The Remarkable First Year of Corey Seager

While the 2016 season has a month left to go, over the weekend, Corey Seager completed his first full year in the big leagues. He was called up to the majors on September 3rd of 2015, so he’s now spent a little more than 365 days as a Major League player, and has played almost exactly one full big league season. And it is hard to imagine how it could have gone much better.

Corey Seager’s First Year
160 697 0.319 0.385 0.539 151 8.8 2.3 8.5

Since the day he got to the big leagues, Seager has performed like an upper-tier superstar. Over the last calendar year, his +8.4 WAR ranks third-best in baseball, behind only Mike Trout (+10.1) and Kris Bryant (+9.0), and as he’s played at an MVP-level since arriving in Los Angeles. He might not be as elite an athlete as Trout or even more-heralded young shortstops like Carlos Correa, but he’s shown the kinds of bat-to-ball skills that make for pretty special hitters.

If you just look at Seager’s walk and strikeout rates, you might think this was a pretty disciplined hitter. His 8.4% walk rate is right around league average, but his 18.1% strikeout rate is well below average these days, especially for a player with real power. Among qualified hitters who have run at least a .200 ISO over the last year, Seager has the 18th-lowest strikeout rate, putting him in the same range as guys like Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, guys who are known for having elite strike-zone judgment.

But that’s not really Seager, not at this point. To this point in his big league career, he’s chased 33% of the pitches he’s been thrown outside the strike zone, higher than the league average chase rate. He’s also swung at 77% of pitches inside the strike zone, so he’s not being selective within the zone either; like many young hitters, Seager will go after what pitchers give him. But despite going after pitcher’s pitches, Seager barrels up the ball like few others.

His contact rate on in-zone swings is 90%, putting him in the same group as guys like David Ortiz, Adrian Beltre, and yes, Jose Bautista again. He’s not quite as good as his brother at this yet — Kyle is at 92% zone-contact for his career — but when Seager goes after a pitch in the zone, he generally doesn’t miss it. And since he’s not taking strikes, he can avoid strikeouts even with an aggressive approach at the plate.

Of course, there’s generally a downside to swinging a lot and making a lot of contact; that means you’re going after pitches that aren’t always in the middle of the zone, and can be tough to square up, leading to weaker contact. But Seager has thus far avoided these pitfalls, and has the contact profile of a far more selective hitter.

For instance, in almost 700 plate appearances as a major leaguer, Corey Seager has hit exactly three infield flies, tied for the fourth-lowest total in MLB. Avoiding pop-ups is the single best way to run a higher-than-average BABIP, and it’s no coincidence that Seager has managed to put up a .362 BABIP in his time in the big leagues, since he doesn’t give opponents free outs by hitting weak fly balls that are always caught by an infielder.

Most hitters who avoid popups to this extreme degree do so by simply avoiding hitting the ball in the air at all. For instance, Christian Yelich has also hit three infield flies over the last year, but 55% of the balls he hits are on the ground; David Freese, with two infield flies over the last year, has a 60% GB% over the same time period, and Howie Kendrick, the guy who hasn’t hit a single popup in the last year, has a 62% GB%. An extreme groundball profile can lead to higher BABIPs but comes at the cost of power; Kendrick is slugging .387 over the last year, for instance.

But Seager isn’t an extreme groundball hitter; he’s got a pretty typical batted-ball profile, except he just never hits infield flies. There’s one other hitter in baseball who has made their living that way, and Seager’s rookie year makes him look a lot like Joey Votto at the plate.

Votto, of course, is notorious for his popup avoidance. He’s only hit 15 infield flies in his entire career, and nine of those came during the first three years of his time in the big leagues; 2015 was the first year in which he hit more than one infield fly in a season, and he’s made up for it by not hitting any this year, restoring his one-per-year average since 2010. But this isn’t the only way they’re similar. Here are Seager’s numbers in the big leagues to date, compared with Votto’s career numbers.

Corey Seager and Joey Votto
Player LD% GB% FB% IFFB% HR/FB Pull% Cent% Oppo% Soft% Med% Hard%
Seager 24% 47% 30% 2% 19% 36% 36% 29% 13% 47% 41%
Votto 26% 42% 33% 1% 19% 35% 34% 31% 12% 52% 37%

Like Votto, Seager has succeeded by squaring up the ball and using an all-fields approach. Neither one is a classic monster power hitter, but they compensate for the lack of home runs with a lot of line drives, which turns into extra singles and doubles, allowing both to do legitimate damage even without top-shelf power. And the all-fields power makes them difficult to pitch to and defend.

For instance, here’s Seager’s results by where he hits it.

Corey Seager By Field Location
Pull 0.363 0.363 0.698 0.335 0.317 0.444 187
Center 0.413 0.411 0.687 0.274 0.369 0.463 200
Opposite 0.427 0.424 0.629 0.203 0.407 0.446 188

His power is mostly to his pull-side, but he’s hit just as well up the middle and to the opposite field by hitting a bunch of line drives when he goes those directions. This is the sign of a guy who can hit just about anything regardless of where it’s pitched, and more importantly, hit it hard. And guys like this are basically impossible to pitch to.

Toss in better-than-expected defense at shortstop and quality baserunning (even if he’s not a big stolen-base threat), and Seager is a superstar. He probably won’t win the NL MVP Award this year, but given his broad base of skills and how good he’s been in his first year in the majors, this probably won’t be the last time Seager is in an MVP race. The Dodgers already had the best pitchers in baseball; now it’s pretty clear they have one of the best position players in the game too.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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5 years ago

Great piece. Seager’s batted ball profile looking like Votto’s makes me very very excited. Also go Dodgers