Discussing the MVP race in the AL is the definition of wasting time these days. It’s going to be Shohei Ohtani’s award in a unanimous, what’re-you-new-around-here kind of vote. He’s simply done things for a full season never seen before, and when you do that, you win the MVP.
So, simple enough.
That doesn’t mean ballots don’t have to be filled out with other names, and we do live in a world where it’s somewhat possible that some baseball writers will come up with some rule in their heads that only Ohtani’s offensive numbers apply to the MVP chase, and his pitching numbers only apply to the Cy Young. At least one or two will think this (even if they don’t say it) and you and I know it. It won’t make much difference.
Still, there are other players having great seasons, and some even more under the radar than normal. Which is a real feat for Marcus Semien, as this would be the second time in three years he’s done it.
You probably didn’t know that Semien was the third-best player in the American League in 2019, if you go by FanGraphs measure of WAR. If you go by Baseball Reference’s numbers, he was second behind Alex Bregman. He finished third in the MVP voting, behind Bregman and Mike Trout. He was worth 7.6 fWAR and 8.6 bWAR back then, which he did through a surprising power season of 32 homers and playing exemplary defense at short. It was the third-best season, in terms of fWAR, of any shortstop this decade.
Like a lot of things and a lot of people, things went haywire for Semien in the season-in-a-can of 2020. His K-rate jumped over 50% to 21.2 percent, his power disappeared to the tune of a .374 slugging, and it came at the worst time as he was heading into free agency (h/t Fangraphs.com). The reshaped market thanks to COVID and the closed-door season didn’t help either, and Semien could only get a one-year, $18 million deal from Toronto in the offseason. Which is quite a bargain for someone who nearly took home an MVP just a year prior.
Semien’s problems last year, as much as they were problems and not just a bad streak that just happened to encompass all of a shortened season, seemed to stem from a focus on getting the ball in the air. Semien’s average launch-angle jumped from 15 degrees in 2019 to 19.3 in 2020. His fly-ball rate jumped from 38.9 percent to 46.8 percent, while seeing an inverse decline in his groundball rate.
But Semien had a hard time making solid contact at the top of the zone, perusing his BaseballSavant Zone pages for the past three seasons. That’s where hitters focusing on launch angle get attacked, and Semien was especially vulnerable high and outside. His infield flyball rate, essentially pop-ups, doubled from 2019 to 2020, suggesting he was late to anything up in the zone.
There’s been no change in Semien’s launch angle or flyball rate this year, and yet the numbers are so much better. Semien’s pop-up rate had dropped in half, which means all that contact that used to go up the elevator shaft is now heading out toward the pastures. Semien has also made louder contact by simply pulling the ball far more often, with his pull-rate the highest of his career and the opposite field rate the lowest. All of it’s seen Semien manage the highest slugging percentage of his career (.524).
Some luck always helps, too. Semien’s BABIP jumped 30 points from last year to his career norms of just a tick above .290 this term. And Semien has gotten to play his home games in three of the biggest homer parks in the league thanks to the Blue Jays’ nomad ways (Dunedin, Buffalo, and now Toronto). Yankee Stadium and Camden Yards also rank in the top-third for home run parks, where a good portion of the Jays’ road games take place. Better than having to muscle through the marine layer in Oakland or the big dimensions in Seattle at least.
Semien has also been the best defensive second baseman in the AL, while Bo Bichette has been distinctly average at short, leading one to wonder why they didn’t flip them at the beginning of the season. But we’ll leave that for another time, as well as the discussion of whether or not the Jays wasted a season where they had two MVP candidates on their team and still might finish fourth.
All of it means that Semien has been the second most valuable position-only player in the AL, either by FanGraphs or BBREF (“position-only” being a term we have had to adopt thanks to Ohtani). Which works out just as perfectly this winter as last winter didn’t with Semien going back into free agency. He’s far and away the best second baseman on the market — but where he fits in the loaded shortstop market with Cory Seager, Carlos Correa, Javier Báez, Trevor Story, and Chris Taylor is going to be hard to answer. He’s older than all of them except for Taylor, and doesn’t come with the buzz. Which means that some team might end up with another bargain, just as the Jays have this year.
Maybe next time he does this, we’ll all notice a bit more.