out too much.  He’s not swinging at too many bad pitches.  So far, he’s swinging at 30.6% of pitches outside of the zone, which is less than a percentage point above the league average.  He can certainly do better in this, but to call it a major shortcoming of his approach would be too dramatic.

Regarding the strikeouts, those aren’t a problem right now either.  His strikeout rate is 13.9%, which isn’t absurdly low or anything, but it’s definitely well below average.  The necessary result of a low K rate is that he’s either walking a ton or he’s hitting everything.  We’ve ruled out the walks, so we know that Seager’s making a lot of contact.  The numbers bear it out, as all of his contact rates, overall and in and out of zone, are well above average.  Seager swings a lot, and he hits pretty much everything, and generally he hits it fairly hard and in the air.  Except for the flyball part, he’s sort of like old Ichiro.

Seager is not really swinging at pitches out of the zone, at least not to the extent that it’s going to kill him.  He’s hitting the ball pretty well.  He’s not drawing any walks.  He’s not striking out too much.  Where does that leave us?  Stealing another thought from SSI, it would seem that Seager’s not getting many balls thrown to him outside the strike zone.  Part of this is undoubtedly because he hits everything at which he swings, which prevents the count from getting very deep.  Another part could well be that the word on him hasn’t gotten around yet, and pitchers are still challenging the rookie.  I would imagine that he’s going to see a lot more pitchers going out of the zone in the next month or two, and the true test for Seager will be how he reacts to that.

Vlad Guerrero’s are few and far between.  No matter how good of contact a player makes, they’re going to make more outs when they swing at pitches outside the strike zone.  Seager’s already shown the ability to make adjustments.  He started out pulling everything, and in recent weeks he’s sent a few doubles to left center.  We’ll see what he does as he starts to see fewer strikes.  It’s possible that he has a bad eye at the plate, but right now I don’t think we can say that.  The answers should come later.  Right now, Seager is just a guy who is attacking every pitch that comes at him, usually with solid results.  It’s not his fault that he hits pretty much everything in the strike zone.  We’ll see if he has the ability to pass on the balls out of the zone.  I bet he does.  If so, the walks will start to pile up in a hurry.  The other adjustment we’ll likely see at some point is that he’ll stalk his pitches in the zone a bit more.  Just because it’s a strike doesn’t mean it’s the best pitch at which to swing, and Seager has to start being selective in the zone as well as out of it if he wants to jump to the next level.

It remains to be seen whether he’ll make those adjustments, but keep in mind he’s still in his first full year.  He has lots of time.  Maybe he’ll become more patient and be a star, and maybe he won’t, but there’s no sense or basis for making a judgement on his career or writing him off yet.  He’ll be what he’ll be, but we won’t know what it is until he gets there.

-Matthew

1 Comment

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One response to “Kyle Seager’s Problems with Patience

  1. I’m not sure of whether it’s a question of him improving or if people are just wondering if he’s in an unsustainable hot-streak. Maybe that’s why people think that he’s at his peak already? I don’t know if I buy into that or not but this is a case where the guy has hit at every single level and he just continues to. Why would he stop?

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