Three seasons ago, the Chicago Cubs won 73 games. In 2015, that number jumped up to 97. And last year, well, you know what happened. In consecutive campaigns, Joe Maddon and Co. made the proverbial leap: from a mediocre team with potential to a bona fide mid-tier contender to a flexible juggernaut that looks set to dominate the sport for years to come. So this week, as part of The Ringer’s 2017 MLB Preview, we’ll be taking a look at what other teams and players — good, bad, and otherwise — are poised for some sudden improvement this season. It’s Make the Leap Week!
Talking to Corey Seager made me truly understand why people find self-confidence attractive.
Baseball is a game of failure. We’re fond of saying how even the best hitters fail two-thirds of the time. Top draft picks routinely wash out before they ever appear in a big league game. Mike Trout hit .220/.281/.390 in his first call-up, then followed it up with a .245/.279/.321 showing in the Arizona Fall League later that year. Willie Mays’s career-opening 0-for-12 streak is an essential part of the Mays legend. All ballplayers fail, which is why the phrase “learn from my mistakes” is such a crucial piece of the interview cliché arsenal. People fail, and regardless of whether you think suffering for its own sake is redemptive, our failures become funny anecdotes or teaching moments or significant emotional scars. Marine biologists can identify individual manatees in the wild by the nicks and scrapes they’ve accumulated from boat propellers over the years, and people are no different — our failures define us.
With that in mind, now imagine someone who doesn’t know what it’s like to fail on any sort of significant scale. He’d look different, right? He’d carry himself differently, talk differently, view the world through a different lens.
Seager’s just now coming back from an oblique injury that cost him almost three weeks’ worth of spring training games. After missing a week, Seager met with a room full of Los Angeles beat writers, presumably to reassure them that he wasn’t in traction somewhere and set to miss the first half of the season.
The 22-year-old shortstop strolled into the room in shorts, a hoodie, and sandals. He had a smile on his face, looking like someone had stretched out Yeah-Yeah from The Sandlot. No, he wasn’t worried about missing Opening Day, and no, it wasn’t worse than the knee injury that caused him to miss two weeks of spring training prior to last season, when he played 157 games, finished third in NL MVP voting, was named Rookie of the Year, and led the Dodgers to the NLCS.
Everything was going to be fine. And why wouldn’t it be? For Corey Seager, everything’s always been fine.
Seager doesn’t quite think he’s immune to failure. He knows exactly the last time it happened.
“I struggled in ’13,” Seager said. “I got called up to high-A, the last month. It was my first full year [in pro ball], it was the first time I ever struggled. It helped me figure out where I wanted to be, positions I wanted to be in. That was a big learning curve for me.”
It’s fairly common for first-time minor leaguers, who are used to playing only through June or July as amateurs, to wear down when they’re asked to play into September. It’s the accepted wisdom for what happened to Mike Trout in the AFL in 2011, and it’s what Seager believes happened to him.
Between fatigue and the jump up a level, Seager hit .160/.246/.320 in 27 games at high-A Rancho Cucamonga at age 19, almost four years younger than the average player at that level. Then, after about a month’s layoff, he hit .181/.253/.306 in 19 games in the AFL. That’s a pretty bad three months — but let’s back up a little.
“[I]t was the first time I ever struggled,” Seager said, and nothing in the public record seems to contradict him.
Seager is the youngest of three brothers, all ballplayers: 29-year-old Kyle is an All-Star and Gold Glove–winning third baseman for the Seattle Mariners, while 24-year-old Justin is a minor league corner infielder, also in the Mariners system. While Kyle took longer to develop — he was undrafted out of high school, then the third-best infield prospect on his own team at North Carolina and never made a top-100 list as a minor leaguer — Corey’s had a huge reputation ever since his junior year of high school.
Like so many youngest sons of baseball-playing families — Greg Maddux and George Brett, to name two — Seager grew up playing against his brothers, whose skills made him slow to realize that he was a special talent compared to kids from normal families.
“I was always around people who succeeded, people who were good at what they were doing,” Seager said. “So it never really jumped out that we were better than other people. I was just trying to be like my older brother, basically.”
The Dodgers made the youngest Seager brother the 18th overall pick in the 2012 draft, then paid him a $2.35 million bonus to turn down a scholarship to South Carolina, the two-time defending national collegiate champion at the time. On draft night, then–Dodger scouting director Logan White — who also oversaw the acquisitions of Clayton Kershaw and Yasiel Puig, and moved on to the San Diego Padres in 2014 — compared Seager to Cal Ripken Jr., then said the haul of Seager and compensation-round pick Jesmuel Valentin excited him as much as Kershaw had in 2006.
Despite his own success coming through the college ranks, Kyle Seager helped his brother make the decision to go pro.
“It was never, ‘You should do this, you should do that,’” Seager said of his older brother. “It was always him giving his opinion, and he said you can [do with it] what you want. It’s been nice to have that angel on your shoulder through everything. You can bounce ideas off him still now.”
Notwithstanding those couple of bad months in high-A and the AFL, Seager’s excelled at every level. In 2014, he hit .349/.402/.602 across two minor league levels, then followed that up in 2015 with a .293/.344/.487 line in Double-A and Triple-A before a late-season call-up brought him to the majors in the heat of a pennant race. Seager stepped right into the lineup for 16-year big league veteran Jimmy Rollins and hit .337/.425/.561 in 27 games, a performance that made him the consensus no. 1 global prospect. In 2016, he validated the hype, hitting .308/.365/.512 — as a shortstop in a pitcher’s park, it bears repeating.
