Inside Corey Seager's battle for the perfect MLB swing

Tim Kurkjian: Corey Seager is the best shortstop in MLB (1:16)

Tim Kurkjian breaks down why he thinks Corey Seager is the best shortstop in baseball. (1:16)

THE BASEBALL SWING is a puzzle, an ever-changing riddle. Even for the best hitters in the world, the fragility of the swing is palpable. Every minuscule detail matters. Batters are not machines, built to replicate the same action countless times before they are replaced. They are human beings aiming to be their most machine-like and grappling with the defect of the endeavor.

Perhaps the best representation of this duality belongs to Corey Seager, the shortstop for the reigning World Series champion Texas Rangers. Seager obsesses over his swing. "I love the process," he says. "You have to enjoy it to be able to do this, right?" Now in his 10th major league season, Seager has grown into one of the game's finest hitters as much because of the time he spends fine-tuning his swing as the inherent ability packed into his 6-foot-4, 215-pound frame.

Seager's left-handed swing is gorgeous, rhythmic, elegant even. It is an aesthetic marvel, its art rooted in its science. Seager is a baseball engineer, building complex processes on the fly. Every movement has meaning and the end product -- the swing -- is a one-man symphony.

And yet Seager lives with perpetual anxiety, worrying that for all of the time and effort and energy he devotes to his swing, it could desert him at the most inopportune moment. For all of the offense his swing produces, it exists equally as a defense mechanism. Seager's infatuation is also his torment.

"The fear of failure," he says. "Failure definitely drives me more than anything else."

So the man widely regarded as the most clutch hitter of his generation focuses on the most microscopic of details. Little invigorates Seager more than the daily rebuild of his swing. This is the process in action.

"It takes an aggressive humility to say, 'I've been a multiple-time World Series MVP, Rookie of the Year and every day I'm going to start with a blank state,'" Rangers bench coach Donnie Ecker says. "'How do I put this thing together to be ready at 7 o'clock?' What I appreciate about Corey is there's no guessing. He's not willing to do that."

Seager understands that his cues are ever-evolving, that swings do not exist in vacuums. Aging can degrade them and injuries can contaminate them, and that's all before trying to calibrate them for a pitcher marrying 98 on the corner with a bastard back-foot slider and a tumbling splitter just to make hitting even more the fool's errand. The inherent defensiveness of the batter -- every hitter, quite literally, is starting on the back foot -- forces Seager to vise-grip everything he can control.

On the cusp of 30 years old, Seager is figuring out who he is and what he can be. And for all the help he receives, all the support offered, hitting is ultimately a solo endeavor. It's just him and himself, raging against the fear and seeking the peace of the perfect swing and things beyond.

"There is no worse feeling than being in a bad spot in a major league batter's box," Seager says. "Knowing you're in a bad spot and not being able to compete. You're just by yourself. It's an empty, bad place to be. You have no chance. These guys are way too good. And nobody's coming to save you."

BEFORE EVERY AT-BAT, Seager finds a mirror. At Globe Life Field, he heads for the one next to the batting cage or in the weight room. At the other 29 stadiums around Major League Baseball, Seager knows exactly where he can locate one, because it's every bit as important to him as the bat he's going to use at the plate.

When Seager stares into the looking glass, he sees angles. It's less about mathematics than about comparing the mental snapshot of his most idealized batting stance to how closely he is reproducing it in that particular moment. This varies by the day, even the at-bat. For Seager to be who he aspires to be -- the best version of himself, which consequently would be the best hitter on the planet -- he must constantly tweak and contort his limbs into the proper angles to put himself in an ideal position to punish a baseball.

The mirror is Seager's muse. He stares at himself with clarity, both literal -- he's got 20/12.5 vision -- and figurative, the latter born of thousands of hours studying the angles and knowing himself better than any opponent hunting for a weakness ever could.

"Even with good vision, if you're in a bad spot you're not going to be able to dictate your at-bat how I would prefer to," Seager says. "So I've learned that it always comes back to how I move."

