What to Make of Jean Segura

marc w · February 27, 2017 at 5:15 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

About a week ago (I know – I’m slow), Bob Dutton of the News Tribune had a great article on Jean Segura and his strange path to both a breakout 2016 campaign and then to the M’s in perhaps the most critical trade in recent memory. You know the statistical story – a solid rookie campaign followed by two abysmal batting seasons before last year’s explosion. Dutton adds some detail that may partially explain this odd career trajectory, from a freak injury in 2014 to the loss of his child a few months later. On the plus side, there’s also more explanation on how he might have reinvented himself – from working with Robinson Cano in the offseason to working with Bobby Tewksbary in the D-Backs system, Segura really does seem to have changed his swing. So what now? What do you make of someone who’s been one of the worst AND one of the best hitters in recent years? Has he actually changed or merely had better luck on balls in play?

The new statcast data is still in its infancy, and we (or at least I) still don’t know how changes in statcast metrics like exit velocity impact things like actual production at the plate. But if there’s anything to this stuff at all, it should help answer the question of if and how Segura differed in 2016. I’m not going to bury the lede any more than I already have: Segura looked totally different. If you want to be optimistic, this helps. Here now I’m going to rely on that venerable blogging cliche, a table comparing Player A to Player B. Hey, it’s spring training for me too, okay?

  Exit Vel. Launch Ang. Avg. Dist.
Player A 91.6 5.4 207
Player B 87.3 6 182

In 2015, both players had statistical down years. Their launch angles were nearly half of the league average, and while they didn’t K much, they just hit the ball on the ground a bit too much. Player A hit it hard, so had a better overall line, but both were disappointments. Let’s check in on both of them last year:

  Exit Vel. Launch Ang. Avg. Dist.
Player A 90.8 11.8 217
Player B 89.9 11.5 216

The gap in exit velocity’s narrowed considerably, but it’s launch angle that’s changed the most for both players. Their average distance is up, as you’d expect since they’re hitting the ball in the air a bit more. In this case, both players exceeded their own career average production, and at least from this carefully-curated-probably-misleading view, they look like doppelgangers.

Player B, is, of course, Segura, and Player A is his off-season training partner and new teammate, Robinson Cano. Both improved markedly, and both improved in similar ways from 2015 to 2016. Segura needed to stop hitting too many ground balls, and Cano needed to get back to hitting the ball in the air more. Both accomplished those goals. Segura’s exit velocity and angle averages now compare pretty well to Dustin Pedroia and Adrian Gonzalez. That’s remarkable for a guy who was one of baseball’s weakest hitters in 2015.

Segura’s launch angle and exit velocity are more or less league average now, so it’s not like he’s in the upper echelons in either metric. But for players like Segura (and Cano), you might not want to be. The launch angle leaders include guys like Kris Bryant, but also Chris Carter and Todd Frazier. There seems to be a bit of a trade-off here: you can eliminate a lot of ground balls, but you pay for it in strikeouts. Segura makes a lot of contact, so of course he’s not going to run similar numbers to Carter or Frazier – and no one would want him to. To be fair: you can be successful with the opposite strategy, as Christian Yelich and his flurry of well-struck grounders shows. But a middle infielder with league average velocity and angle numbers AND low K’s – that seems like a recipe for success.

On the other hand, you’ve got the weight of baseball history here; it’s just hard to find hitters who’ve maintained gains like we’ve just seen with Segura. There are a number of ways to look for similar batters, so I may as well start with the easiest: his BBREF list titled, uh, “similar batters.” Here’s the top 10:

1. Xander Bogaerts (938.7)
2. Alex Cintron (937.1)
3. Angel Berroa (934.4)
4. Kazuo Matsui (932.1)
5. Billy Myers (931.6)
6. Topper Rigney (926.0)
7. Andrelton Simmons (924.4)
8. DJ LeMahieu (923.4)
9. Ernie Johnson (920.4)
10. Carlos Garcia (919.3)

Xander Bogaerts is a great comp from an M’s fan point of view, but Bogaerts’ career arc looks nothing like Segura’s. He scuffled in his first full year, then got better in year 2, before improving a touch more in year 3. Bogaerts’ rise looks downright normal; an adjustment period, then age-appropriate gains after figuring things out. If that’s one template, the next two represent textbook examples of its inverse: the flashes in the pan. Alex Cintron was great in his first full season in 2003, and then played *sub-replacement-level* ball for the rest of his career. Angel Berroa was essentially the AL version of Cintron, winning the ROY in 2003 and immediately turning into a replacement-level player before fizzling out. Matsui struggled, then had a decent breakout in his early 30s, but probably isn’t a great comp here for a variety of reasons (he was much older than Segura when he first came to the US). Myers and Rigney were both D-first infielders in the 20s/30s without a Segura-esque parabolic career arc. Andrelton Simmons has simply never been a positive force at the plate. DJ LeMahieu…that’s intriguing. The Rockies 2B had 2 years that were nearly as bad as Segura’s before improving a bit in 2015 and then going nuts in 2016, leading the NL in average and posting an OPS 250 points higher than his 2014 mark.

