Seattle Mariners

What happened to Kyle Seager’s prime years? He plans to alter offseason to get back to that

Seattle Mariners third baseman Kyle Seager looks on from the dugout as  his team bats against Colorado Rockies starting pitcher Jon Gray in the third inning of an interleague baseball game Saturday, July 14, 2018, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Seattle Mariners third baseman Kyle Seager looks on from the dugout as his team bats against Colorado Rockies starting pitcher Jon Gray in the third inning of an interleague baseball game Saturday, July 14, 2018, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski) AP

Watch Kyle Seager at third base, in the batter’s box or standing atop the dugout steps between innings. In those settings he mostly presents the same even-keeled demeanor he’s had since his debut with the Seattle Mariners in August of 2011.

But watch him in those places he’s less visible, see him slump his shoulders leaving the clubhouse after a tough loss, or as he tries to explain what happened in 2018 while sitting in the Mariners dugout before a game last week.

“Or put a (camera) down in our tunnel,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “Then you’ll see it.”

Seager’s hard-pressed to admit this because it’s the way he’s wired. Why he hit .220, a career-low one year after batting .249, was partly out of his control.

Beneath that tough-it-out exterior, Seager admitted almost begrudgingly how much the fractured toe on his left foot, suffered midseason, impacted his swing, and how he struggled to find something that could be somewhat comfortable at the plate.

“But if I’m in the lineup then there’s no excuse,” Seager said. “You have to perform and I was in there every day. I have to be better.”

Not that Seager didn’t have his other flaws, but the toe injury had him going through what Servais joked was probably 400 variations of his swing. Seager said he changed something with it seemingly every couple of days.

“It was just trying to figure out how to drive the ball and I tried to drive the ball with my upper half when I lost ability with my lower half,” Seager said. “But you can’t do that, the power has to come from your lower half.”

Servais said Seager’s struggles were more tied to his approach than his swing. Seager simply disagreed when asked about that, though the two can go hand-in-hand.

“It’s not approach, it’s swing. It was definitely my swing,” Seager said. “Once I fractured my toe I had to adjust some things to be able to drive the ball because I couldn’t use my back leg. And I tried a lot of things to make it work and none of it was working.”

But going forward it has to work. Seager knows that.

At 30, he’s should be hitting his prime. The last two seasons have been two of his worst as he dealt with an oblique injury in 2017, with some flare ups of that this year, and then the fractured toe.

Servais said what he appreciates most about Seager is his toughness, never once asking for a day off other than a three-day paternity leave for the birth of his baby girl. Those with newborns know those aren’t actually days off.

But Servais sat Seager in his office over the final few weeks of the season to listen and discuss what his offseason plans hold. He does that with every player, but he admitted his conversations with Seager went the deepest.

“He’s the one guy for me,” Servais said. “He self admitted that the offense kind of runs through him. He’s in that five hole and it’s kind of stopping right around that part of the lineup and the guys at the bottom. But I feel really optimistic he’ll come back and have more of a typical Kyle Seager year.”

But for that to happen Servais recommended Seager change his usual offseason program back at his home in North Carolina, where his winters and early springs have been spent working out every day, he said, with his brother, Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager. They have a barn converted into a batting cage and Seager said he’s usually there hitting or elsewhere working out.

Servais talked about transitioning to more mobility and flexibility exercises instead of size and strength, and the third baseman was receptive.

“It’s been a long year for Kyle,” Servais said. “It hasn’t been a productive year or what he’s used to, but I do think he’s continued to try to make some changes. And where he’s at in his career he understands that maybe he needs to train a little differently in the offseason, and those are things he’s been very open to in the discussions we’ve had in the past couple of weeks. He’s actually kind of excited about it.

“Where he’s at in his career, if you want a different result sometimes the process and your training have to be a little different. He’s looking to mix that up, as well.”

And some of those recommendations were to work specifically on his thoracic and hip mobility, things that can help him get the most out of his build, stay healthier and also easier adjust when he’s not feeling right.