Seager's main mirror sits in the hallway at Globe Life. A piece of white tape adorns its top frame. Written on the tape is a message: "I'm here to help you look good & move good. Please don't break me." Rangers hitters retreat from the dugout to partake of it, none with quite the reverence of Seager.

"The mirror," he says, "does not lie."

This kind of single-minded focus has helped him ascend to the highest rung of one of the game's most successful families. His oldest brother, Kyle, was an All-Star and Gold Glove-winning third baseman with Seattle. The middle sibling, Justin, topped out at Double-A in the Mariners organization. Kyle was in the midst of his first major league season when the Dodgers chose Seager out of high school in North Carolina with the 18th pick of the 2012 draft. Promoted to Double-A two years later after wrecking the lower minor leagues, Seager linked up with then-Dodgers minor league hitting coach Shawn Wooten, a fortuitous pairing that refined his abundant raw skills.

In Wooten, a six-year big leaguer, Seager found a kindred spirit. Seager's obsessiveness is not limited to his swing. Everything in his orbit has a specific place and if something is not where it belongs it eats at him.

"It's helped me in my profession to be OCD" -- Seager uses the term colloquially, not clinically -- "and have things lined up exactly how I need them to be," he says. "The way he could break it down -- put me in different segments of the swing, different points, different parts -- is what really clicked with me. Give me how it's going to go, what you need at that point and let me do it and figure it out. And that's where it really clicked for us."

Seager's early work with Wooten consumed him, even at the oddest times. In the minor leagues, Seager lived with current Oakland A's right-hander Ross Stripling and Stripling's future wife, Shelby. Once, when Seager and Shelby were eating breakfast, he stood up from the table, handed her his phone and asked her to take video of him pantomiming a swing. The boundaries of swing enlightenment are anchored to neither place nor time. When Seager takes video of himself, Stripling says, "it looks like he's doing nothing, but to him he's doing something so important."

Prior to games, Seager still meanders through the clubhouse with a bat in one hand and a phone connected to a tripod in the other -- a digital complement to his analog mirror -- scrutinizing clips of his swing and comparing them to others in a library that spans his minor league days to the present. Optimizing a swing is a constant fire drill and any tool that proves effective finds its place in Seager's routine.

Seager and Wooten talk every day, speaking a language foreign to even other big leaguers. The nomenclature matters because Seager uses it to discuss with Wooten where his body parts belong at particular points in the swing. Achieving angles is an exercise in subtlety. When Seager arrives in the box and stares out to the endless world of outcomes on the field in front of him, he takes his mirror session and tries to duplicate it. He digs his legs into a wide base. He cantilevers his right arm. His first move starts before the pitcher releases the ball.

"Go watch a game and, if you can, watch before he gets his hands up," Wooten says. "He just pushes his hips back and turns his front foot in. It's by design to get on the plane of the pitch."

Getting on plane -- lowering the barrel of the bat to the same level as the incoming ball -- is perhaps the most important element of the swing to Wooten. To achieve that, Seager's back elbow drops into the slot, tucked toward his body. His back knee stays underneath his body to prevent him from lunging. His posture remains upright to allow him to hit high, inside fastballs.

Even though Seager cues himself to swing down -- a long-taught tenet that has fallen out of favor in the era of hitters chasing higher launch angles -- he's not actually doing so; it's simply terminology that Wooten found allows him to stay on plane. Seager's head barely moves as his hips rotate and the potential energy built through his swing transfers into kinetic energy when bat meets ball.

"If there's one thing off," Wooten says, "it's a big deal."

All of it is in service of avoiding that bad spot in the box, when the walls of a 40,000-seat stadium seem as if they're caving in, when the pitcher feels far closer than 60 feet, 6 inches away. Every session in the mirror, every moment spent crafting a routine, goes back to that.

"What makes him an outlier that puts him in the 1% of the 1% is there's a true obsessive nature about his pursuit of mastery," Ecker says. "Nothing about that is going to be relatable. When you're talking about the Kobe Bryants and Tom Bradys and Corey Seagers, everything they do is on the far end of the spectrum."

