Written by: Justin Choi (@justinochoi)
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Yesterday, as the Dodgers fought their way to avoid elimination, homegrown shortstop Corey Seager stepped up and contributed to a 7-3 win over the Braves. He hit two home runs, at 104.8 and 101.5 mph, to dead-center and right-center respectively. They were gone as soon as they left the bat, escaping the cavernous Globe Life Field – it was glorious.
So in a post-victory haze, I set out to write about how much a unicorn Corey Seager is – how he switches between patience and aggression at just the right moments, how effortlessly he barrels the ball. I became giddy at the thought of promoting a player whose quiet demeanor keeps him out of the well-deserved spotlight.
There was just one problem.
As I perused the numbers, one player kept standing is the way of declaring Seager as a one-of-a-kind hitter. His name is George Springer, cheater to some, hero to others. The Astros have been on the wrong side of the baseball public, but Springer nevertheless quietly had a great season, hitting .265/.359/.540 with a 146 wRC+.
Corey Seager hit .307/.358/.585, which was only marginally better than Springer’s output by wRC+ (151). But this article is not a comparison of numbers. Rather, it’s a comparison of approaches that were, to my surprise, quite similar.
Let’s begin with Corey Seager. If you’ve watched him play for even a handful of games, you may have noticed his penchant for first-pitch swings. You’d be right – in 2020, he swung at the first pitch 48.7% of the time, which is above the league-average. But this is very misleading. When that first pitch is a strike, Seager is swinging 71.2% of the time. When it’s outside the zone, though? He dials back the aggression, swinging just 22.4% of the time. With this split in mind, you’ll begin to understand why this is possible:
50% of Corey Seager’s 2020 plate appearances ended in either (1) a 95+ MPH batted ball or (2) a walk.
— Foolish Baseball (@FoolishBB) October 17, 2020
This is no doubt a special skill, so I wanted to quantify how much it stands out amongst other hitters. To achieve this, I compiled a list of hitters who saw both 100 first-pitches inside and outside the strike zone, calculated their swing percentages for both, then calculated the differential (Z-Swing% minus O-Swing%) between those percentages.
For Seager, that would be 48.8%. But is he peerless in this regard?
Uh-oh. Springer swings at first-pitch strike 61.5% of the time, a rate that plummets to 7% on balls. He takes selective aggression to a whole different level. It took me a while to get over my shock (the .png file of this graph is labeled as ‘f–ing springer’), but I eventually admitted it. That is impressive.
Still, I tried to find ways to distinguish Seager from Springer. One characteristic that immediately came to mind was Seager’s combination of high zone-swing percentage and zone-contact percentage. Usually, unless a hitter is particularly adept at making a contact, a higher number of in-zone swings result in more whiffs, creating a moderately strong linear relationship. That’s why modern-day hitters strive for a balance between attempts (swings) and success (contact).
By plotting a hitter’s zone-swing rate on the x-axis and his zone-contact on the y-axis, we can identify outliers like Corey Seager. Surely, I thought, this is where Springer would fall behind. My wish (sort of) came true:
Sure enough, Springer is in closer proximity to the regression line, while Seager is out on an island. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that Springer is a stabilized version of Seager, one that would emerge if we had more than 60 games of baseball.
In 134 games last year, Seager had a 79.6 Z-Swing% and 86.9 Z-Contact% – that would have made him less of an outlier. Maybe 2020 Seager is the new Seager, but it’s more likely that his contact rate will decrease, bringing him closer to you-know-who.
Other plate discipline metrics illustrate a strong resemblance between Seager and Springer. They don’t whiff very often (13.4 SwStr% vs. 11.1%), which is also reflected in their O-Contact% (53.5% vs. 60.7%). Heck, even their career batted ball distributions are similar. The percentages do differ, but they’re a margin of error apart from each other:
There is one area where Seager blows Springer out of the water. When Corey Seager makes contact, he absolutely demolishes the ball. His .585 SLG this year is already elite, but Baseball Savant tells us he might have even been unlucky, as his xSLG (expected slugging percentage) was a whopping .653. His Statcast percentile rankings, as expected, are colored blood-red.
Statcast data also likes Springer’s hitting, but he’s nowhere near the upper echelon Seager occupied this season. If not for minor slumps and a flaming-hot Freddie Freeman, he might have had a legitimate shot at NL MVP.
In the end, however, wRC+ shows that the offensive value both players provided was nearly identical. Does this mean anything more?
Here’s what I came up with. As much I’d like the Dodgers to win and the Astros to lose, there is a significant chance that the opposite will happen – the bad guys win, and their victims exit without a shot at vengeance. Baseball is an essential part of our lives, but rarely does it follow an ideal.
It’s also true that George Springer, despite his involvement in one the biggest scandals in sports history, is a talented player. He and the Astros deserved to be punished, but our outrage shouldn’t prevent us from seeing obvious talent. On one poll I saw on Twitter asking who the best member of the 2020 FA class was, Springer ranked dead-last. If Seager was in his place, how would he have fared?
Maybe people haven’t looked into the numbers yet. Or maybe they have, but are in denial, because in an ideal world Springer, Bregman, and the whole lot should be in an endless downward spiral. As it turns out, though, the Astros have come a-knocking, including on the door of this article. I’ve welcomed them – out of disbelief, curiosity, and ultimately a willingness to accept an uncomfortable truth.
Follow P365 MLB and KBO Analyst Justin Choi on Twitter! @justinochoi
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Featured image courtesy of the respective photographers and Getty Images