Corey Seager having historic season, but Dodgers' rookie already won race that matters
- While helping Los Angeles roll to the NL West title, Corey Seager has established himself not just as an MVP candidate, but also as the best player in a family that includes two siblings who also play professionally, including older brother Kyle of the Mariners.
Jody and Jeff Seager may watch more baseball than anyone else on the planet.
Not counting spring training and the postseason, their three boys’ teams take the field 464 times a year, and the Seagers estimate they miss 10 of those. Most nights they're on their couch in the living room of their Kannapolis, N.C., house by game time (usually at 10:05 p.m. Eastern; Jody jokes that she can’t understand how not even one of their sons could have ended up with an East Coast team) tuning in to a home theater setup that could take over for MLB’s replay command center in a pinch.
Around the time their youngest son was called up to the major leagues last September to join the oldest, who’d been there since 2011, Jeff built a wood frame and stacked two 59-inch TVs on top of each other so he and his wife could catch both games simultaneously. For the middle son, who is in the minor leagues, they prop a laptop on the coffee table and load the video or audio stream. When they’re attending one boy’s game in person, they follow the other two on their phones. Somehow they’re still up at 6 a.m. and out the door for work; Jeff works in information technology for Ally Bank, and Jody is an educator.
“We get a little tired by the end of the season,” Jeff acknowledges.
Still, the Seagers can’t imagine missing out on the blossoming careers of their three sons. Kyle, 28, is the Mariners' third baseman whose 6.6 WAR ranks as the seventh-best in the major leagues. Justin, 24, is a corner infielder in the Mariners’ system who put up a .731 OPS at Class A Bakersfield this year. And then there’s 22-year-old Corey, the Dodgers’ rookie shortstop.
“Kyle always told me Corey was the best one,” says Los Angeles third base coach Chris Woodward, who coached Justin in 2013 as Seattle's minor league infield coordinator coached and worked with Kyle the next two years with the Mariners. “He showed me videos of him in A-ball, saying, ‘He’s way better than I am.’ I said, ‘Hold up now, you’re pretty good.’ After getting to see him ... yeah, he’s pretty special.”
Spend an hour in the Dodgers’ clubhouse and two coaches will tell you of their intentions to attend Corey Seager’s Hall of Fame induction. Neither will be joking.
Seager, on the other hand, is busy enjoying the perks of the major leagues.
“My first meal in the big leagues was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” he says of his call-up in September 2015. “We didn’t have bread or jelly or peanut butter in the minor leagues. It was all almond butter and no bread at all." When his new teammates asked why he wasn't enjoying the hot meal the club puts out, Seager said, "I haven’t had bread in six months. This is the best thing I’ve ever tasted.”
He was delighted to get a break from all-organic Dodger Stadium spread recently as well, packing himself a goody bag of the unhealthy chips and candy the Yankees' staff had provided.
“I was pretty excited about that,” he admits.
At moments like this, he looks much too young to be having the year he’s having, which is the best offensive season by a rookie shortstop in baseball history. His 142 OPS+ beats the next contender’s by eight points. On June 3, he hit three home runs against the Braves, making him the first rookie ever to do so. Seager is a lock for the National League Rookie of the Year award and might even pick up some MVP votes. He’s third in the league in hits (187) and doubles (40), fifth in total bases (310 and runs scored (101), sixth in batting average (.315) and 12th among all MLB players in WAR (6.1), and his 25 home runs are the third-most in baseball history by a shortstop. Not bad for the ninth-youngest player in the major leagues.
Seager's performance is a big part of why the Dodgers are closing in on their fourth straight NL West title, and his teammates have taken notice.
“I have the best ticket in baseball,” says third baseman and No. 3 hitter Justin Turner, who is usually standing just to Seager's right in the Los Angeles infield or in the on-deck circle for Seager’s at-bats. “It’s amazing to watch every day. I hear him say, 'This is what I’m going to do,' and then he’ll go up and do it. Something new impresses me every day with him.”
Seager has been impressing people since his days growing up in North Carolina, about 30 minutes north of Charlotte. Travis Watkins, Seager’s best friend since they were eight, insists they never attended a single party in high school because they spent Friday and Saturday nights letting themselves into the batting cages to take BP. That work paid off when Seager, who had committed to attend the University of South Carolina, was chosen by the Dodgers with the 18th pick in the 2012 draft and signed a contract with a $2.35 million bonus.
By then, Kyle was in his first full major league season with Seattle, and Justin was already playing at UNC Charlotte (he would be a 12th-round pick by the Mariners in 2013). Teammates and coaches point to the fact that Corey, having watched his brothers experience their own highs and lows, already knew what to expect when his turn came.
“It wasn’t the first time he’d seen anything,” says Watkins. “So there were hardly any surprises.”
Woodward first noticed that cold blood during L.A.’s fifth spring game last March. Seager was still looking for his first hit of 2016 when he cost the Dodgers three runs with back-to-back errors in the first inning. Minutes later he struck out looking. He announced to Woodward that he knew exactly what he had done wrong and stayed in the game long enough to collect two hits and make a great play in the field. In the coaches’ meeting afterward, Woodward was effusive. “That guy’s different,” he said.