As much as Seager studies scouting reports and knows every pitcher's arsenal, he sees that knowledge as secondary to his swing. The ultimate in control is the capacity to eliminate variables, and rather than do so by guessing what pitch is coming next Seager cuts out one side of the equation altogether, a rare approach because so few have the skill to pull it off.

"That whole question of would you rather know what's coming or have the perfect swing," he says, "I'm picking the perfect swing every single time."

DIFFERENT INCARNATIONS OF Seager have manifested through the years. There was the skinny, pliable kid who arrived in the major leagues at 21 and in 2016 won Rookie of the Year. The maturing masher who when he was healthy did incredible things -- his opposite-field World Series home run off Justin Verlander in 2017, punctuated by an unexpected scream of delight, remains a defining highlight of his career -- but struggled to stay on the field. The in-his-prime star in 2020 who won his first World Series MVP after retooling his swing. The beneficiary of a 10-year, $325 million free agent deal from the Rangers, who were coming off a 66-96 season in 2021. And the latest build, Seager 5.0, owner of a body that doesn't move like it once did and needed Wooten's whispering following a disappointing first year in Texas.

By 2023, because Seager had added weight and strength over time, warping his body into angles he previously achieved was no longer an option. So going into the season, he kept what he did well -- his back leg -- and overhauled the rest. Ecker learned the language and served as boots on the ground to translate, forging a partnership with Wooten, now an independent hitting coach, that thrived on collaboration and brought out the best in Seager.

"He has the ability to test and retest," Ecker says. "That second iteration is the most important part. He's going to stress test it and be able to put it back together."

For almost all of 2023, Seager operated as if he'd solved the puzzle. After missing six weeks in April and May with a hamstring injury, he finished the year with career highs in batting average (.327), slugging percentage (.623), home runs (33) and RBIs (96), despite playing just 119 games. If not for Shohei Ohtani, Seager would have won the AL MVP award.

And then Seager came the closest he ever has to a perfect swing, at the perfect time: Game 1 of the 2023 World Series, when he stepped to the plate in the ninth inning, one runner on, down two runs, against Arizona Diamondbacks closer Paul Sewald.

Years ago, Sewald learned by accident that his low arm slot could deliver almost-impossible-to-hit high fastballs. The last home run he had issued on a fastball at the top of the strike zone came Sept. 23, 2021. Surely aware that Seager has led MLB in first-pitch-swing percentage for three straight years but not wanting to fall behind in the count, Sewald threw a first-pitch fastball. High in the zone, on the inner quarter of the plate, the well-executed offering was designed to induce a swing-and-miss. Over the previous two years, at-bats that ended on Sewald fastballs as high off the ground as this one -- 3.32 feet -- had produced six hits, all singles, and a .133 batting average.

Seager hammered the 93.2-mph fastball 418 feet into the right-field stands, stared into the Rangers' dugout and emitted a primal scream.

"I was watching the World Series," his former Dodgers teammate and close friend Justin Turner says, "and it was like, 'Oh my god, he Verlander-ed him.'"

Seager says he does not remember anything about the home run, and as unbelievable as that sounds -- an iconic moment for the world was fleeting for the person who made it -- his friends and teammates believe him. They see what he turns into in October. The tunnel vision. The attention to detail on every play. If in-season Seager is focused, postseason Seager never lapses -- not at the plate, not in the field, not on the bases.

"I don't remember a lot of the playoffs," he says. "You know it means more, so you are more focused. You're trying to make it the same game, but truly the atmosphere, everything else -- I don't remember certain plays, I don't remember certain sequences of the game. You have bits and pieces that you remember. And especially on homers, I have flashbacks of certain aspects of it, but there's a lot of 'em I don't even remember what happened. It's kind of crazy. It sucks. I wish I remembered."

Seager's propensity to meet any moment, any situation, any pitcher is earning him hallowed company. Last October, he hit .318/.451/.682 with six home runs, including three against the Diamondbacks en route to his second World Series MVP. He joined Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson and Reggie Jackson as the only two-time winners. Plenty of people in baseball see him as the modern-day version of Derek Jeter -- and Seager is only one postseason home run away from tying the New York Yankees captain despite playing in half as many playoff games. Since 2020, among the 82 players with at least 15 postseason games, Seager has the most home runs (16) and RBIs (38, tied with Houston's Yordan Alvarez) and the second-most runs and hits.

