The Blue Jays drew plenty of headlines over the offseason for their reported interest in seemingly every free agent available. It took until late January, but the club rewarded the fanbase’s patience by landing premier center fielder George Springer on a six-year, $150MM guarantee. Various injuries have mostly kept Springer off the field to this point, but the Jays are getting a ton of production from their other key position player acquisition: Marcus Semien.
Semien was one of the more difficult free agents to value last winter. He’d been a solid regular from 2015-18, combining consistently league average offense with strong shortstop defense and durability. The 2019 season brought an offensive breakout, with Semien unexpectedly hitting .285/.369/.522 with a career-high 33 home runs. He didn’t follow up on that incredible year during the shortened 2020 season, though. Semien got off a terrible start, and while he finished the year on a hot streak, his overall .223/.305/.374 line was closer to his average hitting from 2015-18 than his fantastic numbers the year before.
With some uncertainty about his true offensive talent level and teams curtailing free agent spending on the heels of the shortened season, Semien elected to take a prove-it deal with the Jays. He signed a one-year, $18MM guarantee with Toronto just a few days after the club added Springer, agreeing to slide to second base in deference to Bo Bichette in the process. In the early going, it looks like a great decision for both player and team.
Semien is off to a career-best start at the plate in 2021. The 30-year-old is hitting .288/.355/.545 over his first 220 plate appearances. He’s completely regained his 2019 power stroke, posting a personal-high .258 ISO (slugging minus batting average), while his thirteen home runs is tied for sixth in MLB.
Unsurprisingly, a good chunk of that production seems to be the result of him simply hitting the ball harder more consistently. Semien is barreling up 8.5% of his batted balls this year, per Statcast- a better than average mark he’s only ever matched in the aforementioned 2019 season. His average exit velocity is up to a career-best 90.5 MPH, a more than 4 MPH improvement over his figure from last season. He’s also gotten more pull-oriented on his fly balls. The improved thump is no coincidence, since pulled flies lead to the most power-friendly outcomes for a hitter (the league is slugging 1.474 on such batted balls this year).
Whether Semien can sustain something like this level of production all year is still uncertain. The increase in power has come with an uptick in strikeouts to a carer-high 26.4%, and his contact rate is down more than five percentage points from that 2019 campaign. It’s also worth considering the Jays home environment. The team spent the first two months of the season at their Spring Training complex in Dunedin, which, as Mike Petriello of MLB.com recently pointed out (Twitter link), played very hitter-friendly. With the Jays moving to Buffalo (and perhaps eventually Toronto) over the next couple months, Semien’s ability to continue hitting for this kind of power is worth monitoring.
The Blue Jays have already gotten plenty of return on their investment in Semien, but there’s much at stake for both in the near future. At 25-24, Toronto will need to play better to stick in the AL postseason picture. Semien, as an impending free agent, would be a logical trade candidate if the Jays fall out of the race. (A midseason deal would remove the possibility of a team making a qualifying offer, which would only improve Semien’s market value). The upcoming free agent shortstop class has drawn plenty of attention, with Corey Seager, Trevor Story, Javier Báez and Carlos Correa all hitting the market. Semien’s older than those four, but he’s also outperforming them all to this point- with the added bonus of proving he can transition to second base if needed without issue. In the process, he’s setting himself up for another fascinating trip to the open market.