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What to expect from Corey Seager in 2020

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Will a healthy offseason for the Dodgers’ shortstop lead to a return to All-Star form?

MLB: Spring Training-Chicago Cubs at Los Angeles Dodgers Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

What the Dodgers have in Corey Seager isn’t quite what they had, but measuring expectations for 2020 is a study in closing the gap between solidly above average and excellent.

On one level, Seager is a soon-to-be 26-year-old shortstop who just led the league in doubles and was worth between 3-4 wins above replacement depending on your source of choice. In the 135-year history of the franchise, there have only been 38 seasons with at least 3 fWAR from primary shortstops, once every 3½ years or so. Only three Dodgers shortstops 25 or younger have posted a 3-WAR year — Lonny Frey (1935), Pee Wee Reese (1942), and Cesar Izturis (2004) — something Seager has done in each of his three full seasons.

Where doubt creeps in regarding Seager is that his 2019 wasn’t quite up to the standard of his first two years.

Seager’s three full seasons

Year OPS+ wRC+ DRC+ rWAR fWAR WARP
Year OPS+ wRC+ DRC+ rWAR fWAR WARP
2016 134 136 122 5.9 6.9 4.3
2017 126 127 115 5.7 6.0 4.0
2019 113 113 106 4.0 3.3 3.1
Sources: Baseball-Reference, FanGraphs, and Baseball Prospectus

To be clear, if last year becomes the new norm for Seager, the Dodgers still have quite a player. His 19 home runs as a shortstop in 2019 is tied for fourth in Dodgers history, a list that includes two other Seager seasons ahead of it.

Then again, home runs are much easier to come by these days, with Major League Baseball obliterating its single-season home run record last year by a whopping 11 percent. The 2019 season saw a record 11 players hit at least 20 home runs as a shortstop.

Seager, falling one home run shy of joining that group, still managed the highest isolated power (ISO) of his career, at .211, thanks to 44 doubles that shared the National League lead. But with a league-wide .183 ISO, Seager was 15 percent above average, well behind his 26-percent better in 2016 (.204 ISO vs. .162 MLB ISO). Seager ranked ninth among shortstops in ISO in 2019 (min. 400 PA), compared to fifth in 2016.

Related: Corey Seager, a slider, and the Dodgers’ October bubble by Jon Weisman, Dodger Thoughts

The decline can probably be traced to Seager last year posting career lows in both exit velocity (88.8 mph, vs. 90.1 mph career) and barrel percentage (7.3%, vs. 8.2% career). Teams are also shifting more against the left-handed Seager, in 37.8 percent of his plate appearances in 2019 compared to just 13.8 percent in 2016-17. Seager last year had a .319 wOBA against the shift, compared to .352 without it. As a hitter, the shift in 2019 basically turned Seager from Shin-soo Choo to Alex Gordon.

In between Seager’s excellent first two years — two Silver Slugger Awards, two All-Star Games, Rookie of the Year, a top-3 MVP finish — and last season was Tommy John surgery that wiped out nearly all of 2018, and arthroscopic left hip surgery during that rehab.

Most of last offseason was dealing with that rehab, but now he’s coming off an injury-free winter. Seager detailed his preparation to Bill Plunkett earlier this spring, for the Orange County Register:

“It was nice,” Seager said. “It was weird not waiting for something to heal to get started (working out). You just go, no restrictions. I didn’t have to do any of that (physical therapy). It was like your brain had a load taken off.

“It’s been more the mental part of it. To just not worry about it, having the confidence to know you can just go.”

The 2020 projections for Seager don’t necessarily account for his uninhibited offseason, instead weighted by his most recent year and an abbreviated 26-game campaign before that.

2020 projections for Corey Seager

Projection system 2B HR BB rate BA/OBP/SLG OPS wRC+ fWAR
Projection system 2B HR BB rate BA/OBP/SLG OPS wRC+ fWAR
Marcel 31 18 9.3% .279/.351/.481 0.832 ---- ----
Steamer 37 23 9.0% .279/.349/.479 0.828 117 4.1
ZiPS 36 19 8.4% .279/.342/.470 0.813 113 3.6
Source: FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference

It’s hard to view such a performance as bad. A well above-average hitter at shortstop is quite valuable, after all. But Seager had those two excellent seasons right out of the gate, and now he’s a victim of his own success.

This isn’t unique to Seager, by the way. Folks like to parse Cody Bellinger’s MVP season, reducing it to a ridiculously hot start followed by regression. But wouldn’t anyone gladly welcome a .265/.374/.562 season from Bellinger? That’s what he hit over the final two-thirds of 2019, a 137 wRC+ with 28 home runs. Same goes for Mookie Betts, whose otherworldly MVP season in 2018 was followed by a “down year” in which he hit .295/.391/.524, a 135 wRC+ with 74 extra-base hits, excellent defense, and over 6.5 WAR.

Those are incredible baselines for Bellinger and Betts, which is partially why Seager is under the radar now. As a rookie he was the Dodgers’ best hitter. Now, he’s simply another part of a well-oiled offensive machine. We also don’t necessarily know the baseline for Seager, after those elbow and hip surgeries.

Further removed from those injuries, and after a full offseason of baseball training rather than rehab, there’s some optimism that Seager can return to his earlier form.