[Editor's note: Major League Baseball enters the 2017 season loaded with talent at the shortstop position like it has never seen before—not even in the early and mid-nineties when Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, and Nomar Garciaparra arrived. This week, VICE Sports will preview the upcoming season by examining the shortstop position, how it has evolved over the past 100 years, and where things stand right now. First up, Jean Segura, who in another era might have been considered one of the best shortstops in baseball.]
"Jean Segura fit our club as well as any player we were looking at on the trade market." —Jerry Dipoto, general manager Seattle Mariners.
At first glance, there's nothing that interesting in Jerry Dipoto's words. A GM acquires a player, and then says nice things about him. But a year ago, it would have been insane to imagine a baseball executive, even one who has explored the weirdest corners of the trade market like Dipoto, talking about Segura that way. It would have been even crazier to imagine Segura as the centerpiece of a deal for Taijuan Walker, Seattle's most electric pitching prospect since Felix Hernandez.
The Mariners are a weird baseball team. Last year, they won 86 games. They had Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager, and Nelson Cruz. Surrounding them were mostly a bunch of hired guns picked up on cheap short-term contracts by Dipoto.
They still have their superstars for the 2017 edition. They have some new hired guns, too. Jarrod Dyson, Carlos Ruiz, and Danny Valencia were acquired in three of the 10 trades Dipoto made this offseason. But the biggest deal he made, and the most shocking for baseball fans, was netting Segura.
Going into last season, Jean Segura's career was in free-fall. He was coming off two years of batting .250ish with no pop, no discernible batting eye, nothing to distinguish him as an everyday major league hitter. He could play a respectable shortstop and steal bases. That was it.
"Few harbor any real expectations for Segura anymore," wrote Baseball Prospectus in their capsule about him prior to the 2016 season.
Segura had debuted with the Brewers in 2013, batting .294/.329/.423 and stealing 49 bases as a 23-year-old rookie. He was dynamic. He made the All-Star team, and it it looked for a moment like he and Carlos Gomez might join Ryan Braun as franchise cornerstones in Milwaukee. Then it all fell apart. Two awful years later, the Brewers dumped Segura on the Diamondbacks to make way for their next shortstop of the future. Arizona shifted him to second base, a position he had never played in the majors.
The best baseball of Jean Segura's career appeared to be behind him. He was 25 years old and on the verge of disappearing into the crowded middle infield depth chart of a mediocre team. He had started his career as a budding star, but he had settled into something very familiar: a prototypical light hitting shortstop.
In another era, this might have been fine. During his first three seasons, Segura put up a triple slash line of 266/.301/.360 which would have made him, essentially, an average offensive shortstop in the 1980s—think Spike Owen with speed. But shortstop production has improved a lot since then, relative to other positions. According to wRC+, an advanced stat which measures weighted offensive production relative to the rest of the league, 2016 was the best offensive season the shortstop position has had in a century. The position produced a wRC+ of 92—just eight percent below league average production.
Segura's career—and the way he has been viewed within the baseball industry—reflect the way the game, and the shortstop position, have changed. Hitting like an average 1980s shortstop is s simply not enough to make you a decent regular in the contemporary major leagues. Had things continued apace for Segura, his playing time would have dwindled, and his career possibly faded. But they didn't.
Last season, Segura was one of the best hitters in baseball. He batted .319, hit 20 home runs, and stole 33 bases. He played solid defense at his temporary new position, second base. He even doubled his walk rate. His wRC+ of 126 ranked him seventh among second baseman, and would have ranked him third amongst qualified shortstops, behind only Corey Seager and Manny Machado.
It's not hard to figure out what Segura did differently in 2016. First, he adjusted his stance: he stood in a wider squat, with his hands lower and further back. Then he adjusted his approach. He swung less, and when he swung, he made more contact and harder contact than at any point in his career.
But the mechanical adjustments only tell part of the story.
"It's really more confidence," Segura told me earlier this month. "I don't feel more powerful or anything, but I feel more confident. I'm not thinking that a pitcher can strike me out. I'm thinking about the positive."
Every major league player's career is a small miracle: a million things have to go right for a person to make a 25-man big league roster, and then perform well enough to stay there. There is no one formula, but the ingredients are the same: natural ability, hard work, physical and mental health, the right confluence of having been seen by the right people at the right time, and then supported by those people.
