Update: Following Seager’s surgery, it appears that he will now miss 10-12 weeks, rather than the six weeks or so estimated at the time this article was written. Please update your misery accordingly.
Last Friday, Kyle Seager dove for a ball that was smacked down the third-base line by the Cubs’ Javy Báez and hurt his hand in the process. Scott Servais removed Seager from the game during a subsequent pitching change, and the Mariners announced Monday that the third baseman would undergo immediate surgery to repair an extensor tendon in his left hand. I am not intimately familiar with extensor tendons as a matter of course, but I understand they’re what allow you to straighten your fingers and thumbs. Since you need to be able to do those things in order to play baseball, Seager will be out six weeks.
Because the Mariners aren’t expected to be very good this year — their 75-87 projection is better only than the Rangers’ in their division — this isn’t the kind of injury that you’d expect to materially affect the way the season plays out for Seattle, but it is kind of a bummer for Seager, who had a pretty bad year last year and could use a bounceback. Here are Seager’s numbers for 2011-2017 and 2018, respectively:
There’s a reasonable argument to be made that some of Seager’s under-performance last year was due to an unusually low BABIP (.251, compared to a career mark of .281), and that .178 ISO isn’t too far off his career mark of .183, but it’s hard to write off the sudden spike in strikeout rate — Seager posted a 14.3% full-season mark as recently as 2015 — especially when it comes, as it does, alongside a three-year slide in contact rate, from 83.4% in that 2015 season to 78.8% last year. Last year, for the first time in his career, Seager had a negative run value on fastballs (-0.69 per hundred seen). Something, clearly, was a little off.
One possibility here is related to the shifts deployed against him nearly 60% (377 of 630 plate appearances) of the time in 2018, though the evidence here is mixed. For one thing, although it’s true that Seager’s early years featured very little shifting (our records have him shifted against just 12 times in 2012 and only 47 times in 2013), he’s been shifted against in more than half of his plate appearances since the 2016 season, and not appreciably more since then. His decline started in 2017 and accelerated in 2018. It is of course possible that the shifts deployed against him have become more sophisticated since 2016, maybe in a way not captured by our metrics. But Seager’s performance against the shift, relative to his performance overall, has always moved around and was not, last year, out of line with his career norms (we don’t have shift data for 2011, his rookie season):
|Year||%PA Shifted Against||wRC+ Against Shift||wRC+ Overall||Difference|
Perhaps part of the problem was the fractured toe Seager suffered in Baltimore in June and played through thereafter: Seager’s wRC+ was 95 before the injury and 71 after. But his walk rate was actually higher after the fracture than before it, and his strikeout rate lower. Seager, for his part, felt the toe injury was overrated as a factor in his down year and did some work on his diet this offseason intended to limit the aches and pains attendant to a big-league season. He also showed up to Arizona with a new stance — wider, lower, and more open than before. It’s hard to know what kind of effect that change, if it persists into Seager’s regular season, will bring; before the injury, Seager was 7-for-22 with two doubles and an RBI.
Right now, ZiPS has Seager projected for a .246/.310/.427 line, which works out to a 103 wRC+ and, over 616 plate appearances, 2.6 WAR. Steamer broadly concurs. Seager won’t make that plate appearance figure, of course, but the good news as far as the injury is concerned is that Seager has always been otherwise healthy; this is his first-ever placement on baseball’s injured list. If he’s able to return in late April with a fully healed hand, a diet that improves his bounce-back time, and a stance that gives him a better ability to identify and make contact with the baseball, he could be in a good position to put up numbers better than his 1.6-win 2018, though perhaps not as strong as his 5-win 2014 and 2016 campaigns. Seager is already, after all, 30 years old, and that is not an age at which reaction times typically become quicker or recoveries shorter. That is an age, at least in baseball, of managed decline.
Ideally, 2019 will see Seager lower his whiff percentage on fastballs from about 8%, where it sat in 2018 after being below 5% for much of his career, and thereby force pitchers attacking him into a somewhat different approach than they were able to take last year. Seager has already, in the first four years of the 7-year, $100 million contract he signed with the Mariners before the 2015 season, generated 14.1 wins above replacement for Seattle. Even assuming a conservative $7.5 million/WAR value, he’s produced the value of the contract back and has three years left to go.
Even if he hadn’t, the Mariners would have every reason to be patient. In a season that will, in the best case scenario, be remembered mostly as a step along the way to something better, and with a beloved player of long standing, Seattle will no doubt do what they can to support Seager in his recovery and hoped-for renaissance in 2018. In the meantime, they’ll try Ryon Healy at third base.
Rian Watt is a contributor to FanGraphs based in Seattle. His work has appeared at Vice, Baseball Prospectus, The Athletic, FiveThirtyEight, and some other places too. By day, he’s a public policy researcher in housing & homelessness.