There’s a pretty defined career progression in the sport of baseball. You make your late teens through the lower minors or college ranks, spend a couple of years of your early twenties in double and triple A, and by age 23 or 24 you’re in the Show. You spend a couple of years getting acclimated to pitchers who have multiple plus pitches with pinpoint control and upper 90s velocity. Then you reach the mid to late twenties where you hit your peak, and how you age defines how you’re remembered.
But recently there’s been an influx of players who are just too freaking talented to match this trajectory. Guys like Bryce Harper and Mike Trout started paving the way; now we’ve got teenagers and guys in their early 20’s in the majors, and having great success in it as well.
Corey Seager is just another one in the rush, making his debut after just turning 21 years old, and mashing up anyone who dared pitch to him with a 176 wRC+ over his brief 113 plate appearances. Of course that’s not a very likely number to sustain for such a young player, but 2016 saw more success from the kid, hitting for a 137 wRC+ with 26 bombs and a .204 isolated slugging, with plus contact too hitting .308 on the year.
And while we are used to career arcs with traditional improvement at Seager’s age, his level of success leaves us wondering if he has anywhere to improve. Of course, numerically there are still ways to jump up, but given who he is and his play style, where does the projection go?
First, let’s look into his contact and if he’s a .300 hitter long-term. He hit .355 on balls in play, even though his speed isn’t anything special, and he hit just 29.3% fly balls with a 46.3% ground ball rate. If he continues to hit so many grounders there is a good chance his contact stays high, especially with good hard contact rates (career 40.7% compared with league’s 31.4%). Those sharp grounders have a better chance of going for hits than dribblers, even more so with a lack of elite speed. He also has shown a strong ability to spread the ball out, going opposite 28.6% in 2016, improved on the league average of 25.6%. Take a look below at his spray chart and how well he hits to all fields:
His BABIP looks a little lucky on the surface, but there’s no reason for him to decrease his contact by much given the peripheral numbers. He looks like a lock for .28o+ per season, with the ability to reach .320 on a good year.
While the ground balls help keep his contact up, something concerning is how those are going to affect his power output. While you can get some contact doubles on grounders down the line, keeping his ISO over .200 is going to be tough with that many balls on the ground. He’s one of only four players in the league with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title to hit for an ISO over .200 with a grounder rate at 46% or above, joining Yasmany Tomas, Ryan Braun and Jackie Bradley Jr. One of those has had sustained success in the league, but the other two are too young to make proper projections about them as cohorts for Seager. There are so few players with that combination of power and grounders which is concerning, and confirms suspicions about it.
And although we mention concerns in the paragraph above, there still is some upside in regards to power. If he lowers the grounders (and the liners regress back to about 20%), as well as raising his fly balls, there’s a chance for him to become a real serious power hitter. As is, we should project for his 2017 power to be described best as above average to plus, which is somewhat of a step back from last year. But if he sacrifices some of his contact, he becomes a 30+ homer hitter pretty easily, and much more productive overall as a result. While it’s not the most likely scenario given his career trends, it’s something to look for early in the year. Batter ball profiles tend to stabilize pretty early, so if a month or two into the season he’s hitting more fly balls, it’s a good move to try and acquire him if possible.
Long term, Corey Seager is one of the best young stars in the league. His mix of power and contact is exceptionally valuable, especially from the offense dry position of shortstop. Seager still has some room to grow with his power, and his current peripherals limit that to what we saw in 2016, and probably lower. But if we start seeing a shift in his fly ball rates then the plus power is likely to follow. Buy Seager for his contact, but don’t believe in any power jump just yet. He’s one of the better players in the league, but his current perceived value is higher than his actual value.
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