Semi-Eh? Blue Jays Snag Marcus Semien on One-Year Deal

The Blue Jays had already made a splash in free agency, signing George Springer to a six-year deal last week. They added to their haul yesterday, signing Marcus Semien to a one-year, $18 million contract, as Jeff Passan first reported.

Most of the deals that have gone through so far this offseason have exceed both Craig Edwards’ projections and our crowdsourced estimates. It’s been a slow offseason, sure, but not an abnormal one when it comes to the players who have actually signed. Semien breaks that trend, and it’s worth looking back at his career to see how we ended up here.

Stop your tape after 2018, and Semien looked like a competent but unspectacular regular. His batting line was almost metronomic — 97 wRC+ in 2015, 98 in ‘16, 97 in ‘17, and 97 again in ‘18. There were glimmers of something interesting going on — his strikeout rate kept dipping, he increased his contact rate without sacrificing power, and he put the ball in the air to the pull side frequently. Still, at some point you are what you are, and Semien looked like an average hitter.

One very interesting thing happened to Semien in 2018, however. He’d long been regarded as a defensive liability, both by the eye test and by advanced defensive metrics. From 2013 to 2017, DRS pegged him as 8 runs below average at shortstop, while UZR was far more pessimistic at 20 runs below average. Worse than average (for a shortstop) with his glove, roughly average with his bat — Semien looked like a league average player, a nice but forgettable piece for the A’s.

In 2018, Semien’s defense suddenly improved. It’s possible that it was already headed that way, that opinion (and noisy statistics) lagged reality. In 2015, the A’s went full Brad-Pitt-in-Moneyball and brought in Ron Washington to teach Semien defense, and it worked.

Reasonable metrics could still disagree. UZR and DRS liked Semien’s work more than Statcast’s Outs Above Average, which saw him as an improved-but-still-lacking defender. However you look at it, though, Semien with an acceptable glove was an interesting player.

In 2019, Semien’s glove was the last thing anyone cared about. Years of incremental, under-the-hood improvements at the plate exploded into a career-best 138 wRC+. He was the best shortstop in baseball by WAR (again with excellent defense per UZR and DRS and subpar defense per OAA), and all the underlying pieces looked good. In every imaginable metric, Semien took a step forward:

Year-Over-Year Improvement
Year BB% K% ISO Barrel% Chase% SwStr%
2018 8.7% 18.6% .133 4.3% 26.2% 8.2%
2019 11.6% 13.7% .237 7.4% 23.0% 7.2%

In essence, what you think of Semien depends on how real you think this improvement was. The abbreviated 2020 season didn’t provide much, if any, clarity. Semien struggled with a sprained oblique, and he was awful at the start of the season before turning into peak Joe DiMaggio in the playoffs (.407/.484/.667). Even counting the playoffs, however, it was a mere 267 plate appearances of 107 wRC+ hitting, not enough to change any previously held opinions.

If you buy the improvement, at least partially, then Semien is an underrated gem. Seriously, look at ZiPS’s median projection for him this year:

ZiPS Projection – Marcus Semien
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ DR WAR
2021 .265 .336 .473 592 95 157 31 4 28 96 64 116 11 117 2 4.1

That .265/.336/.473 line isn’t 2019, but it’s still way above average for any hitter. Saying “for a shortstop” doesn’t make as much sense as it used to — shortstops compiled a 100 wRC+ in 2019 and a 102 in 2020 — but getting that kind of offensive production is always valuable. ZiPS also believes that Semien is roughly average as a shortstop defender (he’ll be playing second in Toronto, but that changes his overall projection by less than a run), and as you might imagine, that works out to a great player.

Part of the ZiPS magic (ZaGiC?) is a percentile distribution, and Dan also produced that:

ZiPS Percentiles – Marcus Semien
Percentile BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ WAR
90% .284 .367 .552 580 103 165 35 6 36 112 76 93 17 145 6.3
80% .277 .355 .521 585 101 162 34 5 33 105 71 102 14 134 5.5
70% .270 .345 .498 588 98 159 33 4 31 101 68 106 13 126 4.8
60% .268 .341 .488 590 97 158 32 4 30 99 66 112 11 122 4.5
50% .265 .336 .473 592 95 157 31 4 28 96 64 116 11 117 4.1
40% .261 .332 .462 593 94 155 30 4 27 93 63 119 10 113 3.8
30% .259 .327 .449 595 93 154 30 4 25 92 61 124 9 108 3.4
20% .257 .324 .431 596 91 153 29 3 23 89 60 131 8 103 3.0
10% .254 .318 .416 599 90 152 28 3 21 84 57 141 6 98 2.5

That’s quite a wide range of outcomes, and remarkably, the 10th percentile scenario looks close to Semien’s career before his 2019 breakout. When you improve as many things at once as he did, statistical projections take notice — though it is worth noting that Steamer thinks he’s roughly a win worse than ZiPS’ median projection.