Segura's career going into last year had been a series of feats of perseverance. He was born in Santo Domingo and signed for $70,000 with the Angels as a 17-year-old in 2007. As a kid he would help his grandmother make candy by hand to sell. His father had played professional baseball on the island, and his mother had been a softball player. He quit school at 15 to play full time.
"He had some duck in him when he walked," said Eddie Bane, the Angels' scouting director when they signed Segura. "But he didn't when he ran, for whatever reason."
In his first season in the United States, Segura broke his ankle. He told the Dominican newspaper Listin Diario that he thought his career was over right there. He was broke, and staying alone in a hotel in Arizona, drinking tap water, eating bread and cheese.
"I thought I'd have to call my mom and tell her that I'd stay in the United States illegally, doing whatever I could to help my family get ahead, because I wasn't going to go back to Santo Domingo without any money," he told Listin Diario.
The next season, he broke a finger. Two years after that, in 2011, he tore his hamstring. Each time he made a full recovery. In 2012, Segura headlined a package of prospects sent from Anaheim to Milwaukee in exchange for Zack Greinke at the trade deadline. The next year, he was a starting shortstop in the National League, and seemed on the path to stardom.
Before his sophomore season, Segura rejected a 7-year $40 million contract extension from the Brewers, according to Ken Rosenthal. Frustrated that the contract offer was for significantly less than the extensions signed by fellow middle infielders Jason Kipnis and Andrelton Simmons, Segura got off to a slow start. It didn't help that in April of that year, he was standing in the dugout when teammate Ryan Braun, standing on the dugout steps, swung back absentmindedly with a bat and struck him in the face.
In July, Segura faced tragedy. He got the news from his manager Ron Roenicke that his nine-month-old son Janniel had died in the Dominican Republic.
"There was so much going on," Roenicke told Rosenthal. "I don't know if I want to say it was a lack of concentration, but there was something different."
Segura scuffled through the rest of the season, and struggled even more in 2015. That year, he was twice struck in the head by pitches. First, in April, an offspeed pitch from the Rockies' Jordan Lyles glanced off his helmet and hit him in the nose. Then in May, he took a 95 MPH fastball from Cubs reliever Pedro Strop off the helmet.
When Segura was traded to Arizona in the winter of 2016, baseball analysts were not impressed. "Heading into his age-26 season, there's little remaining optimism that he will rise above replacement level at the plate going forward," wrote Cliff Corcoran for Sports Illustrated. The Fangraphs post by Dave Cameron in response to the trade was called "Howie Kendrick, Jean Segura, and Arizona's Latest Mistake."
The trade to Arizona was not the only change of scenery that Segura needed before last season. He was happy for a new start in Phoenix, and for a team that would believe in him. But the real change of scenery came in the offseason in the Dominican Republic. Segura was approached by Robinson Cano and invited to train at his home, with Cano's private hitting instructor, Luis Mercedes.
The story of Cano and Segura's relationship has been well documented. Cano reached out when he heard that Segura was having a hard time, and Segura responded by becoming an apt pupil and loyal friend. He has repeatedly called Cano an angel for offering his hand at a time when Segura was struggling both professionally and personally.
It doesn't hurt that Cano is a superstar hitter, and that Mercedes has become something of a swing whisperer. Mercedes, who played briefly for the Orioles in the early 1990s, has also been credited for helping rebuild Edwin Encarnacion's swing. Mercedes, from his home in the Dominican Republic, told me that the adjustments Segura made were minor: the wider stance, the hands lower and ready to launch.
Mercedes got his start as a swing guru working with his childhood friend Sammy Sosa in the winter before Sosa's breakout 1998 season. Since then, Mercedes has seen a litany of hitters ranging from Cano and Encarnacion to Albert Pujols and Francisco Cervelli. He told me that he doesn't have a particular philosophy of hitting like other swing coaches you hear about who talk about driving the ball in the air, or preach leg kicks. He simply sees things and works with players to make purposeful adjustments.
The ability to notice flaws in a swing is a gift from God, Mercedes told me. He didn't say it like he was selling me on his coaching abilities. He said it like he was still trying to understand them himself.
