Marcus Semien, who had a terrific season with the 2021 Toronto Blue Jays, is a free agent. What is the potential value of a new Semien contract? Should Toronto re-sign him? Should Toronto be a shortstop in Semien’s career?
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The Toronto Blue Jays signed Marcus Semien to a one-year contract before the 2021 season. Semien played second base for Toronto, posted a 6.6 fWAR and is one of the three finalists for the American League’s MVP award. The other two contenders are Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Shohei Ohtani. Semien was terrific in 2021.
FanGraphs rated Semien #3 on their list of the Top 50 free agents. Carlos Correa and Corey Seager are ahead of Semien, whom FanGraphs listed as a second baseman/shortstop. Let’s take a look at Semien’s candidacy to return to the Blue Jays in 2022.
The structure of the analysis is as follows:
- A review of various offence, defence, and base running metrics
- An estimate of what a reasonable contract would be for Semien
- The arguments for and against signing Semien
It is important to note that Semien’s batting excellence is a recent development. Semien was a below-average hitter during his first six MLB seasons (2013-2018); his wRC+ was 96 in 2,637 plate appearances. 2019 was Semien’s breakout season as an MLB hitter: he posted a 138 wRC+ in 747 plate appearances.
However, during the 60-game 2020 campaign, Semien produced a 91 wRC+. Yet, that 91 mark was due to a horrible start to the season. As FanGraphs Craig Edwards noted, ‘his 133 wRC+ the rest of the way (including the playoffs) lines up neatly with his 2019 campaign.”
Semien bounced back in 2021 with a 131 wRC+. But that may have been boosted by a little good fortune. As Table 1 illustrates, Semien’s OPS was 88th percentile, but his xOPS was 66th. I translated Semien’s 2021 xwOBA into wRC+ and calculated a 105 wRC+. That wRC+ mark is above-average but not as impressive as 131. Furthermore, Steamer projected a 117 wRC+ from 2022 Semien, which is a figure consistent with the view that Semien’s 2021 wRC+ benefited from a little good luck.
Overall, Semien has recorded some impressive batting numbers.
- Semien is a disciplined hitter. His mPDI was 91st and 92nd percentile in 2021 and 2020, respectively.
- He excels at hitting high-velocity pitches. Concerning fastballs with a velocity equal to or greater than 95 mph, Semien’s 2021 xBA and xSLG was 87th and 88th percentile, respectively. In an era of high velocity, particularly in the latter part of a game, the ability to hit the “heat” is a valuable skill.
- There has been a notable change in Semien’s batted ball profile during the past two seasons. During the 2015-2019 Statcast period, his GB%, FB%, LD% and PU% was 40%, 25%, 27% and 8%, respectively.
- During the 2020-2021 campaigns, Semien’s batted ball is as follows: GB% – 32%; FB% – 33%; LD% – 24%; and PU% – 11%.
- The FB% increase suggests that Semien has tried to add more of a power element to his hitting profile. Furthermore, Semien’s Pull% was higher in 2021 than during the 2015-2020 period (47% versus 40%). His Oppo% was 19% in 2021 and 24% for the 2015-2020 time segment.
- Semien’s quest for power has not come at the cost of an elevated K%-BB%. For the 2013-2019 period, his BB%-K% was 47th percentile, and his ISO was 53rd. For the 2020-2021 time segment, Semien’s BB%-K% was 63rd percentile, but his ISO was 86th.
In summary, Semien is an above-average MLB hitter. During the 2021 season, his OPS ranked 2nd of 30 second basemen (minimum of 210 plate appearances); Semien’s OPS ranked 5th among the 30 shortstops with the most plate appearances). Among middle infielders, Semien is one of the best hitters.
Semien successfully moved from shortstop to second base in 2021. His Outs Above Average (“OAA”) was +7, the sixth-best among second basemen. However, in 70 fielding attempts as a shortstop, Semien produced a -2 OAA.
There are likely to be teams that view Semien as a shortstop in 2022 and beyond. However, his defence at that position is not particularly good. For the 2019-2021 period, 32 shortstops logged more than 1,200 innings at short. Semien’s +1 DRS/1200 ranked 15th, and his OAA/400 was -6, which ranked 30th of 36 shortstops.
From a defensive perspective, Semien is more attractive as a second baseman than a shortstop.