Seager’s calls his strategy to maintain his short memory for success and failure "wandering;" in between pitches he’ll look at a baby in the stands or count how many fans in the front row are on their phones.
“These games last so long, you can’t be completely locked in for three and a half hours,” Turner says. “The fact that he is—I call it spacing out—in between pitches, and not thinking about it is even more of a reason of why he is so good, because he has that ability to tune out and then bring the focus back in, and he does a great job of being present at every pitch. His focus is at a peak every time a pitch is made, and that’s what great players do on both sides of the ball.”
Much of the value Seager provides comes from his bat. Then Dodgers hitting coach Mark McGwire once stopped a session in the cage to tell him to go call his father and thank him for teaching him his simple, fluid lefthanded swing. Seager’s ability to compress his 6’4”, 215-pound frame and stay short to the ball while generating tremendous torque in his lower half allowed him to become the only person this year to rank in the top 10 in the league in both singles (fourth, 118) and extra-base hits (seventh, 69).
Seager has four inches on his older brother, and because of that size scouts long wondered if he could stick at shortstop. When the Dodgers drafted him, MLB Network’s Greg Amsinger explained to his audience that the high-school All-American would likely switch to third base.
“I got kind of written off,” Seager says now. “I got asked in [post-draft] interviews what I thought about moving, and it’s like, I’ve never played a day at third base.”
So he focused his energy on learning how to accommodate his mass. He had to practice planting his feet while catching the ball such that he was already turning toward first base. He’ll never have the all-world range required to get in front of ground balls in the hole, so he worked on making the plays from his backhand. He spent weeks learning to transfer his hitting mentality—he thinks of how a motorboat starts by leaning backward, then thrusts forward—to his throws to make them more efficient and give him more time on the front end. He devours scouting reports, trying to gain an inch or two of advantage in positioning himself. Most of all, he asks questions constantly, of coaches and of double-play-mate and 14-year-veteran Chase Utley.
“He’s starving to get better,” Woodward says.
The results have been good. The metrics that like him most, like Fangraphs’ defensive runs above average (sixth among qualified shortstops, with 17.1), consider him elite; at worst, if you take the view of statistics like defensive runs saved (13th of 25 shortstops, with -1 DRS), he’s about average. Either way, in a season in which the Dodgers have broken the record for players placed on the disabled list but remain in control of the division, he’s been a star.
Not that he’ll admit it. He hesitated when Dodgers fans at Yankee Stadium included him in their own roll call of L.A.'s starting lineup this month (“That’s Derek Jeter’s thing,” he explained to his mother later) and was too nervous even to introduce himself to his boyhood hero when they crossed paths at the 2014 All-Star Game in Minnesota—Jeter there for his last Midsummer Classic, Seager having started the Futures Game. He gets giddy when he reaches base and there stands a player he grew up watching.
There have been other childlike moments along the way, of course. There was the time Jody gave him a frozen baked ziti with the instruction to bake it for 45 minutes at 375 degrees but without the instruction to defrost it first. And there was the time he didn’t want to find his own place to live when he got called up to Double A for the last 38 games of the 2014 season and instead crashed with teammate Scott Schebler, now the Reds’ rightfielder. (“The No. 1 prospect in baseball slept on my kitchen floor for two months,” Schebler says now, laughing. “And he hit .345!”) But for the most part, it’s been a smooth transition to adulthood for the only member of his family not to take the intermediate step of college.
“I tell him, ‘You’ll be a superstar,’” says Woodward. “My job is to help him be a generational player. I don’t think that’s too much to ask of him.”
Sibling rivalry is on full display when the Seagers get together. As a child, Kyle once convinced Justin to stand still so he could practice throwing a brick around him. (Kyle did not throw it around him.) The older two beat Corey in every pursuit and reminded him of it; he mastered the art of quietly provoking them, then running to their mom in tears when they retaliated. Jeff got used to refereeing when games got out of control. “Two-hand touch became two-hand shove became an all-out brawl,” he remembers.
Today their competitions end less violently. They work out together in the off-season and pick an activity every day to determine who pays for lunch: The loser buys the winner’s, and the middle takes care of himself.
“You don’t have to finish first, but you can’t be last,” Corey says.
He finally did get to be first, though, last October, when Los Angeles made the playoffs. Corey made his major league debut on Sept. 3 and tore through his first 27 games, hitting .337 and posting a .986 OPS. Six months removed from Double A Tulsa, he became the youngest player in Dodgers history to start a playoff game when he was in the lineup batting third for Game 1 of the NLDS against the Mets.
Los Angeles lost to New York in five games, but there was still a sweet moment waiting for Corey. When he got home, Kyle said, “I can’t believe I have to ask you this, but what’s the postseason like?”
Corey beams now, thinking of it. “That was the first thing that he hadn’t experienced,” he explains. “As a little brother, you only need it once. He can have all those other times; I got it once, and that’s all I need.”
They might experience it together this year. With the Dodgers seemingly in control of the NL West and the Mariners within two games of the wild card, it will likely be another few weeks before Jody and Jeff can start their annual fall tradition of seeing other people and going to sleep at a reasonable hour.
“That’s okay with me,” says Jody with a laugh. “This is the fun part.”