[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-1990s, 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.]
When Corey Seager was a kid, he idolized two baseball players. He didn't have much of a choice in the matter. One, his older brother Kyle, is now an All-Star third baseman for the Seattle Mariners. The other was Derek Jeter. The Seager brothers—Corey, Kyle, and Justin, who is in the Mariners system—grew up in North Carolina, but their parents are both die-hard Yankees fans from upstate New York. "Dad didn't really let us watch anybody else," Seager told me.
Seager is going into his second full major league season, and at age 22, he is already more Derek Jeter than Kyle Seager in terms of his celebrity. Unlike Jeter, however, Seager does not wear his fame easily. It still catches him off guard when he hears kids yelling his name.
"It's different," he said. "I don't know if it's something you ever get used to. It's kind of humbling almost. It's hard to think that you're a role model to somebody. You don't want to mess up, obviously, for yourself, but then there's 50,000 people in the stands that don't want you to mess up, either."
Avoiding the spotlight is not a choice for Seager. He is the best hitter on one of the best teams in baseball, and—along with Francisco Lindor and Carlos Correa—he is leading a class of shortstops better than any since Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Nomar Garciaparra entered the league in the 1990s. It just so happens that, compared to Lindor and Correa—and Addison Russell, Xander Bogaerts, Trea Turner, Trevor Story, etc.—Seager is pretty boring.
Yes, he has used his 800 career plate appearances to win the National League Rookie of the Year award, to lead his team to the playoffs twice—once as a September call-up—and to hit .312 with 30 home runs and 48 doubles. Yes, only one shortstop has a higher career OPS than the .892 Seager has produced in those first 800 trips to home plate. And yes, that shortstop is Rodriguez.
But Seager isn't Jeter, and he certainly isn't A-Rod. Seager is Kannapolis, North Carolina. The Fellowship of Christian Athletes, the Future Farmers of America. 4.0 GPA. "I'm pretty plain Jane," he said. "Pretty vanilla."
Seager is apparently so plain that the only thing writers can find to write about him is his diet. "He's a big boy," Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Trayce Thompson told me when I asked him about Seager's hobbies away from baseball. "He likes to eat—a lot."
When the Los Angeles Times wrote about Seager's attempts to manage his newfound celebrity, reporter Andy McCullough caught him ordering a bacon turkey bravo sandwich at Panera with a side of broccoli soup. In an ESPN feature on Seager, he is observed scarfing down a chicken bacon ranch personal pizza with clam chowder and a pair of Mountain Dews.
Seager's favorite place to eat is the sandwich chain Jersey Mike's, where he is a very, very regular customer.
"I go with the Club," Seager said. "It's really hard for me to go away from it. I've gotten the Philly Cheese once, it was really good, but it's hard to not go in there and get your favorite sandwich."
I told him I understood. You don't want to feel like you're missing out.
"Exactly, you're like, 'Man I really wish I would have gotten my sandwich.'"
It's not hard to draw a line from Seager's consistent life habits to his consistency at hitting. He has been so steady and productive throughout his minor and major league career that scouts and analysts have had to invent quibbles, or ponder hypotheticals, just to make their reports on him interesting. (He is not moving to third base any time soon.)
There's a part of Seager's greatness that is sort of obvious: of course he has the build, the reflexes, the natural strength and agility that it takes to be a superstar at the plate. But what separates him—what allows him to actually take full advantage of all those physical gifts—is an approach that he has been honing in over the course of years: a combination of obsessive detail-oriented thinking about his swing, and a knack for quickly implementing the mechanical adjustments he needs to make to succeed.
"Watching him hit, and watching him play the game, it looks so simple to us," said Thompson. "But he's kind of like a duck: on the water he seems cool and collected but in his mind, there's a lot of complex thinking going on."
Seager's path to hitting enlightenment began as a kid working with his dad, and watching his older brothers, especially Kyle.
"He was always so much older that it kind of separated us from the beginning, so he was kind of a role model," Seager said. "And then me and my middle brother were so close that we kind of emulated each other almost."
Then, in 2014, Seager met Wooten.
If you look at Corey Seager's Baseball-Reference page going back to when he was drafted by the Dodgers in 2012, you will see a lot of success: the kinds of gaudy stats that get a kid called up at 21 years old. You will also find one line that doesn't look like the rest. Late in the 2013 season, Seager was promoted to Rancho Cucamonga, the Dodgers High-A affiliate in the California League. He was just 19 years old, and he had proven everything he could in Low-A, but in 27 games at Rancho Cucamonga, Seager struggled. He hit just .160/.246/.320.