Here’s the kicker: ZiPS’s 10th percentile outcome would hardly be a disaster for the Jays. That $18 million isn’t nothing, but paying that much for an average player for one year is probably something they’d sign up for. It might not be efficient, but given Toronto’s current competitive situation, wins are at a premium.

The Jays have a hole in their infield. Before signing Semien, their defensive plan involved handing Vladimir Guerrero Jr. a third baseman’s glove and praying. By adding Semien — who will play second base — they can slot Cavan Biggio in at third, move Vlad to DH, and move Teoscar Hernández to the outfield.

Look at it that way, and the Jays are essentially upgrading from Randal Grichuk (who loses playing time in this alignment) to Semien. That’s a trade that could net them several wins even in a below-average scenario. Given how close the division is — we think they were a handful of wins better than the Rays and Red Sox before this signing — and their still-modest payroll, the Blue Jays would be lining up at the win store if they could simply purchase wins for $9 million a pop.

It’s hard to have a bad one-year contract as a team. The downside just isn’t that dire. If all this analysis is for naught and Semien turns back into a pumpkin, so what? There’s no awkward period where the two parties are still connected, no messy breakup. No long-term plans were impacted; with or without Semien, Biggio has always looked like a third baseman in the long run.

It’s harder to figure what this means for Semien’s market. He’s probably not a true plus defensive shortstop, and might be best suited for second base going forward, but second basemen with a chance to hit like Semien don’t exactly grow on trees.

Of course, a chance is the limiting factor here. If Semien had a longer track record of hitting, or if it was clear he was a great defender, someone presumably would have offered him more money or more years. For now, he’s at an inflection point between two different players: the average regular and the All-Star.

If he’s really what he was before 2019 — and again, projections don’t think that’s the case, because he made several meaningful improvements — well, Cesar Hernandez just signed a $5 million deal and gave up a club option year to do so. One of the big trends in recent years is a squeeze on that competent middle class of players, fueled by an increasing reliance on cost-controlled talent.

If he’s more DJ LeMahieu — or at least 2019 LeMahieu — well, he just signed a deal too, and he’s getting $90 million and the undying love of millions of Yankee fans. I don’t think Semien is quite at that level, but it’s worth noting that their ZiPS projections are less than a rounding error apart.

Given that, I understand why Semien took a one-year deal. It’s not a great sign that no team wanted to give him LeMahieu money, but if his best offer was something like four years and $40 million — roughly splitting the difference between LeMahieu and Hernandez — I understand the impulse to bet on yourself. That’s not to say that that offer was on the table. I don’t have any inside information here. Semien’s track record and the league’s reticence to spend on average players merely make him a strange case in this environment.

When most marquee free agents sign, their fate determines the long-term destiny of the team they sign with. In Semien’s case, the exact opposite is happening. Whether he’s a champ or a chump, the Blue Jays will head into 2022 with a promising young team. After missing out on Michael Brantley, the Jays clearly wanted to improve by a little bit, and Semien should provide that even in a down year.

Semien, on the other hand, has a huge range of outcomes. If he’s back to his 2015-2018 self, he’s looking at a long road of short-term contracts. If he puts together another year like 2019, it will be hard to look at his career arc and not buy in. Before last year’s strange season, 2020 looked likely to be the most pivotal year of Semien’s career. Now, he’s simply running it back.





Ben is a contributor to FanGraphs. A lifelong Cardinals fan, he got his start writing for Viva El Birdos. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

I don’t really have a ton of faith in the pitching staying healthy / consistent or the defense giving them much to work with, but with that lineup they certainly won’t be boring! There’s a lot of power at almost every position, and it’s not hard to see a world where they simply slug their way to division championship.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

The only “weakness” in the lineup is that they have a lot of guys who don’t walk very much and rely on their BABIP to get good on-base percentages. So you could see a lot of very short innings, but the power that Bichette, Semien, Gurriel, Hernandez, etc have probably outweighs it.

This is also why Biggio and Springer are so important to the team (and Springer moving Grichuk into a 4th outfielder role really helps with this).

Smiling Politely
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Smiling Politely

That, and having the misfortunate to play in the East and not the Central, where they’d only have to contend with CHI

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

And the Twins (actually ahead of the White Sox in depth charts WAR), but the Twins and White Sox are not as good as the Yankees / Rays. (Red Sox and Cleveland are probably spoilers).

