Before 2014, the Seattle Mariners hadn’t had a five-win position player since 2009, when both Franklin Gutierrez and Ichiro Suzuki passed the threshold. Robinson Cano‘s debut season in the Emerald City went smashingly, as the $240 million second baseman slashed .314/.382/.454 on his way to a 5.3 WAR season. Cano brought star power and an elite level of play to the Mariners, just as the team had hoped.
But Robinson Cano didn’t lead the Mariners in WAR. He didn’t even lead all Mariners position players in WAR! That distinction, for the third year in a row, went to Kyle Seager and his 5.5 wins above replacement. Seager batted .268/.334/.454 and was rated by FanGraphs as the third-best defensive third baseman in the game, trailing only Chase Headley and Josh Donaldson. His 126 wRC+ was fifth-best amongst third basemen. Cano was amazing, and Seager was right there with him all year.
A popular Seager anecdote we’ve gotten used to hearing is his obsession with Cano’s batting mechanics. Story is, when Seager was breaking into the league he’d often be found watching video of Cano hitting, studying the way he swung. Chances are you heard a broadcaster talking about this at some point this year. This was a big talking point, and only got more airplay as the two of them lead the M’s to the brink of the postseason.
Indeed, we often saw the two talking to each other during games, and they’re known to have worked closely together all season. Cano was brought in to be a superstar second baseman, with the acknowledged auxilary benefit of being a natural leader and a teacher for the team’s young core players. In Cano, Seager found a mentor. And in his first season with Cano, Seager broke out.
Where were Seager’s biggest areas of improvement this year? Defensively, to be sure. After a few years as a solid if unspectacular third baseman, Seager posted a campaign that both the metrics and the eyes saw as elite. We can safely say Robinson Cano didn’t teach Kyle Seager to be a top notch defensive third baseman. With or without Cano, Seager probably makes this leap.
This was also Seager’s best offensive season yet. BABIP was no part of this, as his .296 mark in 2014 was almost exactly the same as his .292 career number. His batting average reflects this, too: not a lot of extra luck on balls in play to explain a jump in production. There’s something real behind this breakout.
Don’t look at walks or strikeouts, either, as Seager’s BB and K rates were also right in line with the rest of his career to date. Batting behind Cano didn’t cause Seager to walk more or strike out less. He drove in more runs, as expected, but didn’t make more noise on the bases or anything. So what was it?
Power, of course! Seager led the Mariners with 25 home runs or three more than his old career high from a year ago. He hit less doubles, as those long hits simply kept carrying over the wall at a rate better than before. His four triples were an easy career high. His .186 ISO was twenty points higher than last year, which was his old high water mark.
Note now that Cano and Seager posted identical .454 slugging percentages this year. This, despite Cano hitting for an additional 46 points of average and 48 points of OBP. Seager beat Cano by 47 points of isolated slugging. So how does the mentorship element play into this?
Simply put: Robinson Cano is not a hitting coach. To give Cano more credit than the Mariners coaching staff is probably silly. Did it help having Cano around? Absolutely. Imagine being able to pick the brain of one of your heroes every day and to be taken under their wing a bit. But improvement comes from within. Kyle Seager’s breakout is due to his own ability and the hard work of his coaches. It wasn’t voodoo magic transferring Cano’s power to Seager’s body. It was natural talent and a strong work ethic.
Players certainly gain something from playing with good players. But at the end of the day, proximity doesn’t lead to improvement. This is why you’re not reading about how Robinson Cano’s presence helped Dustin Ackley and Brad Miller take things to the next level. No doubt they learned from Cano, too, but they don’t have the breakouts to show for it.
The Seattle Mariners benefited greatly from having Robinson Cano around in 2014. Kyle Seager may have benefited more than any other member of the organization, but we can’t simply look at his year-end statistics and say that for sure. There are so many variables, and this is all firmly in the intangible realm. All we know for sure is that Cano’s great and Seager’s great. Which is a good spot to be in.