This was when Wooten, who was then managing the Padres' affiliate in Lake Elsinore, first saw Seager in person. Wooten, a former major league catcher, owns a hitting facility in Minnesota, and considers himself something of a hitting nut. He would go home after his team's games and watch video of opposing players like Seager, jotting down observations about their swings, and notes on things they could work on. It was his way of satisfying his inner hitting coach.
"I never even had any idea that I'd ever even meet Corey," Wooten said. "I was just intrigued by how big he was and the levers that he uses, and how he was doing really well and then he was struggling a little bit."
In the offseason, Seager went to the Arizona Fall League, where he torched opposing pitchers. And Wooten gave up managing. He was hired by the Dodgers to be their Double-A hitting coach. When he met Seager in spring training of 2014, Wooten had already compiled a dossier on the young shortstop. They started talking, and soon hit it off.
"I wouldn't say we speak the same language, but we kind of understood what we were talking about right from the get-go which is pretty amazing for a young kid to kind of understand his swing and what goes on," Wooten said.
When Seager was struggling in High-A, Wooten had noticed that he was fouling off pitches with high velocity. They began to work on ways to prevent Seager from getting too long with his swing—not to shorten it, necessarily, "because you still want some length." Just to make it more efficient. The trick was for Seager to generate bat speed without letting his long arms tie up the swing. This can be a hard balance, Wooten said, especially with tall hitters like Seager.
Throughout his career, scouts have questioned whether Seager's size would prevent him from sticking at shortstop. It hasn't, but that whole time Seager has actually been working to get a handle on his size at the plate. A player's swing is defined in part by his body type. Seager's body type provides obvious advantages: namely, the power he can generate. But it also can make things trickier.
"Seager has such great length in the hitting zone, and part of it is because he does have longer levers," Wooten said. "He can keep his barrel in the hitting zone longer. At the same time it's just harder holding those positions, and it's harder to clear space for the hand path to go into the hitting zone. Those are some of the challenges that he has."
When Wooten talks about levers, he's talking about the way different body parts work in concert to produce a baseball swing: a movement or position with the legs impacts the hips, which impacts the arms, and on down the line. This looks different for every player depending on the way their body is built, and the way it moves. However, producing a consistent swing can be more fraught for tall players like Seager—for example, consider the mechanical struggles of the 6-foot-5 Jason Heyward.
"They both have their challenges but it definitely is easier to work with smaller levers," Wooten said. "They just work better, it's more efficient."
In order to make Seager's swing more efficient, he and Wooten worked through a series of drills that forced him to stay behind the ball, and not get too loopy. When they first started working together, Seager's stride was a little too long, and his front foot was landing awkwardly. They worked on the arc of his swing, and they made sure he was handling the inside fastball without sacrificing the outer half.
They settled on one drill in particular that seemed to work for Seager, and that he continues to practice regularly. He comes to his stride and angles the barrel of the bat in the precise position he needs for a successful swing, then pauses there before Wooten throws a pitch. When the pitch comes, Seager turns into it without loading or striding.
The year after he began to work with Wooten, Seager hit .352 during his second run in Rancho Cucamonga. Then he hit .345 during a short stint in Double-A. The year after that, he was promoted to the Dodgers in September. It's not like Wooten unleashed the great hitter inside Corey Seager—after all, he already was a first-round pick and a highly-touted prospect. But Seager said that working with Wooten, in particular studying video with him, allowed him to think more deeply about the finer points of his swing.
Hitting in the majors requires an almost impossible amount of body awareness. For many players, this is innate. They train their bodies to swing a certain way, then when it comes time for an actual at bat, the last thing they want to do is think about it, because doing so could take them away from the moment. Seager is not like many players.
Of course, he works to develop the same good habits as any hitter. Repetition. Consistency. This is still a man who regretted not ordering his favorite sandwich just the one time. However, his body awareness is also a very conscious thing. He is such an innate tinkerer that he finds thinking about mechanics to actually be helpful when he steps into the box. This is what Trayce Thompson meant when he referred to Seager as a duck on the water: apparently calm, but busy beneath the surface.
"I'm a big mechanical guy so I think about positions, the positions I want to get to," Seager said. "The pace of my mechanics, and all that little stuff that if you're watching the game you don't notice."
