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Corey Seager's hot start is one to watch

@_dadler
July 31, 2020

It’s not easy, exactly, to forget about Corey Seager. But you’d be forgiven if your gaze wandered over the past couple of years. When he lost a season to Tommy John surgery and took a backseat to Cody Bellinger & Co. once he returned, his bat a little quieter and

It’s not easy, exactly, to forget about Corey Seager. But you’d be forgiven if your gaze wandered over the past couple of years. When he lost a season to Tommy John surgery and took a backseat to Cody Bellinger & Co. once he returned, his bat a little quieter and his star just one pinpoint in the Dodgers’ galaxy of talent.

Time to look again. Seager is white-hot to start the season. He hit .320/.393/.520 with a .913 OPS in Opening Week 2020, capping it off with his first home run against the Astros. Then he got Week 2 started by belting another homer in Thursday's series opener against the D-backs, lefty-lefty off Robbie Ray, no less. That brought his stat line to .321/.406/.607 with a 1.013 OPS.

When you see Seager hitting like this, you remember why he was a blue-chip prospect, a phenom who was supposed to headline the next Dodgers playoff dynasty and a part of the ascendant generation of superstar shortstops alongside Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa, Javier Báez and Trevor Story.

Seager, Lindor, Correa, Báez and Story are all in the free agent Class of 2021-22. They’ll all be in their primes; Seager and Lindor are 26, Correa is 25, Báez and Story are 27. It could be the best shortstop class of all time -- especially if Seager is the same shortstop he was in 2016 and ‘17, a Silver Slugger in the National League MVP mix.

He sure looks like a star again. The numbers say Seager is in a class of his own right now. Here’s the data behind Seager’s resurgence.

He’s outraking the entire league

Let’s take a look at three key Statcast leaderboards a week into the season. Seager ranks No. 1 in all of them.

First, the hard-hit leaderboard.

Most hard-hit balls, Opening Week 2020
Corey Seager -- 15
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. / Teoscar Hernández -- 11
Mike Trout / Mookie Betts / José Ramírez / José Abreu / Salvador Perez -- 10

A hard-hit ball means an exit velocity of 95 mph or higher. Once you hit it that hard, good things happen. And there’s Seager easily at No. 1, with multiple hard-hit balls in every game. Two of every three balls he hit through the season's first week were hard-hit.

Second: the hard-hit + sweet-spot contact leaderboard.

Take that 95-plus mph exit velocity, and add a launch angle between eight and 32 degrees. That encompasses both line drives and fly balls.

Most hard-hit + sweet-spot batted balls, Opening Week 2020
Corey Seager -- 9
José Ramirez -- 8
Matt Chapman / Brandon Nimmo -- 7
J.D. Martinez / Marcell Ozuna / Max Muncy -- 6

Besides just being hard contact, everything Seager's hitting is a line drive. Hard line drives are what you want. Seager is wearing out the left-center-field gap with them.

Third: the all-important barrels leaderboard.

Most barrels, Opening Week 2020
Corey Seager -- 5
Shohei Ohtani / Dansby Swanson / JaCoby Jones -- 4
Dansby Swanson -- 4
17 hitters tied -- 3

Hard contact is good. Hard-hit + sweet-spot contact is better. Barreled contact is best. A barrel has ideal exit velocity and ideal launch angle. That means it’s not just likely to be a hit, it’s likely to be an extra-base hit or a home run. And there’s Seager at No. 1 again.

Seager had an average exit velocity of 96.4 mph during Opening Week. That ranked seventh in the Majors, behind only Eloy Jiménez, Jorge Soler, Aaron Judge, Bryce Harper, Giancarlo Stanton and Fernando Tatis Jr.

But there’s a difference between Seager and those other star sluggers: Seager puts tons of balls in play. He had 23 batted balls through the first week of games, third-most of any hitter (new teammate Betts had the most, 25, and his brother Kyle had the second-most, 24). That’s basically double the balls in play of any of the six hitters ahead of Seager on the exit velo leaderboard -- Tatis was closest with 13.

When your average contact is hard contact and you’re making a lot of that contact, you’re creating way more opportunities to do damage. Seager has always made a lot of contact -- he has great line-drive gap-to-gap ability -- but he’s taking it to a new level right now.

As great as Seager's baseball card stats are, his expected stats based on his quality of contact are just insane. Seager's actual batting average in Opening Week was .320; his expected batting average was .511. Seager's actual Opening Week slugging percentage was .520; his expected slugging percentage was 1.030. Seager led all MLB hitters in those Statcast metrics by a wide margin.

He’s outraking himself

Seager’s consistency in squaring the ball up right now is important both in the general sense of “it’s good to hit the ball hard and drive it in the air” and more specifically because he looks like his old self.

It wasn’t just Seager’s regular stat sheet that took a dip when he returned from Tommy John last season. His contact quality dropped off along with it. From 2015-18, Seager posted a .308 expected batting average, fourth-best among MLB hitters over that time, and a .532 expected slugging percentage, tied for 12th-best with Giancarlo Stanton, Yoenis Céspedes, Nick Castellanos and Matt Carpenter. But in 2019, his xBA dropped all the way down to .261, and his xSLG down to .470. That was worrying. But he's reclaimed what he's lost and more.

Expected BA leaders for 2015-18
1) Miguel Cabrera: .316
2) Christian Yelich: .315
3) Daniel Murphy: .309
4-T) Corey Seager: .308
4-T) DJ LeMahieu: .308
Seager in 2019: .261 xBA
Seager in Opening Week 2020: .511 xBA

Here’s how Seager’s Statcast metrics look for each stage of his career.

In this 60-game sprint, starting hot matters more than ever. But the real key is that Seager’s shown he can return to his 2016-17 level.

In both 2016 and '17, Seager was top-10 in the Majors in xBA, top-30 in xSLG and top-35 in hard-hit rate. By 2019, he was in the bottom half of the league in xBA and hard-hit rate and outside the top 100 in xSLG. Now he's back. If Seager hits now like he did in ‘17 -- which, again, he’s proving he can with every swing -- he’s going to be back in the MVP conversation. Seager at his best is a difference-maker for the World Series-contending Dodgers (not to mention the stakes for Seager individually as he draws closer to free agency).

Seager is doing everything right. His strikeout rate is down. He's chasing fewer pitches out of the zone, and attacking more good ones in the zone. He made more hard contact in Opening Week 2020 than in any other week of his career -- and this is someone who’s played plenty of stretches of phenomenal baseball.

On a team with the reigning NL MVP and the 2018 AL MVP, the player to watch might be the star shortstop returning to stardom.

David Adler is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @_dadler.