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Out of Right Field: Kyle Seager lurking around ‘Mendoza Line’ not a good sign for Mariners

UPDATED: Sat., Aug. 3, 2019

It happened 40 years ago.

Bruce Bochte and Tom Paciorek noticed an odd statistical note popping up on the Kingdome scoreboard every time Mario Mendoza stepped to the plate.

Mendoza, a slick-fielding shortstop from Mexico, had a batting average hovering around .200 all season.

Now Bochte and Paciorek weren’t about to let that go. Nope. On a team headed for just 67 wins, there had to be some way to keep spirits light. A needle might work.

So the duo composed a term that would live in infamy: the Mendoza Line.

Ever since, or more precisely since Chris Berman heard George Brett mention it a year later and spread it across the then-young ESPN airwaves, it has been the universal shorthand for a major leaguer hitting .200.

See, the Mariners do have a place in baseball history.

Which brings us to 2019 and Kyle Seager.

For much of his injury-marred season, Seager has flirted with the Mendoza Line. Only a recent hot streak – he’s hitting .462 in the past seven days with an OPS of 1.511 – has lifted his average above that benchmark and improved his power numbers into areas the M’s are used to seeing. Or at least used to seeing for the past 2 1/2 years.

And that’s the problem. Not the only problem, but the on-field one.

Up until 2017, Seager was a player on the rise. A power-hitting, slick-fielding third baseman, he was a homegrown bright spot in a Mariner lineup bereft of such folks.

If 2014 had been a breakout year – Seager was an All-Star, a Gold Glove winner, 20th in the Most Valuable Player voting and one of the best-hitting third basemen in the league with an OPS of .788 – then 2016 had been his star turn.

He had career bests in home runs (30), RBIs (99), average (.278), OPS (.859) and any other hitting metric you wanted to cite. He finished 12th in the American League MVP voting.

Since then …

It must be noted Seager turned 30 after the 2016 season – and his 30s haven’t been kind.

Every statistical mark, old-school and modern-day, has shown a decline, precipitous in some areas, gradual in others. His near-Mendoza-Line batting average this season is just one benchmark. His power numbers have leveled off or fallen, his ability to reach base has tailed off, and his Wins Above Replacement value is in free fall.

All of which, considering he will be 32 by the time next season rolls around, is to be expected. And therein lies the rub.

In 2014, Seager was a star, a rising star on a team with only a few. His 25 home runs and his 5.8 WAR tabbed him as a player to build around. But was he?

Jack Zduriencik thought so. On Dec. 2, 2014, the Mariners’ general manager announced the team and Seager had agreed to a $100-million, seven-year contract extension with a team option for an eighth year.

The M’s 2009 third-round draft pick was staying in Seattle.

And that he has.

The contract was back-loaded, allowing the M’s the flexibility to sign Nelson Cruz that winter. It seemed like a good deal at the time, with Zduriencik talking about Seager’s work ethic, his character, his improvement – everything but his age.

Most baseball statistical mavens will tell you most players peak between age 27 and 29. There’s still an on-going argument about variables and outliers, but most analytics experts agree on this time frame. Everyone reaches a peak and descends, it’s just a matter of when. It looks as if Seager’s time has come.

Seager signed his contract at age 27. The M’s, who are paying Seager $19.5 million this year, are on the hook for $38 million in the next two years.

And when we say the M’s are on the hook, we mean it. They can’t trade him without eating most of his salary. Late last year, The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reported the $15 million team option for 2022 would become a player option if Seager were traded. It’s all part of a complicated points system built into the contract Zduriencik signed off on.

Talk about a poison pill.

All of this could become moot if Seager’s current hot streak could become the norm instead of the exception.

It’s unlikely, but a return of 2016-like Kyle Seager would plug a hole in the M’s lineup and make his contract easier to swallow – and allow the seemingly ageless Mario Mendoza and his infamous line to fade into the past again.

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