Maybe Kyle Seager Felt the Loss of Robinson Cano the Most
As the season winds down, Kyle Seager continues to struggle. Such unfortunate circumstances seem, at this point, to be reflective of the Mariners as a whole, as they press to get something — anything — going but simply can’t.
But in the midst of an arduous stretch of baseball, it may be easy to forget that both Kyle Seager and the Mariners actually started the year off well.
Over his first 50 at-bats this season, Seager hit .300 with a 147 wRC+ and the Mariners got off to a nice 8-5 start.
Through May 13th, the Mariners sported a nifty 22-17 record and Seager was meeting expectations offensively with a .248/.310/.458 line and a 111 wRC+ through 168 plate appearances.
But a pitch broke Robinson Cano’s hand on that Sunday, the 13th.
On Monday, Cano was put on the DL.
On Tuesday, Cano was suspended 80 games.
The clubhouse was undoubtedly shaken. They lost a leader and a face of the franchise, not just one of their best players. The Mariners knew a huge piece of their team could not return until the middle of August, but they regrouped.
They steamed through the rest of May with a 12-5 record and added just the right pieces in Denard Span and Alex Colomé in an aggressive, early trade with the Rays (although the latter player briefly lost a step in transition)
With the team still on its toes and now new talent in tow, the Mariners surprised with a 19-9 record in June and created some real buzz with a 53-31 record going into July. They were not as dominant as that record would suggest, but they were winning. They were constantly battling back, taking close games, and they were doing it without Robinson Cano.
New faces brought an extra layer of exuberance to the Mariners and while the wins piled up without their star player, they could boast of a team that was energetic and had surprising potential — one that had the right chemistry to put something special together. But somewhere lost in it all was Kyle Seager.
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When a team loses a star for an extended amount of time, no one expects one player to make up all of the difference. That team needs just a little more from each guy, but that responsibility can be shouldered uniquely by different players.
Kyle Seager has essentially been a starting third baseman and a key cog offensively and defensively for the Mariners since he made his debut in July of 2011. He’s won a Gold Glove. He’s been an All-Star. He’s even received down-ballot MVP votes in two years. He is a veteran through and through and remains a stalwart figure in the clubhouse.
There is no telling what went through his mind when Cano was suspended or what has stayed on it since, but if there were a time in Seager’s now eight years in the big leagues that the Mariners needed him to be as good as ever, it was right then.
Although the lineup was flowing well at the time, losing Cano meant potentially relying on streaking but relatively unproven bats in Mitch Haniger and Ryon Healy while waiting on Nelson Cruz and Jean Segura to put it all together. And although Dee Gordon and Mike Zunino were just about maxing out their potential to start the year, the middle of the order would still need something more.
In the first week without Cano, Seager hit .111/.200/.296. The rest of the month he slugged just .325. His struggles were made up for by Cruz and Segura among others, but given his fine start and .292/.393/.750 line the week prior to Cano’s suspension, you wonder what suddenly went wrong. You wonder if he might have started pressing.
Per Baseball Savant, according to their “Detailed Zones”, here are Seager’s tendencies to swing at pitches outside of the zone (OOZ) since 2016:
|Time Period||# of Pitches OOZ||Swing%|
|2018 (through May 13th)||215||12.56%|
|2018 (May 14th-31st)||107||19.63%|
|2018 (May 14th- Sep. 7th)||488||18.65%|
As soon as Cano was gone, Seager began opening up to pitches off the plate and that he is far outdoing his rates in recent years has contributed to the worst swinging strike rate (9.7%) and K% (20.8%) of his career.
Not outside the problem could be his mechanics and the approach that inspired them. From my related thoughts on this, I will borrow a quote from Mike Blowers:
"Kyle has really been heating up lately. You and I have talked about it, Dave (Sims) — him pulling the ball with authority. And that hitch with his hands where he was dropping his hands and trying to get them back up again and then swinging…the reason why he did that — he wanted to drive the ball the other way, but he was missing the fastball, so he’s gone back to where he’s just trying to push his hands back and not drop them so much."
A drastic mid-season mechanical change is always an interesting development, but it can be uncomfortable for a player and likely was for Seager. Although he looked to be improving, in the middle of a game against Oakland, he reverted from the “push” load Blowers mentioned against Mike Fiers to the now-familiar “hitch” load against Ryan Buchter.
For the two weeks between when I thought he made a mechanical change up to the day his hitched load came back, Seager did have a .402 xwOBA overall and a 96.1 mph average exit velocity against all fastballs. He managed to hit 3 home runs in 56 plate appearances, but he also hit just .204 and slugged .426. Evidently, that didn’t work for him so he went back to what was comfortable.
I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with that, but it was a fairly drastic adjustment to be so fleeting, especially when it seemed to have helped. It’s possible that as some streakiness turned into truer struggles, Seager was just beginning to scramble for answers.
His decline seemingly culminated in spilling over with an egregious and uncharacteristic defensive blunder when he attempted to nonchalantly make a force play at third base where no force out was available. On the heels of other recent defensive gaffes, it was a heartbreaking mistake.
As he had been at the plate, for the first time in the field, he looked lost.
Maybe Kyle Seager felt the loss of Robinson Cano the most. Maybe without him, he began to press. Maybe pressing caused his struggles to spiral. Maybe spiraling let his focus drift.
When he came to camp before the season, he looked like he was hitting to more parts of the field and had adopted new mechanics to help that cause, but when Cano was forced out during the regular season, he started expanding the zone, letting his approach regress, and fighting his mechanics. Too much of his hard contact ended up pulled on the ground and what he could loft into the air, he wasn’t driving consistently.
But by plainly adjusting his mechanics and making such a notable mental error, however unfortunate, Seager acknowledged his struggles and conveyed how pervasive the frustration with his poor performance and inability to find solutions had become.
If there is any silver lining in bottoming out like this, it’s that an obviously displeased and pliable Kyle Seager will return with a new approach. Whatever his strategy may be, he knows he must come up with something different for 2019 because, for the first time, the Mariners can’t count on him.
All stats referenced prior to games on 09/08/18