“When you’re young you come into the league with a lot of guys who are all older than you. You’re 25 and there’s guys like Nelson Cruz who are 38 and much bigger and stronger than you,” Seager said. “So you work on getting as big and strong as you can. Now that I’m older there’s some other things I can work on, so I’m excited about changing some things up this offseason and being able to do some different things at the plate.”

How he fractured the toe, though, was about as bizarre as it gets.

Seager took a swing in a late June game against the Orioles. He didn’t foul a ball off his toe, but it fractured, anyway. It was actually the same injury, though not as severe, as the one Dee Gordon suffered a month prior, with the ligament pulling a piece of the bone away.

Seager was batting .230 at the time, but he’s historically a slow starter who gets hot in the summer. He was in the midst of his best batting month until the injury.

But the injury simply affected his ability to drive the ball as well as he has throughout his career, and the numbers speak to that.

Seager’s hit distribution, whether he hit the ball to right, center or left field, was about on par with his career numbers, even his best season in 2016, when he slashed .278/.359/.499 with 30 home runs and 99 RBI. Seager is a pull hitter and has been ever since he converted from second base to third base full time in 2012 after reworking his swing to get more extra-base power, but it’s not like he was pulling this season significantly more than years past.

The easy culprit would be to point to the shift. Teams shifted him more than ever this season at a 70.8 percent clip, compared to 47.1 percent in 2016, according to MLB’s Statcast.

But the actual problem was Seager’s ability to get the ball on the barrel.

Statcast measured Seager’s barrel percentage at 5.4 percent this season, the lowest of his career. Compare that to 2016, when that was at 9.2 percent, the highest of his career. Hit it hard enough and it likely doesn’t matter how teams shift you.

Seager throughout the season occasionally referenced his ability to get underneath the ball, hit it with backspin instead of top spin.

“We’ve been putting in a lot of work and lately it had felt better, which is a good thing,” Seager said before the season ended. “It started to feel cleaner. I’ve been top spinning a lot of balls to right field and my last home run wasn’t top spun, which is a good sign for me and something I’ll continue to work on.”

And certainly getting the toe healthy would help his ability to get underneath balls, and be less top heavy and more leg driven.

“That was a unique injury,” Servais said. “But trying to figure out the reason for this season, is there something going on with his body from a flexibility and mobility standpoint? I’m not an expert in that area. But those are things that Kyle and that group are trying to find out for him going forward.

“He wasn’t off to a great start for the season, but after the toe injury happened there was a significant decline in what he was doing. He was trying to find it and I think you make adjustments to compensate because you still need to produce, and that’s what he was trying to do. It just didn’t work out.”

And maybe Seager tinkered too much, said hitting coach Edgar Martinez.

“We talked about that, just to simplify and take it one game at a time, one at-bat at a time,” Martinez said. “He did try to do that. It sounds so simple when we tell them, but when you walk to the plate, it’s a completely different world. A lot of times what happens is you try to do too much and as a hitter, like anything, you are better when you relax and let the game come to you instead of force it.

“That’s not our nature. We try to fix it and do something and do too much.”

Seager’s struggles were amplified by the team’s hitting woes. It burns Seager this season he had, but moreso because the Mariners turned into one of the worst offensive teams in the second half of the season.

“What I’ve learned here is that when you’re younger you worry more about the individual stuff and getting the contract and earning your place,” Seager said. “But as you get older you learn it’s about winning games and whatever you can do to help the team win, and that’s ultimately what matters.

“We outperformed a lot of expectations as a team this season, and I just didn’t do my job to get us over the hump. That’s on me, and that’s the frustrating part.”

He has time to get healthy and work on his body. Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto believes by next spring the old Kyle Seager — not the one of 2018 and 2017 — will be back.

“He’s still a guy who should be in the prime of his career,” Dipoto said earlier this season. “Everybody has their best year at some point and everybody has their worst year, and my guess is Kyle Seager just had his worst year, and Kyle will find a way to bounce back.”

TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677; Twitter: @TJCotterill

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