Who’s Responsible for Kyle Seager?
Kyle Seager will earn $100 million, and Kyle Seager *deserves* that mind-boggling sum. Despite a park/division that suppresses offense, the 3B has become a lynchpin of the M’s offense, which sounds far more like faint praise than I’m intending. The M’s have struggled at the plate, but Seager’s power and consistency have helped bring them up from the historically awful group they were in 2010. Seager is incredible, and yet underrated, as he wasn’t a first-rounder or hyped prospect. How did Kyle Seager get here? Why did everyone underrate him? Who should get the credit for Seager becoming a core Mariner?
In Dave’s Fangraphs piece on Seager’s extension, he quotes from a Baseball America scouting report written around the time of the 2009 draft. Here’s how BA summed up his bat: “His best tool is his bat. He has a smooth, balanced swing and makes consistent contact with gap power. He ranked third in the nation in 2008 with 30 doubles and was on a similar pace in 2009. He has a patient approach but doesn’t project to hit for much home run power because of his modest bat speed and flat swing plane.” Not wildly off, right? Line-drive guy. Good bat, level swing, lots of “OK” tools, no headline-grabbing, off-the-charts skill. He hit for average and had a so-so ISO slugging (thanks to lots of doubles) in college, and that’s essentially what he did in his whirlwind tour of the M’s affiliates. His career MiLB ISO is .146, boosted by a full year of High Desert and an incredible hot streak in the thin air of the PCL.
But how accurate is that scouting report if you focus on Seager’s MLB career? His big league ISO now stands at .167, and it’s increased in each year. This isn’t the result of a bunch of hot ground balls over the bag at first, either. That “level swing” is now a clear uppercut, and that swing produces the batted ball profile of a slugger. Only two Mariner hitters had a GB/FB ratio below 1 (meaning that they hit more fly balls than grounders): Mike Zunino and Kyle Seager. This is not a recent development. Seager’s 0.89 mark in 2014 was actually the *highest* of his career. I don’t mean to pick on BA’s scouting report here – it matches his college stats, and it’s a pattern that seemed to persist into the minors. I don’t think BA screwed up at all. I think that somewhere along the line, Kyle Seager changed in some pretty fundamental ways.
Earlier this month, A’s blogger Ken Arneson wrote a great post called “Ten Things I Believe About Baseball Without Evidence.” Everyone from Rob Neyer to beat writers mentioned it, and it’s something that I’ve thought about a lot in the few weeks since I read it. Anyway, Seager’s rise to cornerstone bat reminds me of something I believe without evidence: Player development is more important than pure amateur scouting. I say “without evidence” because it’s not clear at all where one ends and the other begins. Scouts will say that the entire reason they scout make-up is to ensure that a player can make more use of coaching/player development. They’re right! They love “projectable” players for the same reason – the gains from player development are much higher for some players than others. And none of this is to suggest that scouting doesn’t matter or is overrated. It’s not; Tom McNamara got Kyle Seager before some other team did, and that decision had a big impact on the M’s fortunes. In fact, I have no doubt that scouts play a role in PD, as they’re identifying specific rough edges for the development staff to sand down even before a player signs his first contract – this clearly happened with Brad Miller, and may have happened with Seager. But Seager’s transformation from over-achieving line-drive hitter to $100m slugger is the kind of thing that underscores just what player development is capable of.
I have no idea how the M’s apportion the credit here, and it doesn’t matter all that much. The M’s PD group changed over during the time Seager was in the minors, so even if you wanted to give 100% of the credit to the development side of the house, you might have to split it again between the Gwynn and Grifol teams. In the main, it sure seems like player development has been inconsistent for the M’s. For every Kyle Seager or James Paxton, there’s a Jesus Montero, Dustin Ackley or Justin Smoak that seems to stall out (at best). This may reflect selection bias, confirmation bias AND reporting bias, but here goes: player development was one of the big stories of 2014. Kyle Seager didn’t just maintain production in the 3-4 WAR range, he jumped a level and knocked on the door of 6 WAR. The Astros (the ASTROS) rotation posted a better collective FIP than the Mariners or the Royals, headlined by Collin McHugh and Dallas Keuchel. Grant Brisbee’s post on Pablo Sandoval, the OTHER unheralded-to-unbelievably-rich 3B, mentions that Fat Panda never cracked the BA top *30* prospect list, no doubt due to things like posting a .629 OPS in the Sally League. Michael Brantley knocked 20 HRs last season after hitting 16 in his entire MiLB career, spanning 566 games and well over 2,000 at-bats.
Yes, yes, can’t predict baseball and all that. People have career years. But several years after Brandon McCarthy’s transformation, and several years into Kyle Seager’s emergence, and a year-plus since James Paxton’s quantum leap, we’re starting (or maybe I’m starting) to get a sense of how radically PD can remake a player and a team. Finding a kid in Texas or Venezuela who can touch 91 is great, but increasingly, teams are somehow able to turn established big leaguers throwing 89 into better big leaguers throwing 93. They take a so-so minor league catcher and turn him into an All Star 3B. And they take your standard over-achieving baseball rat, adjust his swing plane, and create a middle of the order hitter.
Scouting is still critical. PD wouldn’t matter if the M’s got beat to Seager in the draft. Taijuan Walker’s another PD star (so far), but he got that chance thanks to a gutsy pick in the sandwich round. Good teams will obviously have both great scouts and an elite set of coaches. To compete in the division and the AL, the M’s need to get the most out of what they have, and from a team-wide perspective, that’s been an area they’ve struggled with. But Kyle Seager is at least an example of what CAN happen; an exhibit on how the next really good M’s team might develop.