I kind of feel like the Blue Jays are a pretty volatile projection. A lot rides on Vlad Jr improving a lot, Semien and Ray and Stripling and Roark and Yates bouncing back, Bichette / Hernandez / Gurriel continuing to run high BABIPs, and Ryu / Pearson staying healthy. I think they’re a little optimistic about the rotation and I’d take the under on that due to injury, mostly. But the projections seem pretty reasonable for all of the position players. So there’s definitely upside; in particular, if Bichette / Hernandez / Gurriel hit like they did last year this team is going to be very dangerous.

Left of Centerfield
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Left of Centerfield

Just imagine if Vlad Jr. ever becomes the hitter he was projected to be….

ice_hawk10
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ice_hawk10

i don’t think their defense will be terrible though. they are pretty solid up the middle, where most of the action is. maybe Bichette is a half-tick or tick below average, but Semien should be at least a small plus at 2B, and Springer is no worse than average in CF, at least in the short term. Jansen is solid behind the plate. in the corners things are a bit iffier. Biggio is probably not going to be great at 3B, Guerrero almost certainly worse, Guerrero/Tellez at 1B also isn’t great. Gurriel and Hernandez are subpar in LF/RF, but that should be offset some by Grichuk getting a regular turn out there.

but yes, the pitching is kinda set up to be a disaster. All of Pearson, Ray, Stripling, Roark are coming off varying degrees of lost seasons, and Ryu is no sure thing from a health perspective. they have tons of semi-interesting depth that can backfill innings( Kay, Hatch, Merryweather, Zeuch, Waguespack, etc.), but they desperately need a solid major league arm to stabilize the whole thing. Tanaka would be a great get.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

It’s a good example of a defense where almost everyone would benefit from moving one slot down the defensive spectrum. But unlike the Reds, everyone can plausibly play the positions they’re being asked to play. They’re just a touch below average everywhere, but because no one is really terrible they’ll probably just muddle on through.

(Semien is probably fine at 2nd. I’m not sure what to make of Semien’s defense though; the way they positioned him after Matt Chapman showed up makes it very difficult to evaluate him).

Mostly though, I agree with you–the real story is that the pitching is all serious injury risks or guys who were bad last year. I think there could be a lot of 14-11 scores in this team’s future.

tomerafan
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tomerafan

Agree completely. Gambling on Hyun-Jin Ryu being able to throw 180 innings, or on Robbie Ray to fulfill his promise, or for Thomas Hatch to be as good of a starter as he was a reliever… they may hit on 1 of those, but I doubt they get more than that. For as much starting pitching as has moved around this offseason, I’m surprised the Blue Jays weren’t bigger players in the SP market for as hard as they’ve gone after position players.

I fully hope they sign Odorizzi and emerge as the buyer for Steven Matz’s contract so that they can truly have the most interesting and high-variance rotation in baseball.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

Having Odorizzi (and Matz, if you must!) would give them enough depth that it would make them okay even with everything else.

Plus, more front offices should do things just because I think they would be interesting.

Hughes
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Hughes

I’d like to see two, and still expect to see some of the guys to get opportunities.

If they go the signing route, a couple years in length and the farm has some guys to give us.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

Oh my goodness they actually got Matz. This is wild.

docgooden85
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docgooden85

I keep wanting to pit Matz vs. Roark but the real answer, like most teams, is probably they have 6-7 guys pitch 100-120 innings each and hope there is a healthy ace or two to make up the rest. Or a hell of a bullpen.

tomerafan
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tomerafan

Blind squirrels and nuts, good sir…

But it is indeed the “perfect” next move. My son and I adopt an AL team to follow each year. This year it’s gonna have to be the Blue Jays.

tomerafan
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tomerafan

BTW, if I have to make a Mets prediction, it is that this Matz deal cleared salary not to sign Bauer but to trade for either a 3B or CF. My guess is Lorenzo Cain. The Brewers have been relatively quiet while the rest of the AL Central and NL Central have shed payroll, as the pandemic has hit the center of the country harder than the coasts.

Cain on 2 years/$35M is a lot better than Springer for the Mets. The Brewers could plug JD Davis in at 3B and help him develop.
The Mets need another LHP starter and Brandon Woodruff would fit the bill well, but I have to believe the price for him is steep (and should be). But I also don’t think the Mets are going into the season with David Peterson as the only lefty in the rotation, and are going to have to pick up an LHP starter somewhere.

My bold guess is Woodruff and Cain for Davis, Mauricio, a lesser bat prospect, and a pitcher. Mauricio is a top prospect but will be blocked at SS by Lindor, and is blocked at 2B by McNeil. You don’t move a guy like that unless you find the right deal, and this would be the right deal. Davis is still cheap, and his numbers last year don’t reflect what actually happened on the field (drilled in the hip with an Aroldis Chapman fastball, played hurt for a month rather than sit, completely lost his ability to launch the ball).