This season was statistically the worst of Seager's career. But how much did a broken left toe affect his struggles and why wouldn't he discuss it during the season?
“I’m fine. Why wouldn’t I be fine?”
“If I’m in the lineup, then I must be OK.”
“I have no idea what you are talking about.”
These answers may not be verbatim for every occasion. The words may change a little, but the gist is always the same.
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Ask Kyle Seager about an injury or a bag of ice on his foot or oblique or maybe an electronic stimulation setup on his back, and he will offer these sort of responses. Sometimes he’ll go with a deadpan tone. Other times it’s a matter of fact, but it’s never confrontational or angry. He’s not acting like a paranoid college football coach about his injuries. Often, he will relent and give a modicum of extra information.
But his philosophy on injuries and dealing with them is simple:
“If you are playing, there are no excuses, right?” he said quietly in the Safeco Field dugout during the final homestand of the season. “If you are able to be in the lineup, you need to be able to do your job. That’s ultimately what it boils down to.”
He isn’t in the lineup on this day. With the Mariners out of postseason contention — something he’s only known in his MLB career — manager Scott Servais has given him a day off with a left-handed starting pitcher on the mound, despite Seager’s protests.
“He will play,” Servais said. “That’s one of the things I most respect about him. Never, ever will he come into this office and ask for a day off. Sometimes you have to force him to have a day off. But you appreciate those guys.”
The 2018 season is a handful of days away from ending. Seager is willing to talk about his season as a whole. It isn’t an enjoyable conversation, but he understands that people demand answers for his failures. By most statistical measures, this is the least productive season of his career. After struggling in 2017, it somehow got worse in 2018.
He finished the season with a .200 batting average, .273 on-base percentage and .400 slugging percentage, which are all career lows for a full season. He did have 36 doubles, 22 homers and 78 runs batted in, numbers which some players would love. But Seager is nonplussed.
“It’s disappointing not doing the things that I wanted to be able to do,” he said. “I would certainly have liked to have hit better and done all that stuff better. I don’t feel like I helped the team as much as I should have.”
And when Robinson Cano was suspended and the Mariners’ offense and record started to slide in July and August with the A’s on their heels in the standings, Seager couldn’t help stop it or reverse it.
He hit .200 with a .588 on-base plus slugging percentage, 11 doubles, five homers and 23 RBI over those two months.
“You try to keep it even keel and you try to do all that stuff,” Seager said. “But it’s hard to do in the moment. But when you aren’t able to do what you want to do and you aren’t having the season you want to have, it’s easy to try and force things. And when you force things, you get into worse things. It’s all kind of connected.”
Servais won’t try to sugarcoat it.
“It’s been a long year for Kyle and it hasn’t been a productive year for what he’s used to,” Servais said. “He’s accountable. He understands that he’s a big part of this team and he didn’t have the year he wanted to have.”
There are reasons why he struggled this season, whether Seager will openly admit to them or not, specifically health. He’s been playing hurt since breaking his left big toe June 27 at Camden Yards.
“I swung and missed on a high fastball and I felt something weird on my toe,” he said. “And I don’t remember what happened in the rest of the at-bat, but I remember going back underneath and my toe was killing me. I thought this was weird. I didn’t do anything. I didn’t foul a ball off of it. The trainers looked at it during the game. They said it could be a sprain or it could be a lot of different things.”
X-rays revealed an avulsion fracture in his toe, where a tendon or ligament pulled off a piece of the bone.
Seager was out of the starting lineup the next day, but still pinch hit late in the game. He started the next 23 games before paternity leave kept him out three days. The injury has never healed. He has played with it, refusing to go on the disabled list.
“It’s definitely been a different year for me from that perspective,” he said. “We knew that when I broke it that it would be one of those things that wasn’t going to go away. It was just going to be a lingering thing and I was just going to have wear it.”
Part of “wearing it” means not mentioning that it’s hurting you or bothering you when you are struggling.
Others will discuss it.
“After the toe injury happened, there was a significant decline in what he was doing,” Servais said. “He was trying to find it, and I think you try to make adjustments to compensate because you still need to produce and that’s what he was trying to do. It just didn’t work out.”
His hitting coach, Edgar Martinez, won’t avoid the subject.