Seager’s had his momentary struggles. In 800 big league plate appearances, he’s made 501 outs, and in 47 of his 184 career regular-season games, he’s come away hitless, so he can, in the most technical sense, be beaten. But a huge part of the scouting and development process for a young player is watching how he reacts to failure, and Seager just hasn’t failed at anything baseball-related, ever.
Now that Seager’s in Los Angeles and his brother is in another league, at the other end of the Pacific Coast, he’s found a new role model in his 38-year-old double-play partner, Chase Utley. Utley arrived in Los Angeles via trade a few weeks before Seager did in late 2015. Their lockers are next to each other in the Dodgers’ spring clubhouse at Camelback Ranch in Phoenix, and Seager’s found it useful to have someone who knows a thing or two about being a power-hitting All-Star middle infielder, the kind of player he himself has become.
“He’s helped me every step since I’ve been in the big leagues. Even at spring training, my first big league camp, he was there,” Seager said. “He’s been a huge mentor, good friend, everything. It’s not just a baseball relationship. I’ll ask him about personal things. It’s just another great person to be around.”
From Utley’s perspective, Seager is a relatively easy person to mentor.
“As you can imagine, it’s a treat just to watch how he goes about his business,” Utley said. “It’s pretty surreal that he’s so calm and cool and productive at such a young age. And he’s got much more to offer, too. He’s still learning, he’s still a sponge, he still wants to perfect his craft, and so far he’s doing a pretty good job of it.”
In 2016, Seager led all qualified shortstops in batting average, wRC+, and (if you count Manny Machado as a third baseman) slugging percentage. If you look at his swing, it’s easy to see why.
Seager unfolds his 6-foot-4 frame into the baseball like a tetherball swinging around a pole, just one long chain of kinetic energy from his legs to his hips to his shoulders to his wrists. The speed with which he’s able to clear his hips not only generates force, but allows him to pull hard stuff inside. The force with which he rotates — force that is ideally transferred to the batted ball — causes him to roll over onto the outside of his front foot as he follows through. Even at his size, Seager is able to get that kinetic chain moving just so every time, and he attacks the ball on a slight upward plane instead of chopping it down into the dirt, with his arms relaxed and fluid throughout the motion.
The biggest challenge — perhaps the first real challenge of Seager’s career — will come as his body fills out in his mid-20s. Tall as he is, the 215-pound Seager still has a lot of room to grow, and he had started to thicken up his lower half, just from 2015 to 2016. That usually means more power but less foot speed, or more offense, less defense. Since the moment he was drafted, it’s been taken as a given that he’d eventually move to third base, and it’s a little surprising he hasn’t had to do so already.
“He’s playing a pretty good shortstop now,” Utley said. “Who knows what happens down the road. I know he enjoys playing short and he does a good job at it, and he continues to work at it and try to get better. As long as he continues to have that mind-set, I don’t see any reason why he can’t continue to play short.”
The numbers on Seager’s defense are as varied as I’ve ever seen for one player. UZR rated him as plus-10.6 runs defensively last year, while Baseball Reference had him as average, and FRAA ranked him 8.5 runs below average, 20th out of 21 shortstops with at least 500 PA at the position. The Inside Edge numbers, which put plays in buckets according to where they take place and how frequently they turn into outs, show the beginnings of a range problem: In 2016, Seager had 33 chances on plays that get made 0–10 percent of the time and converted none of them, which is a small sample but still not encouraging. (Francisco Lindor went 7-for-36, insofar as it’s fair to compare anyone to Lindor defensively.) Even on routine plays that get made 90 percent of the time or more, Seager was 18th out of 24 qualified shortstops.
But the kind of positional struggle Seager could face in the future is, first, routine for a player like him: Ripken eventually moved to third, as did Alex Rodriguez. Second, it’s in the future. He still boasts a package of tools Utley would’ve loved to have had at that age. (Utley hit .257/.324/.422 in high-A at age 22, and didn’t play a full big league season until he was 26.)
“You name it,” Utley said. “Obviously he’s got a knack for hitting the ball hard. He’s a very good shortstop, particularly for as big as he is — he has very good body control. And to have those two things at such a young age is pretty impressive.”
One problem with projecting Seager forward is that it’s tough to find historical comparables for shortstops who were this good at this age. Expand the sample to include second basemen and third basemen, only 11 players since 1961 played 150 games by age 22 — with at least 75 percent of them at shortstop, second, or third — and posted an OPS+ of 120 or better. Seager (142) is second behind Dick Allen. Nobody who’s played as many games as Seager, with as high a proportion of them at shortstop, has hit at anywhere near his level.
That list includes some guys who burned out early, like Jim Fregosi and Bob Horner, but it also includes Rodriguez, Ripken, Carlos Correa, David Wright, and Joe Morgan. Even if Seager does move to third base, he would still likely be an elite offensive talent: His 137 wRC+ would’ve been third in baseball at that position last year, behind Josh Donaldson and Kris Bryant.
For now, Seager’s goals are largely about consolidating the progress he’s made so far — to build on his 2016, certainly, but also to stay healthy, stay consistent, and adjust to the league as the book on him gets out and the league adjusts to him.
But there’s a certain … combativeness that his two role models share that he’s still looking to add to his game. Here’s Kyle Seager getting into it with Jered Weaver:
And Utley brushing off Jonathan Sánchez:
“I wish I had a little more [edge] than I do,” Seager said. “But yeah, you know, I’ve taken a lot of things from [Utley], whether it’s having the edge when you need it or being very calm when you don’t need the edge.”
Maybe it’s just tough to get mean when everything’s going so well.