I decided to trawl through old stats and look for players who’d gained at least 15-20 points in wRC+ from one year to the next, with an eye to players who’d also LOST ground in wRC+ before their breakout year. Here’s that list:

Alex Gordon
Trevor Plouffe
Placido Polanco
Kelly Johnson
Aaron Hill
Jose Lopez
Chone Figgins
Brandon Inge
Mike Moustakas
Junior Spivey
Marco Scutaro
Felipe Lopez
Mark Bellhorn

That’s a lot of names, so let’s break them up a bit. Inge, Spivey and Jose Lopez have some volatility in their offensive numbers, but the more you look at them, the more you see a fairly normal – if short – peak with a drop off on either side. Spivey’s peak came right when he entered the league. Inge, like Lopez, needed a while to get there, and then dropped off quickly. Felipe Lopez and Mark Bellhorn each had two good years and bunch of bad ones. Moustakas took a while to get going, and then get hurt last year, so he’s tough to use as a comp. Chone Figgins was reasonably steady in Anaheim thanks to his OBP, but then cratered in…you know what, let’s just move on.

Aaron Hill and Kelly Johnson (traded for each other in 2011) represent peak volatility, two players whose batting lines have bounced around like crazy, and producing several peaks and valleys. Hill was a glove-first SS with the Jays, before tapping into his power and raising his wRC+ by 17 points in 2007. Thanks to injuries, he cratered in 2008 before going off in 2009, hitting 36 homers and raising his wRC+ by 30 points. In 2010, it dropped again by *37*, thanks to a sub-.200 BABIP. He started well for Toronto, but after being traded to the D’Backs, he cratered again. In his first full year in the desert, though, he again established himself as an offensive force, raising his wRC+ by a staggering 56 points and holding on to some of that before cratering again (!) in 2014. It’s a strange career, is what I’m saying.

Johnson had a great first two full years in Atlanta before his own BABIP-fueled collapse in 2009. He had a huge bounce-back year in 2010, raising his wRC+ by 46 points a year after seeing it drop by 27. He struggled again with the Jays, but had a half-decent year at the plate as recently as 2015. These two players represent a cautionary tale to the idea that development is linear and smooth, or that huge gains in production represent a new skill level/baseline towards which to regress a player.

That leaves Plouffe and Gordon, two hefty corner bats with no physical or swing similarities to Segura, but whose career arcs look pretty familiar. Plouffe was drafted as a SS, but has played mostly 3B in the majors. After a dreadful start, he tapped into his power and had a decent year at the plate in 2012. He couldn’t drive the ball in 2013, but largely figured things out after that. His peaks were never as high as Segura’s, but he also never looked quite as lost as Segura did in 2014-15. Plouffe’s career is like a regressed version of Segura’s, then. There’s some hope that Segura could maintain *most* of his gains, with the recognition that there may be some down years going forward, too.

The more you look at it, the more Gordon seems like the best-case comp, which, again, is weird to say about a small middle infielder like Segura. After being one of the best college hitters in recent memory and tearing through the minors, Gordon hit poorly in his rookie year of 2007. A spike in OBP helped him easily clear the league-average mark in 2008, and seemed to set him on the path to stardom. Unfortunately, everything fell apart in 2009 and 2010, as Gordon struggled mightily at the plate, and was sent to the minors. Part of this was injury-related, as he tore a labrum in his hip in 2009 and broke his thumb in 2010, but even when he was on the field, he looked lost, with subpar power for a corner OF and what looked like a consistently low batting average. Of course, then Gordon posted a brilliant 2011, slashing .303/.376/.502 and raising his wRC+ by over 50 points from his 2009-10 average, and while he slipped back in 2012 a bit, he was a consistently above-average hitter through 2015. Yes, he collapsed again in 2016, but that’s not relevant to Segura in 2016. Gordon’s the best example in recent years of a player who was solid, then bad, then great, and managed to hold on to most of his skill improvements for a number of years.

What have he learned here? 1: It’s actually really tough to find players like Segura and Gordon, who’ve been good, then terrible at the plate, and then great. 2: As you’d expect, most players who have large improvements in their batting line regress in the next year. Many of them were good again in the year after that, but in general, there’s generally a hefty regression tax to pay. 3: We all do it, but player comparisons are necessarily limited; each player is an n of 1. 4: If you want to be pessimistic, these data would seem to support that, but there are still enough Gordons or even Marco Scutaros that suggest Segura can hold on to most of his gains.


3 Responses to “What to Make of Jean Segura”

  1. Coug1990 on February 27th, 2017 8:38 pm

    Interesting read. It will be nice to see how this season plays out. Thanks.

  2. Malcontent1 on February 28th, 2017 12:27 pm

    Adrian Beltre actually makes a pretty good comp; he’s the same height, was drafted as a SS when he was more sveldt, started his career with wRC+ of 100, 116, 90, 94, and 86 before breaking out for a 161 wRC+ at…age 25 just like Segura, where he saw his Hard Contact % jump from the low 20s to the mid-30s. Of course, Beltre came to Seattle where his wRC+ tumbled back to 90 in his first season. Luckily for Segura, the new version of Safeco isn’t quite so hard on right handed hitters, but even the Safeco-suppressed version of Beltre featured ISOs higher than what he posted pre-breakout, and once he left, Beltre stepped directly into the shoes he fashioned with his Age-25 breakout.

  3. Mid80sRighty on March 1st, 2017 7:05 am

    Good comp, Malcontent. Nice work! Personally, I think a lot of Segura’s progress was stunted by the stuff that happened in his personal life. Losing a child could easily take a lot out of you. I wouldn’t be surprised if he came close to the 126 wRC+ he put up last year.

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