“He’s never been the guy that complains,” Martinez said. “He plays when he’s hurt and having pain. He just goes through it. But it’s one thing to have pain in a different part of your body and play, but when you have pain in your leg especially in that back foot, it can be very difficult to swing. The legs are the foundation of the swing. When the back leg isn’t well, you can’t complete the swing the proper way. You can’t stay behind and drive the ball or make a powerful swing.”
So did the toe affect your swing?
Seager looks out at the field and begins to say something before stopping. With a look that says, “yes,” he reluctantly nods.
An opposing scout mentioned that Seager had lost his identity as a hitter in 2018. He scoffs at the notion. It’s an identity that was taken from him.
“I know what I am and I know what I want to be,” he said. “But I wasn’t getting into the positions I wanted to get into this year. I think that is where all this stuff lies.”
The toe just never allowed it.
If you look at his swing in the games after the injury, the back foot stays flat on the ground perpendicular to the plate when he swings instead of rotating and serving as base for the leg drive.
“It’s taken a lot of the drive away,” he said. “It’s hard to push off it. When you have to sit back and rotate, that’s when I feel it and I can’t do it.”
So he did what he had to do to try and survive and contribute.
“When you are fighting something physically, you try to put a band-aid on things,” he said. “And if you can’t do one aspect of it, you try to compensate and do other little things to keep your head above water and help the team that night.”
Part of that compensation was taking a swing that was absent significant leg drive and the ability backspin a ball and instead trying to hit balls to left field to beat the constant shifting he faces from defenses. Seager sees a shift in about 70 percent of his at-bats. Any assessment that the shift had finally beaten him mentally was argued against.
“The shift doesn’t bother me anymore,” he said. “If I do what I want to do, the shift doesn’t affect me. You’ll ground out and line out into shift, but ultimately that’s not what I was trying to accomplish anyway. Those are all topspin balls anyway. And that’s not the swing I want. If I’m pulling the ball, I want to get the ball in the air, higher than where the second baseman would play me.”
Since he physically couldn’t pull the ball with authority with any consistency — sure, there would be an occasional fastball that he could cheat and really yank to right field — he tried to beat the shift in another way.
“I was trying to hit the ball over there (left field) more than I had in years past,” he said. “In years past, I was just trying to drive balls and let them go where they go. This year I was more trying to place balls the other way at times.”
That plan only led to foul balls on pitches he wouldn’t normally swing at, increased strikeouts, fewer walks and a ton of soft contact.
“I didn’t do that very well this year,” he said. “I was more out in front of balls. It started off trying to protect my toe. And then I couldn’t get it back all the way. But those are excuses, but ultimately it’s my job to go out there and play well and do the things you are supposed to do. Everybody is dealing with different things in the season, and that’s what I was dealing with and I didn’t do a good job of it.”
He plans to end that this offseason. Once the toe heals after a lengthy rest, he will start to rediscover his real swing with his brother, Corey, in their hitting “barn.” Seager also plans to adjust his workout routine to include more flexibility and core stability.
“I just want to get in there and get healthy and get back to that and get into the positions that I want to,” he said.
The memories of this season will provide plenty of motivation.
“That doesn’t go away,” he said. “It’s always a part of it — good or bad. I will write down things through the course of the season that I felt were good. And I will write down things that were bad. I write things that physically went wrong with me.”
He knows that there is disappointment in the fan base. Once seen as a foundational player and a shining example of draft and development, the cries for Seager to be traded grow more frequent. But with $57.5 million remaining on his contract over his next three seasons, that prospect seems unlikely. His value has diminished after the last two seasons compared to what he’s owed.
He’s successfully avoided social media, which he calls “filled with extremes,” and most other outlets. But his friends and family can’t escape and he’ll often hear through them. He tries to stay focused on other aspects.
“If the guys in the clubhouse, if they still believe in me and they think I’m out there giving my best to them and trying to help them win every night, that’s what I’m concerned with. But I promise you I’m going to be much harder on myself than the person that’s watching me from the stands or on TV or whatever. Anything they’re seeing, I’m feeling.”
It might not always show on the field, but a camera behind the Mariners’ dugout might provide an example of his frustrations with his failures. But that’s another story for another time …
“I remember my first year up and I was here for about half the year,” he said. “I would show a lot of emotion out there, screaming, yelling and cussing and all this other stuff. And my wife, Julie, brought up a good point — this is obviously a game and there are kids out there that you are trying to be a role model and show them how to play the right way. You want to be someone they can root for.”
A bounce-back year in 2019 would certainly help him be that player.