Before 2019, Marcus Semien was already a valuable major leaguer. His solid glove and roughly league-average offensive output were more than enough to make him a quality shortstop, if an unspectacular one. He showed his power potential in 2016, blasting 27 home runs en route to career highs to that point in slugging percentage (.435) and isolated power (.197). After an injury-riddled 2017 that limited him to only 85 games, Semien became a premium defender in 2018, ranking third among shortstops in ultimate zone rating (8.3) and fifth in defensive runs saved (11). By FanGraphs wins above replacement, it was easily his best season yet; his 3.9 mark was third-best on the Oakland A’s and ninth among all shortstops.
But it wasn’t until the 2019 season that it became clear Semien was reaching his star potential. Maintaining his great shortstop play while finally realizing his offensive ceiling, he set new career highs in nearly every meaningful offensive category, producing a result that was a whopping 38 percent above the league average. In the end, Semien was the best player on an A’s team that won 97 games, earning his first top three finish for the American League Most Valuable Player Award behind winner Mike Trout and runner-up Alex Bregman.
Semien’s stellar 2019 season earned him a handsome raise that offseason, and he looked to further cash in being just a year away from free agency, assuming he would be able to keep up his offensive production. Unfortunately for him, the 2020 season proved to be a step back: Semien regressed to his pre-2019 offensive output, netting just a 92 weighted runs created plus (wRC+) mark, 8 percent below average. To make matters worse, while UZR rated Semien’s defense as fourth-best among major league shortstops, other metrics such as DRS (-6) did not agree.
As a result, instead of the multiyear, lucrative payout that a top-tier shortstop at the top of his game should have received, Semien was denied a qualifying offer by the A’s and had to settle for a one-year, $18 million deal with the Toronto Blue Jays — a deal that also came with a defensive shift across the diamond. The contract presented two options for Semien: a risk if things don’t go well, and a boon if things do.
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Free agents will sometimes sign one-year “pillow contracts” in hopes of rebuilding their value for the following offseason. This is a high-risk, potentially high-reward move, but it can work: It did for Adrián Beltré, who signed a one-year, $9 million deal with the Boston Red Sox in 2010, parlaying that into a six-year, $96 million deal with the Texas Rangers, during which time he cemented a Hall of Fame-caliber career. Other examples of players taking this approach include Josh Donaldson (Braves, Twins), Dexter Fowler (Cubs, Cardinals), Nelson Cruz (Orioles, Mariners) and Yasmani Grandal (Brewers, White Sox).
On the other side of this coin are players such as Jake Odorizzi, who took a one-year qualifying offer from the Minnesota Twins after the 2019 season, only to watch other starting pitchers sign lucrative multiyear deals. Following a 2020 season in which he made just four starts, Odorizzi could muster only a two-year deal (with a player option for the third year) worth less than half the average annual value of the qualifying offer he received.
This route, risky as it may be, was the right one for Semien. He is having the bounceback season he was hoping to have, producing at a level that eerily mirrors his 2019 breakout season, especially on offense.
It’s not just the surface-level metrics that have bounced back for Semien. A modest change in approach seems to have launched him back to stardom.
When Semien broke out in 2019, he set career bests with a 11.6 percent walk rate and a 13.7 percent strikeout rate. Semien’s 0.85 walk-to-strikeout ratio was eighth-best in baseball. Simply put, he was walking more while also making more contact and adding power.
In contrast, Semien is walking less in 20211 (8.9 percent) and striking out far more (23.8 percent). While these numbers are clearly worse, they aren’t bad, as both hover right around the league average. Rather, Semien has made up for his making less contact with making better contact. So while Semien may be striking out at his highest rate since his rookie season, he is also pacing at career bests in barrel percentage, average exit velocity and hard hit rate.
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No matter the means, Semien is getting results, and the Blue Jays may have struck the biggest bargain of the 2020 free agent class, as his 3.3 FanGraphs WAR make him the team’s second most valuable player behind current MVP front-runner Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
But Semien isn’t only one of the best position players on the Blue Jays, he is once again one of the best position players in the American League, forcing himself back into the MVP conversation. He was even announced as one of the three finalists to start at second base for the American League at the 2021 All-Star Game.
|1||Vladimir Guerrero Jr.||Toronto Blue Jays||4.7|
|2||Carlos Correa||Houston Astros||3.7|
|3||Cedric Mullins II||Baltimore Orioles||3.7|
|4||Xander Bogaerts||Boston Red Sox||3.6|
|5||Shohei Ohtani||Los Angeles Angels||3.4|
|6||Marcus Semien||Toronto Blue Jays||3.3|
|7||José Altuve||Houston Astros||3.0|
|8||Rafael Devers||Boston Red Sox||2.9|
|9||Joey Gallo||Texas Rangers||2.7|
|10||Matt Olson||Oakland A’s||2.7|
While the Blue Jays have underperformed expectations so far this season, Semien is making the best of an opportunity to rebuild his value and test the free-agent waters again at this season’s end. If his offensive production holds, he’s a prime candidate to cash in this offseason in the way he likely would have had he maintained his 2019 production in 2020.
As an infielder who can play elite-level defense at both positions up the middle, Semien has the versatility that’s likely to make him one of the most sought after free agents, even in a crowded middle-infield class that could include the likes of Javier Báez, Carlos Correa, Corey Seager and Trevor Story. If Semien keeps this up, he could receive one of the richer paydays of this year’s crop of free agents.
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