Semien is an above-average base runner. His BsR in the past four seasons is as follows: 2021 – 4.0; 2020 – 1.8; 2019 – 1.7; and 2018 – 1.6. I have listed the components of his 2021 BsR below:
- UBR (the non-base stealing aspect of running the bases) – 1.4
- wGDP (not grounding into double plays when that event is possible) – 0.6
- wSB (weighted stolen base runs) – 2.0
Semien is a good base runner partly because he is fleet afoot (87th percentile Sprint Speed). Also, he is judicious on the base paths, as evidenced by his 94% stolen base success rate in 2021 (15 steals in 16 attempts). Father time will eventually erode Semien’s speed, but he is not showing signs of slowing down.
Estimating a contract for Semien is not without unique challenges, which are as follows:
- Before 2021, Semien was a shortstop, not a second baseman. Because there is an fWAR bump for a shortstop compared to a second baseman, a higher projected fWAR for shortstop Semien should increase the value of the contract. But will a team sign him as a shortstop or as a second baseman?
- There are many high-end free agent shortstops available this offseason. The names include Correa, Seager, Trevor Story, Javier Baez and Semien. MLBTR noted that the teams rumoured to be interested in signing one of these shortstops are the Tigers, Yankees, Phillies, Astros, Angels, Mariners, Cardinals and Rangers. Other teams such as the Dodgers, Twins and White Sox may pursue Semien as a second baseman. The laws of supply and demand should be on display this offseason: lots of demand and limited supply tend to push prices upwards.
- The CBA will expire on December 1, 2021. Will some of these free agents want to sign before December 1 to gain some security at a lower than expected value? Will free agents take their time and wait until the new CBA is in place before inking a new contract? Uncertainty makes estimating contract values a problematic task.
Table 2 presents the calculation of a contract for Semien. The highlights are as follows:
- There is some divergence between my estimated contract value and those of others.
- My 4-year, USD 107.2 million is in-line with FanGraphs 4-year, USD 120 million. The difference is because I used an average fWAR starting point (Steamer’s 4.4 and ZiPS’s 3.7); FanGraphs used Steamer’s 4.4 fWAR as a 2022 estimate.
- MLBTR’s 6-year, USD 138 million deal is an outlier. However, if I extended my estimate to 2027, my estimate would be 6-years, USD 136.8 million.
- Another matter to remember is that some contract estimates may differ because one forecast assumes that Semien will be a shortstop, and another presumes he will be a second baseman.
It is important to note that a reasonable contract value falls within a range of other valid contract values. There is no precise number for a contract estimate; it is not like going to the grocery store to buy broccoli.
Arguments for and against signing Semien
- The Blue Jays’ likely in-house second-base option would be to replace Semien with Cavan Biggio, who Steamer projects a 1.3 fWAR in 122 games. At least in the short term, Semien is a better hitter and defender than Biggio.
- By all accounts, Semien is a consummate professional and was integral to developing some of the younger Blue Jays, particularly Bo Bichette.
- His re-signing would be consistent with the Jays’ statement that run prevention is a team focus.
- The Blue Jays have other offseason priorities to address. Robbie Ray and Steven Matz are free agents that need to be re-signed or replaced with comparable starters. Ray will likely command a contract that will exceed USD 100 million. If the choice is between Ray or a Ray-like starter and Semien, I will opt for the starter over a second baseman.
- Earlier, I identified Semien as an excellent tutor for Toronto’s young core. However, the objective of having veterans show the ropes to the young players is to have the youngsters ultimately emerge as well-schooled MLB professionals. The tutor has to step aside at some point, and 2022 can be the year that the tutor (Semien) moves onto another ball club.
- I think that Biggio is a candidate for a bounce-back season. However, there are certainly hitting issues for him to address. Still, I believe he can become an above-average hitter (110-ish wRC+) and a slightly above-average defender at second base. In 2019, the most recent season in which he was a regular second baseman, his OAA was zero (average) in 302 attempts. I think he can nudge his OAA above the zero threshold.
On balance, I would not re-sign Semien to a multi-year, USD 100+ million contract. Although such a deal would be reasonable, the Blue Jays have other priorities that they should address.
The last word
Semien was an outstanding second baseman for the Toronto Blue Jays in 2021. As a free agent, he will likely command a multi-year contract that will exceed USD 100 million, which is reasonable. However, the Toronto Blue Jays have more pressing needs to address this offseason, including maintaining the performance level of an excellent starting rotation. Therefore, while retaining Semien for the 2022 campaign and beyond would be beneficial, the Blue Jays should refrain from signing Semien to a new contract.
*Featured Image Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.
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Bob was a St. Louis Cardinals fan until the Blue Jays arrived on the baseball scene, although he still has a soft spot for the Cards. Similar to straddling the Greenwich Meridian, as depicted in the avatar, Bob applies sabermetrics when applicable, but his heart tells him that Lou Brock belongs in the Hall of Fame.