Marcus Semien, the Quietest Star

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Marcus Semien
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports activities

Marcus Semien is as much as his typical tips. He’s eighth amongst all place gamers in WAR, comfortably one of the best on a first-place Rangers squad. For the third straight yr and the fourth out of 5, he’s on monitor to rack up four-plus WAR as one of many two greatest gamers on his workforce. For somebody who didn’t publish an above-average batting line till his seventh main league season, it’s a powerful accomplishment.

Maybe extra spectacular to me: he’s doing it proper beneath our noses, and nobody appears to note. Semien is sweet at every part however not in a means that provides as much as an incredible offensive line. His greatest talent is likely to be sturdiness. He’s clearly an excellent participant, however his specific set of expertise are highlighted by the framework we grade him beneath. I’m curious about Semien as a participant, and I’m additionally curious about why he’s the poster boy for each what WAR will get proper and the place it has limits.

Let’s begin with how Semien does it. It’s pretty simple: he’s above common at each section of the sport. It begins along with his plate self-discipline. To place it merely, he doesn’t make unhealthy choices about when to swing. In every of the previous 5 years, he’s achieved a powerful double: chasing fewer pitches than league common and concurrently swinging at extra in-zone pitches than league common. To state the plain, that’s a good way to each rack up a pile of walks and keep away from strikeouts.

When you zoom in on Semien’s choices, they get even higher. He doesn’t have huge uncooked energy; he’s roughly common with regards to any measure of high exit velocity you care to choose. He delivers further base hits most regularly when he swings at one thing over the center of the plate, extra so than whichever slugger you care to match him to. Guess what? He’s among the best within the enterprise at doing simply that. When pitchers throw him one thing over the center of the plate, he swings a whopping 85% of the time. That’s the sixth-best fee in baseball this yr, up there with aggressive hitters like Corey Seager and Freddie Freeman.

That may not sound spectacular by itself. In any case, just a few weak hitters dot the highest of this checklist, too. Ezequiel Tovar is third, and he’s far too aggressive for his personal good. Joey Gallo and Christian Bethancourt function prominently on the high of the desk. Merely swinging at plenty of pitches down the center doesn’t imply you might have it discovered. However Semien has the opposite aspect of the equation beneath management, too. When pitchers throw him one thing within the chase zone (not proper on the fringes of the zone, however not an automated take both), he doesn’t swing. Of the 297 hitters who’ve seen at the least 100 chase pitches this yr, 243 of them have swung extra regularly than Semien. He’s an outlier in each instructions.

He must be, as a result of as we’ve already coated, his uncooked energy is pedestrian. With middle-of-the-pack exit velocity, you may count on middle-of-the-pack energy manufacturing. You’d be flawed, as a result of Semien squeezes each final drop out of his contact high quality. His park-adjusted remoted energy is 16% increased than MLB common to this point this yr. It was 21% increased than common final yr, 61% above common in 2021. By swinging at good pitches, getting the ball within the air, and customarily maxing out his batted ball alternatives, he places up solidly above-average hitting numbers with nice regularity.

“Solidly above common” does an excellent job of describing Semien’s different contributions as nicely. He’s a plus baserunner — not among the best within the league however inarguably above common. He’s a strong defender at an up-the-middle place. He’s a scratch defender at shortstop, which makes him a plus defender at second base. Irrespective of the section of the sport, Semien is healthier than most main leaguers at it.

Precisely how priceless is that skillset? That’s a query sabermetricians nonetheless wrestle with. By wins above alternative, Semien has been the tenth-best place participant in baseball from 2019 to now. However that assertion lacks context. WAR lacks context by its very nature. It’s an try and boil down all of baseball right into a single quantity, a aim that inherently removes nuance. Check out these aforementioned high ten gamers, with just a few statistics appended:

Hitter WAR Leaders, ’19-’23

Semien’s standout talent jumps out: he simply performs greater than the remainder of these guys. His offensive manufacturing is above common however not otherworldly. He’s not among the best shortstop defenders of our era like Lindor. However he’s on the market each single day; he has a whopping 1,000 extra plate appearances than Trout, for instance. The truth is, Semien leads the majors in plate appearances over that span. Freeman is the one different participant inside 100, and José Abreu is the one different participant inside even 200.

Why does that matter? As a result of WAR is a counting statistic, which implies that gamers above alternative degree rack up worth each time they play (on common). A median participant is price just below two wins over 600 plate appearances — round 1.85 to be extra exact. Give that participant an additional 130 plate appearances (Semien has averaged 732 within the final three non-COVID seasons), and so they’d be price extra like 2.3 wins above alternative.

When you’re a bit bit higher than common, these further plate appearances add much more juice. Contemplate a participant who produces 4 WAR per 600 plate appearances. That’s a fringe All Star, kind of — Matt Chapman or Eugenio Suárez in 2022. Flip that as much as 730 plate appearances, and that’d be extra like a 5 WAR efficiency. Likewise, Semien completed final yr with 4.2 WAR, proper according to Chapman and Suárez. If he’d solely been capable of play for 600 plate appearances price of time, although, he’d have completed the yr with 3.5 WAR, comfortably behind them.

