The Rangers have been sputtering, losing 15 of their last 19 since August 15 to turn a 3.5-game AL West lead into a three-game deficit, with the Astros, who just swept a three-game series from them at Globe Life Field, and Mariners both above them. Yet even as the team’s offense has dried up, Corey Seager has been on a tear. Since returning from a sprained right thumb at the beginning of August, the Rangers shortstop has homered 13 times in 30 games; this past week, he finally accumulated enough plate appearances to take over the AL leads in both batting average and wRC+. If not for Shohei Ohtani, Seager would have a pretty decent case for an MVP award, even with his absences.
Seager only missed nine games due to his thumb sprain, which he suffered on July 21 sliding into second base in a game against the Dodgers. That was his second trip to the injured list this year, as he also missed 31 games from April 12–May 17 due to a left hamstring strain. Yet the interruptions haven’t hindered him at all.
Corey Seager’s Fragmented Season
The shape of his contribution has varied at times, but Seager’s WRC+ has been quite consistent across those three stretches. Looking at his monthly splits, he’s posted a 177 wRC+ in every month save for May (130) and September (118), though of course the latter is barely underway (it doesn’t help that he’s 0-for-6 since I started writing this, sigh). Because of his time missed, he didn’t have enough plate appearances to qualify for the league lead in any rate stats — a player must have 3.1 per team game — until September 1:
Seager entered Thursday with a 19-point lead over the Rays’ Yandy Díaz in batting average and virtually tied with Ohtani in wRC+ (he was two points ahead entering Wednesday). Ohtani is now six points ahead in slugging percentage and 11 in on-base percentage.
Ohtani’s offensive contributions as a DH are enough to place him in the AL lead in our version of position player WAR with 6.5, 1.1 WAR ahead of Seager and 1.0 ahead of Julio Rodríguez. But in Baseball Reference’s version of WAR, Seager has a 6.1–5.9 edge over Ohtani, though the point is rather moot given the latter’s 4.1 pitching WAR.
Ohtani, who won’t pitch again this year due to a UCL tear, is close to a lock to win the league’s MVP award, but absent a two-way unicorn, Seager would be well positioned to win despite his missed time. Even leaving aside pitchers who have occasionally won the award, there’s precedent in honoring a dominant player even if he was shelved for a significant stretch. The best example of this is George Brett, who played in just 117 games in 1980, the year he chased a .400 batting average and won the slash-stat Triple Crown with a .390/.454/.664 line, that while also leading the majors in wRC+ (198) and WAR (9.1). Among pre-expansion era position players, Cubs catcher Gabby Hartnett won in 1935 after playing in 116 out of 154 games and hitting .344/.404/.545 (154 wRC+, third-best in the NL).
The presence of Ohtani means that Seager won’t win, but there’s no shame in that. What the 29-year-old shortstop is doing is impressive enough and deserves a closer look. The first thing that stands out when appraising his 2023 stats is just how hard he’s hitting the ball:
Corey Seager Batted Ball Profile
Seager is setting career highs in exit velocity and barrel rate and is near a high in hard-hit rate as well, all while placing in the 98th percentile in all three of those stats. Only in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season did he even approach these numbers, but he now has nearly 80% more batted ball events than in that shortened season.
Beyond that, you can see that he’s been pretty consistent in terms of his groundball and fly ball rates save for 2021, his final season with the Dodgers and one that was marred by his missing two and a half months due to a right hand fracture. Similar to this season, he was an absolute beast upon returning, batting .335/.417/.592 (168 wRC+) from July 30 onward, compared to .265/.361/.422 (115 wRC+) before; even so, his groundball rates were up in both segments of his season.
Seager isn’t pulling the ball more than usual, but he’s pulling it in the air at a career-high clip. Of the 26 times he’s pulled a fly ball this year, 14 have left the yard; last year, he set career highs in both categories, with 15 homers on 37 pulled flies, for a rate just below this year’s mark. By comparison, in 2021, he hit just nine such balls, five of which turned into homers. A good bit of this owes something to Seager’s move from Dodger Stadium to Globe Life Field; his newish ballpark is four feet shorter to the right field corner than his old one (326 versus 330) and 11 feet shorter to right center (374 feet versus 385). That only translates to a two-point difference in our park home run factors for lefties (104 for Globe Life Park, 102 for Dodger Stadium), but it does appear that Seager has been taking aim at right field more than ever.
