The Greatness of Corey Seager, Appreciated

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The Corey Seager experience has been a little subdued this spring.

The 2016 National League Rookie of the Year has a sore elbow that has lingered since the second half of the 2017 season. He served as the Los Angeles Dodgers’ designated hitter in the defending NL champs’ 13-5 win over the White Sox in the preseason opener on Friday, a genuinely strange sight. Seager then sat out on Saturday with a stomach illness. 

Seager’s third full year in the Major Leagues started without a trusted mentor. Oklahoma City hitting coach Shawn Wooten, a favorite of Seager’s, was cut loose by the team in the offseason. He’s with the Angels now (Los Angeles, that is), and Seager admitted to The Los Angeles Times he was disappointed by the exit.

Seager’s had some high-profile disappointments of his own, the most noteworthy coming when a bad back knocked him out of last year’s NLCS. The Dodgers prevailed, of course, but his numbers in the ensuing Fall Classic (six hits in 31 plate appearances, .661 OPS) were underwhelming. His groundout ended Game 7, the Series and the season.

Appreciating Corey Seager

Do I come here to bury Seager? No, I come to praise him.

Seager’s headlines over the past few months, to the extent that he’s had any press, have been so gray and depressing that I wanted to take a moment to celebrate our 23-year-old boy wonder.

The Dodger Stadium dirt between second and third base was a burial ground of false hopes, broken dreams, fast starts, frustrating injuries and, ultimately, sullen disappointments for decades before Seager arrived. 

Seager gives us our first real homegrown star and long-term solution at the position since — well, Jose Offerman, maybe? Offerman was an All-Star in 1995 after four seasons of promise, potential and defense horrific enough to scare children.

Offerman was promptly traded to Kansas City for the great Billy Brewer before the 1996 season. Brewer, in turn, was flipped to the Yankees a few months later. He never donned a Dodger uniform.

Mariano Duncan? He had a nice rookie season. He was also a shaky fielder who never really hit until he left L.A. 

Bill Russell? A cornerstone of the infield for a decade, a three-time All-Star, a great Dodger. Not much at the plate.

Maury Wills? Now we’re talking. But again, Seager is a much, much better hitter.

Numbers don’t lie: The NL’s best shortstop

There’s no debate that Corey Seager is an excellent baseball player. He’s won the NL Silver Slugger award and played in the All-Star game in each of his two full seasons in the Major Leagues. We’ve seen him do great things, like becoming the first Dodger rookie to smack three home runs in a game in 57 years, blasting a 462-foot shot off the Giants’ Johnny Cueto or taking Justin Verlander deep in the World Series. 

But, like many things, it can be easy to discount greatness in the moment. We see an Oscar-winning film and think , “Meh, that was OK.” We see our favorite artist in concert and find ourselves wondering how bad the traffic will be on the drive home. We see Corey Seager crush homers and it just seems like that’s what he’s supposed to do.

It’s not until we’re stuck watching the new Cloverfield movie, or the Justin Timberlake halftime show, or Asdrubal Cabrera playing shortstop, that we appreciate the greatness we once had the privilege to witness.

Twenty-three shortstops logged at least 100 games in 2017. There’s big-time talent in this bunch — Francisco Lindor, Didi Gregorius, Carlos Correa, Trevor Story and Zack Cozart are a few names that jump out. Gold Glovers Brandon Crawford and Andrelton Simmons are in the group. Paul DeJong would have won NL Rookie of the Year were it not for Cody Bellinger.  Elvis Andrus entered the 20-20 Club with 20 home runs and 25 stolen bases.

How did our guy stack up among those stars? Quite well, thank you. Seager ranked third in on-base percentage (.375), fifth in batting average (.295), seventh in both slugging percentage (.854) and OPS (.854) and eighth in home runs (22). 

Although he won’t turn 24 until April, Seager is the already best overall shortstop in the Senior Circuit. His 5.6 WAR in 2017 was nearly a full run higher than the former Cincy SS Cozart’s 4.9. He’s now with the Angels, too. No other shortstop is the National League was even close.

And that’s even with Seager’s occasionally tumultuous defense, which — statistically speaking, anyway — isn’t that bad. His Ultimate Zone Rating in 2017 was 6.7, down from 10.6 in 2016. Crawford — the NL Gold Glove winner  last year— had a UZR of seven.

Out of the corner of your eye, you can see me shrugging.

All the young dudes: How does Corey Seager stack up historically?

Mike Trout, our American League neighbor, gets compared favorably to Mickey Mantle. Cheers to Trout, who, by all accounts, seems like a genuinely good guy.

Maybe we should have similar conversations about Seager.

Consider any shortstop in Major League Baseball from 1903 — the year of the first World Series — through the present day. How many hit more home runs between the age of 21 and 23 than Corey Seager, who has 52 in his first three seasons?

Exactly four: Alex Rodriguez, Cal Ripken, Lindor and former St. Louis Browns / Boston Red Sox great Vern Stephens, who played his last game before the Dodgers even moved to Los Angeles.

From that same cohort of young men — 114 years’ worth of shortstops — Seager is seventh in OBP (.374), .001 behind Johnny Pesky. They named a foul pole after Pesky in Fenway Park. Seager is seventh in OPS (.876),  although he does trail several of his contemporaries (A-Rod, Story, Hanley Ramirez and Ian Desmond) in that category. Expectations of the position have certainly changed over a century.

Seager is 11th among our select list of young shortstops in slugging percentage (.502) and 12th in batting average (.305). He falls to 35th in hits but he’s 26th in RBI and 16th in doubles.

In fairness, only 384 players have logged games at shortstop at ages 21, 22 and 23, so the pool is a bit limited. 

What we’re really saying, though, is that only 384 of the 17,000 ballplayers found in the annals of the National Pastime since 1903 were talented enough to reach the Majors by age 21 and good enough to play its most challenging position for at least one game per season before turning 24.

Just 384. That’s a little over two percent — and Seager is among the very best of that elite group.

Enjoy Corey Seager, friends

As we watch Corey Seager this spring, let’s hope that his elbow heals nicely. Let’s cross our fingers that his sore back doesn’t act up.

Rub your rabbit’s foot and pick a four-leaf clover and wish upon the brightest star you see that he doesn’t pull another oblique, hurt his knee or get run over by an Uber driver in Lot 11.

If you go to the game with your kids, or your friends, or even if you just need to nudge the guy in the seat next to you, make sure that everyone pays close attention to whatever Number Five does on the field. Forgive him when the occasional grounder bounces between those wickets.

Why? Because we’re lucky. We’re so lucky.

We’re seeing something special every time we watch Corey Seager play.

(NOTE: Lindor and Correa both make numerous appearances with Seager on the list of 21-23-year-old shortstops from the 114-year World Series era. Take a quick moment to appreciate that we may be watching three of the greatest shortstops in baseball history over the next decade and change).




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