The addition of Mookie Betts to the lineup for this upcoming season has been the most talked-about topic whenever anyone has mentioned the 2020 Los Angeles Dodgers. Yes, having Betts leading off and immediately preceding the likes of Max Muncy, Justin Turner and Cody Bellinger is quite a daunting prospect for any pitcher facing them, especially taking into account that all four of them combined for an OBP of .386 in 2019. However, most conversations about this topic seemingly leave out one name that is looking to return to a level of production that saw him named 2016 National League Rookie of the Year and finish third in the National League MVP award that same year, maintaining a similarly excellent level of production the following year as well. If he manages to achieve that, the results could be even greater than expected.
Corey Seager’s 2019 season was good, but good isn’t what has come to be expected of him. In his first season back from Tommy John surgery in 2019, Seager slashed a pretty good .272/.335/.483 line, co-leading the National League in doubles (44) and accumulating 3.3 WAR according to Fangraphs despite missing a month of action between June and July with a hamstring injury. The injury couldn’t have come at a worse time, as the shortstop was hitting his stride and putting up the numbers we’re used to seeing associated to his name, slashing a spectacular .425/.465/.675 in 43 plate appearances in the month of June before pulling up running the bases in the ninth inning during a game against the Los Angeles Angels. After a month out, his production dropped after his return, but he finished the season strongly hitting .291/.322/.616 in September.Embed from Getty Images
One of the main changes that Seager had to endure during the 2019 season was seeing his name further down the lineup. It wasn’t until manager Dave Roberts started using him batting fifth (mostly) and sixth in the month of May instead of his usual number two spot that he started to become more productive at the plate. The stats speak for themselves: in 117 plate appearances batting second, he recorded an OPS of .614, whereas in 180 plate appearances batting fifth his OPS rose to .901.
Of course, it’s impossible to say that Seager will bat fifth or even sixth all season long, as fluctuation in production levels and injuries have to be taken into account but, if everyone is healthy, that’s where we should expect to see him, at least for the start of the season. The Dodgers’ cautious approach to his preparation during spring training last season might have been one of the reasons why he started the season so slowly, but from what we’re seeing in recent days, they’re not holding him back and are even letting him steal bases.
So, how far does Seager have to come to get back to his level of 2016 and 2017? In comparison with 2017, his 2019 BABIP dropped from .352 to .302, whereas his hard-hit ratio dropped almost six points to 37.9% and his exit velocity from 89.7 to 88.8 mph, enough to see him go from 35th to 145th in MLB in the latter category. He’ll also have to improve production against lefties, where he went from hitting .325 in 2017 to .240 in 2019, and it probably wouldn’t be a bad idea to lay off breaking balls low and inside, a picture ingrained in the (frustrating) postseason memory of many Dodger fans. Nevertheless, there have also been signs of improvement, with his launch angle increasing by three points to 14.1 and hitting breaking balls a whole 33 points higher at .271.
Having the 2016 or 2017 version of Seager could be the difference between winning a World Series and not winning it. As dramatic as that may sound, if he manages to regain his level of production from early on in his career, having someone in the middle of the lineup with those numbers is a luxury not many, if any, can afford, and a pretty decent recipe for success. His adjustment to a new role within the team might be the final piece that the Dodgers need in the puzzle that is a World Series Championship.
Aleix Gwilliam is covering the Los Angeles Dodgers during 2020 as part of the growing team of writers at Bat Flips and Nerds. Follow him on Twitter @AleixGwilliam