I’ll return to the subject of Seager’s pull rate, but first, let’s note that even when he’s not pulling the ball, he’s doing a ton of damage:
Corey Seager Batted Balls Not Pulled
Includes fly balls, line drives, and ground balls hit to center or opposite field.
That’s all grounders, liners, and fly balls hit to center or the opposite field. Seager was similarly productive in this realm in 2020, but he’s done it this year for almost twice as long. This is a day behind, but entering Wednesday, his 210 wRC+ in this context ranked ninth in the majors:
Highest wRC+ on Balls Not Pulled
All statistics through September 5. Minimum 100 PA with fly balls, line drives, and ground balls hit to center or opposite field.
Back to the subject of Seager’s pull tendency: as MLB.com’s Mike Petriello noted this past winter, he was hurt more than any hitter last year due to infield shifts, which he faced a staggering 93% of the time. By Statcast’s numbers, Seager went 6-for-107 (.056) on grounders pulled against the shift, a big part of the reason he finished the season at .245/.317/.455 (115 wRC+) overall, setting full-season lows in all four of those marks. By Petriello’s estimate, taking into account various Statcast measures (exit velocity, launch angle, hit distance, and spray angles), Seager would have hit .278/.347/.489 had he not been shifted against.
With the shift now banned, Seager stood to improve in 2023. I can’t replicate Petriello’s full analysis, but I can illustrate Seager’s improvement in other ways. Here’s a year-to-year comparison of his actual and estimated performance on batted balls that traveled less than 220 feet (the cutoff Petriello used), regardless of infield alignment:
Corey Seager 2022–23 Comparison of Batted Balls
Includes only balls with projected distances of 220 feet or fewer.
The first set of numbers covers batted balls of all stripes. Seager has hit those balls a bit harder this year, but the expected numbers are very similar. His actual numbers show a vast improvement, with gains of 129 points of batting average and 168 of slugging percentage. He’s just one hit shy of matching last year’s total on such balls in 100 fewer at-bats. Wow!
Looking at just the groundballs, the gains are even bigger, and we can see the impact in expected stats that comes with Seager adding some extra oomph in the form of exit velo. It’s worth noting that he’s pulled fewer of those grounders this year relative to last (50.4% versus 56.3%), so that’s having some impact upon the stats as well. You can get a sense of the impact in the comparison of the expected stats on pulled groundballs, and again note that the actual gains for 2023 relative to ’22 are massive.
Where I compared Seager’s 2022 and ’23 results on balls not pulled using our data from Sports Info Systems, I thought it would be worth showing the Statcast actual and expected numbers after filtering out only the pulled grounders:
Corey Seager 2022–23 Comparison of Batted Balls, Part 2
|2022||No GB Pull*||379||137||.362||.373||.692||.720||.443||.468||91.8||20.6|
|2023||No GB Pull*||250||118||.472||.435||.940||.920||.576||.563||94.3||18.4|
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
* Includes all batted balls except for pulled groundballs.
Even when we exclude the type of batted balls most likely to be swallowed up by infield shifts, which account for about 29% of his batted balls last year and 24.6% of his batted balls this year, Seager has posted massive gains. Keep in mind that his overall xwOBAs on contact (xwOBACON) were .413 for last year and .504 for this this year; excluding these largely unproductive pulled grounders, the former rises 55 points, the latter 59 points, which is to say that that aspect is actually pretty even. We can also see from the last set of numbers that Seager was far short of his expected stats last year, but he’s right on the money this year; note that his xSLG is just three points higher than his actual SLG.
This is the version of Seager the Rangers hoped they were getting when they signed him to that massive 10-year, $325 million deal just before the lockout in 2021. Unfortunately, his durability — or lack thereof — is part of the package; we are talking about a player who’s appeared in over 100 games just twice in the last six seasons, though barring catastrophe, he’ll do so again this year. As I noted previously, Ezeqiuel Duran did an excellent job of filling in at shortstop during Seager’s absences, batting .291/.354/.478 in 147 PA, though he’s slumped lately filling in for the injured Josh Jung at third base, hitting .263/.326/.325 (80 wRC+) since August 7, when he took over the hot corner.
Duran is hardly the only Ranger who has slumped during the team’s skid (Adolis García, Jonah Heim, and Leody Taveras have all been particularly unproductive during their 4–15 slide), which has knocked the Rangers to half a game out of the third Wild Card spot behind the Blue Jays (77–63). As so often happens, the team’s spot in the playoffs may come down to those games key players have missed due to injuries. It’s tough to pin the blame on Seager given that he’s tied for his career high in WAR, but if the Rangers blow this, those absences will be remembered.