The All-Star Game is the annual grand fête for the famous and the Cooperstown-bound and the living legends of the game, and this year’s Prairie Home-flavored edition will deliver on the star power. Future Hall of Famers like Miguel Cabrera and Derek Jeter, in his All-Star au revoir, will brush shoulders in the same clubhouse, and all-universe pitchers like Clayton Kershaw and Adam Wainwright will be together in the same rotation.
But there’s always been another side to the All-Star Game, the one that shines a spotlight on the dudes who’ve never held such acclaim—the first-time All-Stars who are there soaking up the surroundings, happily snapping photos on their iPhones as if they’re the guys who’ve been given a free backstage pass to the concert. There will be 25 first-timers in Minneapolis, among them a catcher who has quietly been more valuable at the position than Buster Posey (Milwaukee’s Jonathan Lucroy); a dark horse MVP candidate from Cleveland (Michael Brantley); a former first base prospect who has bloomed into one of the game’s most dominant relievers (Oakland’s Sean Doolittle); and a third baseman who probably is the most underrated player in all of baseball.
Kyle Seager, the Mariners’ third baseman, has been overlooked and underappreciated for far too long—but his story is one that deserves the same attention as megastars like Cabrera and Jeter. This season, it is Seager, the 26-year-old former Tar Heel making $540,000 this year—and not $240 million second baseman Robinson Cano—who has been the best player on a Mariners team that is making a serious run at their first postseason in 13 years (if the season ended today, Seattle would be the AL’s second wild card team). It is Seager who is proving that yes, you can hit for power at Safeco Field (he’s hit 12 home runs this year in the pitcher friendly park). It is Seager—and not Dustin Ackley, Brad Miller, or Nick Franklin—who has emerged as the Mariners’ most important homegrown player in the Jack Zduriencik era.
Because the third base position in the American League—with Adrian Beltre, Evan Longoria, Josh Donaldson, and Manny Machado—is as star-studded as the set of an Avengers movie, it’s perhaps no surprise that Seager gets lost in the shuffle, even though the sweet-swinging lefty—a three-win player as we enter the All-Star break—has been the best player in Seattle, and one of the best position players in the entire game. Even with his abysmal April, Seager is hitting .276/.350/.485 with 14 home runs. This season hasn’t come out of nowhere: Last year, Seager had his second-straight 20-home run season, making him just one of five third basemen to hit 20 home runs the past two seasons.
Some young ballplayers take off immediately. Seager, who was never a top-100 prospect, has steadily improved over time, and now, at 26, now entering his prime, he’s one of the most valuable position players in the league. So how has he skated under the radar for so long?
You could say that Seager has been playing in the shadows since his AAU days in the small town of Concord in North Carolina. Growing up, he was always one of the most talented youngsters on the field, and yet, there was one quietly confident kid from a neighboring town who was always better: A left-handed infielder from Winston-Salem named Dustin Ackley.
“Dustin was always the best one,” Seager recalled one recent afternoon before a game in Seattle. “I just remember, before I got to know him, not really liking him at all. It felt like we’d play his team every weekend for a championship, and he’d lead off every game with a home run. After the sixth or seventh game of him doing it, it got pretty old. Dustin was unbelievable back then.”
Seager and Ackley were teammates on travel teams through high school, became friends, and then both enrolled at the University of North Carolina, where they were freshman year roommates. “We were just two guys who talked a lot of baseball and played video games," Seager said. While Seager was an excellent hitter at Chapel Hill—he hit .393/.487/.592 as a junior as the Tar Heels advanced to the College World Series for the fourth straight year— Ackley was UNC’s unquestioned star, and eventually the best college player in the land not named Stephen Strasburg. In the 2009 draft, Ackley went as the second overall pick behind Strasburg. Seager, then 5-foot-10, 190 pounds and regarded as a doubles hitter, was taken by the Mariners 80 picks later, in the third round, as the fourth position player selected by Seattle in that draft.
Seager was the unsung guy at UNC, and he was always the forgotten prospect in the Mariners' system. While Ackley, Franklin, and Miller, the more heralded homegrown players, were being hailed as the great hopes for the Mariners, Seager was quietly putting up solid numbers in the minors, where he hit .333/.399/.495 at the Double-A and Triple-A levels in 2011 before he was called up to the Show. In his first full season, in 2012, he hit .259/.316/.423 with 20 home runs, and has gradually improved since. Now, in his third season, he is part of a changing of the guard at third base, as he and fellow All-Stars Donaldson and Cincinnati’s Todd Frazier have been the third base leaders in WAR this season.
Seager breaks down as much video as any player in the Mariners' clubhouse—every day, an hour before the team goes out to stretch, Seager sits down in the video room and looks at video of his swings from the previous night, also breaking down video of the opposing pitcher and looking at how other lefthanders from the past month have done against that night’s pitcher. He is a notorious tinkerer, constantly making adjustments. One of those changes nearly sunk his 2014 before it began.
“Last year, I made an adjustment in September to create a little rhythm and separation, and it wasn’t a good move for me,” he said. “I had the offseason to work and change some stuff where I got comfortable. I was putting myself in good positions, but didn’t really have any rhythm to my swing. It wasn’t flowing well, it was kind of mechanical.”
After a horrid month of April in which he hit .225/.319/.450, Seager adjusted yet again. “I got a lot of work in with Ho Jo”—hitting coach Howard Johnson—“and [manager Lloyd] McClendon in the cage," Seager said. "One day in Miami, the suggestion was made that I change my hand position up a little bit so I could kind of stay on top of the ball. It took a few games for the changes to really sink in, but that has helped out a lot.”
The presence of Cano in the Mariners' clubhouse has also helped Seager take the next step this season. “Just watching this guy on a daily basis has been unbelievable,” Seager said. “Something he doesn’t get enough credit for: Everyone talks about how relaxed he is and how the game looks easy to him, almost like he’s not trying. Well, he’s really got a pretty good approach and really good attitude, and he works hard, a lot harder than a lot of people think. When it comes to the game, he can relax and play that way because he’s put the work in and he’s prepared.”
Added Seager, “I talk to [Cano] all the time about hitting and his approach. Any time I can pick his brain, I will – he does a lot of small stuff in game that helps me out so much. If we’re playing a team we’ve played a lot, he talks about specific pitchers and pitches he gets, and he’ll come up to me before an at-bat and he’ll tell me exactly what to expect, and sure enough it’s what I get. That’s definitely given me a bit of an edge this season.”
Cano was signed to turn Seattle into a playoff contender overnight, and he has done his part this season, hitting .327/.387/.447; though his home run total (six) has been lower than expected, it has nonetheless still been All-Star-caliber season from the 31-year-old second baseman. The former Yankee will start at second base in Minnesota, as the ace of Seattle, Felix Hernandez, will take the mound as the likely AL starter. The player who has been Seattle’s true MVP through the first half of the season will also have his moment: Kyle Seager will be introduced as an All-Star, and the most underrated player in baseball will get his due, at last.