"This is where I want to be," Seager says. "You change, you adapt, you learn. But I don't know if you ever get enough, especially in the postseason."

For Seager, the names, the comparisons, the accolades -- they land with all the impact of a snowflake hitting the pavement. He considers the idea of being clutch and believes there's something to it, but it's nothing innate, he thinks, not something he was lucky enough to have inherited. It's a positive consequence of his process, the routine of which allows him to take advantage at any time -- including, yes, those most opportune.

"He doesn't give a f--- who's on the mound," Stripling says. "He doesn't care if it's Jacob deGrom or the last starter in the big leagues. It is see ball, hit ball. He's just awful to face."

When Seager was filming videos at Stripling's breakfast table, Turner was remaking his own career with the Dodgers, and the two later bonded over their focus on routine. Now, in many ways, the student has exceeded the mentor. They're peers, exceptional hitters both, and they share that knack for October that Turner believes goes beyond their ability to swing the bat with great conviction in moments that crumble lesser players.

"Clutch is misconceived as the three-run homer," says Turner, 39, now the Toronto Blue Jays' designated hitter. "It's hard because only one guy maybe even gets that opportunity in a game to have that clutch moment. Where can you identify clutch in a game throughout plate appearances when that moment is not present. An aspect of clutch is being prepared and being confident in the work you've done to put you in a position of confidence when you're in those moments. Guys probably get out of character in the big moments if they're not as prepared or as confident and they're trying to do too much in those areas.

"He's prepared. There's a lot of confident guys, right? But he believes in his work. He believes in everything he does going up to the game to give him that mental freedom where no situation is too big for him. A lot of this is being able to find freedom in your game -- that you're not thinking about a mechanic, a situation. There are no what-ifs. You can get ready on time and let it rip. When you have that freedom, you can do anything."

ON THE NIGHT he hit the home run off Sewald, Seager returned home and watched a replay. He has not pressed play on the video again since. The yell does not embarrass him, exactly, but anything that generates attention goes against his entrenched approach. Seager is guarded: happy to sing the praises of teammates, loath to talk about himself. Little by little, as with his swing, he's working on that, too.

"I don't want to be in the spotlight. I don't want to be the person who's talked about. And ... it's where I work," Seager says. "It took a long time to get used to. I used to be super uncomfortable, especially away from the field when people notice you. It was the most uncomfortable thing that could ever happen. I stopped leaving [the house]. I stopped going out. I stopped going to dinner. I just couldn't handle it. And then finally my wife kind of was like, 'We have to go out. We're going to go out. It's going to be fine. You're going to figure it out.'"

He is slowly learning, still grappling with the demands of excellence and the trappings of fame. As obsessed as Seager is with his swing -- about once a year he'll fling his bat with anger into the net of a batting cage when he can't properly set his angles in his mirror -- he's beginning to recognize what chasing impossibility all this time can unlock in him. It's the foundation for everything else -- particularly growth in what he sees beyond his reflection. There is peace independent of the perfect swing, contentment amid the fear, even if not in quite yet the same quantities.

"As much as I hate the mental grind, I love going in there and fixing the puzzle," Seager says. "I think that's what draws me back."

There's a growing appreciation in Seager for things beyond swings, something that took years to blossom. On the day of Seager's debut, Chase Utley, the veteran second baseman, pulled Seager aside and told him to treasure the game and what it has to offer. For Utley, that meant five minutes before he stepped onto the field every day to stretch, he would walk into the dugout, sit on the bench and take in the majesty of it all. Seager, too green to understand the purpose of Utley's routine, didn't bother.

"I never really thought about it for four years on why he did it," Seager says. "And then during COVID, actually weirdly enough, when nobody's around, is kind of when I started. I went on out on the line, kind of took my time of just being there and not getting rid of the nerves, but being in the emotion, being in everything. And then it just kind of goes away."