"I've seen a lot of positive results," he said in Spanish. "And when players listen to me, things can start to click right away. But not everybody is capable of listening, and hearing your opinion. And when they don't listen…"
In our conversation, Mercedes had a tendency to extrapolate and trail off. For example, when I asked him if he had ever seen a perfect baseball swing, he said, "Hitting is complicated," and off he went on a discussion of the streaky nature of hitting before finally arriving at an answer. (No.)
Segura, Mercedes said, was an apt pupil. He arrived in Cano's care still affected by the death of his son less than two years earlier, and beaten down by a pair of bad seasons. But Segura was quick to implement the suggestions Mercedes made, and happy to be welcomed into the baseball community Cano has built in San Pedro de Macoris.
"He was a tremendous student, very thankful, and very attentive with me," Mercedes said. "He listened. He paid attention. He's a good kid."
Segura's swing—post-Mercedes—is smooth and short. Whereas in his successful rookie season, Segura—a right-handed hitter—started more upright, with his hands above his back shoulder, he now stands wide and squatting, with his hands down almost in their launch position, and the bat held almost vertically. As the pitcher delivers, he loads with a very slight leg lift and by bringing the bat back slightly.
Cano and Mercedes both echoed the same thing that Segura told me: that his mechanical adjustments were actually relatively minor—the real key to his turnaround in 2016 was mental.
"It was a matter of putting in work, putting in time," Cano said. "It wasn't so much mechanical as it was mental."
The Mariners clubhouse at their Cactus League facility in Peoria is long and narrow. At the entrance sit a group that includes Cano, Cruz, and Felix. At the far end sit a bunch of kids who, as spring training progresses, slowly make their way out the door, down the hall, and over to the minor league side of the building.
Segura is in there amongst the superstars. His locker is directly next to Leonys Martin's. Martin, Cuban the center fielder, was one of Dipoto's first acquisitions last offseason. This offseason, Martin joined Segura and Cano working with Mercedes in the Dominican Republic. "In the offseason, you go out and find people who can help you," Martin told me.
Martin said he was hoping that he, Segura and Jarrod Dyson could bring an element of speed to the Mariners that was lacking last season. The Mariners stole just 56 bases as a team last year—Dyson and Segura stole a combined 63 between them for their respective teams. If they succeed, then Dipoto will have done what he set out to. (Whether that results in wins is another matter.)
Martin has dealt with his own fair share of personal struggles during his playing career. He was held for ransom in Mexico after defecting from Cuba and his relatives in Florida were surveilled by his kidnappers throughout the ordeal—then he had to cope with the legal fallout of the kidnapping while playing for the Rangers. The challenges might not be as emotionally harrowing as the ones faced by he or Segura, but they come for everybody. Those feats of perseverance are a job requirement for major league baseball players.
"It's a long career," Martin said. "Good things happen and bad things happen. You have to learn to live with that, and maintain your strength. And think about the positive. And continue working. And pray to God."
Segura hopes to continue his momentum from last year—to maintain his good vibes, to stay confident, and stay positive. He's not concerned about changing leagues, or changing positions back to shortstop. He is likely to bat second, ahead of Cano.
"My swing is the same as last year," he said. "I didn't make any new changes. I made those adjustments last year, and the results were good, so I'm just going to work on maintaining that throughout the season. I've worked with Luis Mercedes and Robinson for two years—that's a while now. I feel good training there. I feel good in Robinson's company."
One year, Robinson Cano reaches out to you when you're in a tough spot. The next, you're the lynchpin of Cano's team's win-now offseason strategy. You're his table-setter and his double play partner. (The two also paired up playing for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic—along with Cruz.)
Segura is also part of an offense that is, in a sense, built backwards: besides Cruz, the designated hitter, Seattle's run production is expected to come from players in positions not traditionally associated with heavy production: Cano at second base, Seager at third, and Segura at short. Meanwhile, expectations are relatively tempered for the first baseman Valencia, and the outfield of Martin, Dyson, and Mitch Haniger, who arrived with Segura from the Diamondbacks.
Segura said he felt good about his new role on his new club. He felt good about the Mariners. He likes the clubhouse, he likes the team's chances to make a playoff run. He likes the rhythm he has going into the season.
"Baseball is always the same," he said. "You just have to be yourself.
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