Ought to we be giving Semien credit score for that further enjoying time? It will depend on the way you view the idea of alternative degree. The central idea of alternative degree is undeniably intelligent: When you’re batting to your workforce, another person can’t be batting, naturally sufficient. Worth will depend on the distinction between what you probably did and what another person would have performed in your house. That idea will get prolonged to fielding, baserunning, and every part else on a baseball diamond. It’s a chic means of assigning worth, and the final idea of worth relative to alternative is pervasive not simply in sports activities but additionally in just about each analytical area you may think about right this moment. However as Invoice James typically factors out, the true sticking level is in that definition of alternative degree.

WAR handles this query kind of by fiat. Or, nicely, fiat isn’t fairly proper. In 2013, FanGraphs and Baseball Reference agreed to make use of the identical alternative degree worth of their calculations of WAR. That worth works out to 1,000 wins above alternative per yr, cut up throughout all the main leagues. That’s primarily based on a wide range of research that estimate manufacturing by freely accessible gamers, however it’s simply that: an estimate.

For essentially the most half, WAR being barely off simply isn’t that large of a deal for single-season functions. When you calculate alternative degree flawed, so what? Most full-time starters get 600–650 plate appearances a yr, so the gamers we’re evaluating once we take a look at WAR leaderboards are placing up their statistics over comparable workloads. One participant is often means out in entrance, anyway; Semien might have batted 1,500 occasions final yr with out placing up as a lot worth as Aaron Choose.

Semien is true on the borderline of creating me rethink the argument, although. He performs a lot that the enjoying time variations actually do matter. He’s worse on a per-plate-appearance foundation than everybody in his common neighborhood on the WAR leaderboards. It’s completely true that one of the simplest ways to calculate worth is relative to what you’d be getting from a alternative. The definition of alternative merely issues extra for Semien.

Contemplate this: if we take a look at wins above common as a substitute of above alternative, Semien drops to fifteenth as a substitute of tenth. Notably, he’s behind Fernando Tatis Jr. regardless of having batted greater than 1,000 occasions extra typically over that window. As an alternative of being a rounding error behind Trout, he’s 5.5 wins behind. Change the baseline, and worth adjustments proper alongside it.

Which baseline is right is a trickier query, and for my part, worth is finally closely depending on workforce context. Good groups have higher replacements than unhealthy groups generally. Final yr, for instance, the Dodgers needed to dip into their replacements after they confronted a wave of accidents. Their replacements have been nice, although, producing 2.5 WAR in 528 plate appearances as a result of Trayce Thompson, who they acquired for nothing in the midst of the yr, put up 2.8 WAR. The Astros, then again, obtained 0.3 WAR out of alternative degree gamers over 708 plate appearances.

Who your direct alternative is issues quite a bit, in different phrases. The issue with calculating that for Semien is that he principally hasn’t had a alternative. He performed in 161 video games final yr. The yr earlier than that, he performed in all 162. He performed in all 162 in 2019 as nicely. My greatest guess is that Josh H. Smith would get further reps if Semien performed much less, however it’s actually only a guess.

Smith appears to be like like a roughly common participant to me. Our projections assume he’ll be price 0.6 WAR in 175 plate appearances the remainder of the best way this yr, which works out to round 2 WAR per 600 plate appearances. But when it’s not Smith as a alternative, it is likely to be Travis Jankowski (by way of some infield/outfield switches), and we predict he’s a lot nearer to alternative degree. In different phrases, the context of alternative degree isn’t even clear once we decide a particular workforce and a particular yr.

The place does that go away me in excited about Semien’s worth? I’m inclined to aspect with our calculation of WAR somewhat than attempting to recalculate some increased alternative degree, even after presenting the argument towards it right here. The reality is that sturdiness is efficacious. Semien’s further enjoying time lets the workforce give different gamers relaxation and use situationally helpful guys after they’re at their greatest somewhat than overexposing them. His sturdiness is actually spectacular, too, which makes me extra inclined to offer him credit score for it. Excluding 2023, he has eight items of black ink on his Baseball Reference web page — video games in 2019, plate appearances in 2019, video games in 2021, plate appearances in 2021, video games in 2022, plate appearances in 2022, at-bats in 2022, and sacrifice flies in 2022. In different phrases, he’s the easiest within the league at being on the market day by day, and offering an above-average fee whereas doing so.

May you argue that WAR barely overstates Semien’s worth? Positive. However I wager you his teammates would let you know in any other case, and I wager you groups would as nicely. The plate appearances we don’t see from his alternative is likely to be impossibly difficult to worth, however that doesn’t imply they’re nugatory. It simply means our instruments aren’t good, and whereas I believe we’re fairly good at valuing manufacturing lately, I don’t assume we’ll ever get all the best way to perfection.

Statistics on this article are present via video games of Saturday, June 17.

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