If Seager knows his mechanics are in sync, he's actually more comfortable at the plate: "How the body is working, the pace obviously, the quickness of the tap, the load back, all that stuff." Thompson says that Seager's ability to focus about himself, and not get carried away by the moment at hand, is what separates him from other hitters.
"That's kind of my style," Seager said. "If I'm in the positions I need to be, it helps me see the ball better. It's not like it's distracting to see it, it's actually kind of helping."
Seager is able to do this because of an innate ability to process information, filter out the good from the bad, and swiftly apply to his swing. Wooten said he's never seen a player absorb as much as quickly as Seager. Thompson said the only player he's seen who compared was former Chicago White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko.
It makes sense then that when Seager talks hitting with fellow players, he likes to get into the nitty-gritty technical stuff.
"I talk to them a lot about mechanics," he said. "I'm not so much into the mental side. I think everybody's different on that. I try to fine tune, and fine ways that guys get certain moves that I want to make. How they create those angles. How they create that load."
One model that Wooten has found for Seager as far as angles go is former MLB first baseman John Olerud, who was a similar height to Seager and had a similar line drive approach.
"John was tall and was direct to the ball," Wooten said. "His moves were really efficient, and he stayed behind the ball. He wasn't necessarily a guy that hit for a lot of power, but he hit .330 every single year and he was just an overall good hitter." (Editor's note: not quite, but he did hit .350 twice.) "I think that's where Corey is. He's such a good hitter. Some of the balls he is hitting for homers are line drives. He's just a big strong kid. Those are doubles for everyone else, but some of these are homers. he's only going to get better, especially elevating the ball when he wants to in leverage accounts, and understanding the league and what they're trying to do."
Olerud was a dangerous hitter from the left side with a build similar to Seager's. He had a sweet swing, with a one-handed finish (Seager's is two-handed), and sprayed line drives all over the field. Had Olerud produced the numbers he did offensively as a shortstop and not a first baseman in an era full of sluggers, he would be a surefire Hall-of-Famer. His 130 career wRC+ puts him in a higher offensive class than Jeter or Garciaparra.
The incredible thing about the Olerud comparison is that it might sell Seager short. If he sustains his performance from last season, then he's already a better hitter than Olerud. If he improves on it, then he's in another stratosphere. If you like baseball, that's not particularly boring.
"The game just comes really easy to him, so it's fun to watch him play," said Dodgers centerfielder Joc Pederson. "He works extremely hard but he can just do things that other people can't. He's really good at it, so it's fun to watch."
Seager might think of himself as "pretty vanilla," and he might actually be that—he just picked up golf—but he is also a highly-skilled athlete who thoroughly enjoys his sport. When he's on or around the ballfield, he's quick to smile. Even working on double play drills with his new middle infield partner Logan Forsythe. Even in the doldrums of spring training. Even facing an onslaught of attention and interviews. That doesn't make him stylish like Francisco Lindor, who is Seager's favorite contemporary shortstop, but it at least gives him his own style.
Olerud also had a propensity, like Seager, for eating —"I'm a big food guy," he told Sports Illustrated in 1993. The most notable thing about him for most fans was the fact that he wore a batting helmet while playing defense after suffering a brain aneurysm in college. He was so otherwise quiet and unassuming that there is an urban legend about Rickey Henderson running into him in New York Mets camp and telling him he also played with a guy who wore a helmet back with the Blue Jays. "That was me," Olerud had to tell him.
But as a first baseman, and never the biggest star on any of his teams, Olerud did not necessarily need to be vocal. As a shortstop, and one of the faces of a historic franchise, Seager does. His defensive responsibilities extend beyond making plays. And his responsibilities as a baseball player now extend beyond just playing baseball. Justin Turner, who has played third base for the Dodgers since Seager came up, said Seager hasn't changed much since he first saw him in spring training—he hasn't needed to.
"He can play baseball," Turner said. "He's one of those guys kinda like Adrian (Gonzalez) who's got an extremely low heart rate. In any situation you don't see him get to up, you don't see him get too down. He's just an even-keeled guy and that's, I think, an advantage in the game of baseball."
Seager has put in the effort to take full advantage of his gifts, and become the best hitter in his body will allow him to. Wooten said he expects him to improve at the plate: to demonstrate more power, more discipline, more knowledge as he gains experience, and continues to refine his swing. Meanwhile, there's still work to do in other areas.
"I wish he'd be a little louder," Turner said,, laughing. " He's hard to hear on the diamond."
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