The 2019 MVP awards will be announced this afternoon, and Oakland A’s shortstop Marcus Semien is one of the three finalists for the American League prize. He’s almost certainly not going to win, but here’s the case for why he should.
The core of Semien’s case is based on the age-old question of what exactly you think “most valuable” means. There is no argument to be made that he has the best stats overall, as he is clearly third out of three in that regard. However, many MVP voters also factor in whether the player’s team made the postseason, and how singularly important he was to that result. Those areas are where Semien will earn his votes.
Let’s begin with the numbers. Semien put up phenomenal stats in 2019, which is the reason he’s in this conversation at all. What’s more, he was good in virtually every aspect of the game, from power, to on-base, to plate discipline, to speed, to defense at a premium position. He was all strengths and no weaknesses, and it added up to a great season.
The competition was better, though. Mike Trout of the Angels, and Alex Bregman of the Astros, put up significantly superior batting lines than Semien did. Like, it’s not even close. On defense they were also Gold Glove finalists, just like Semien was, and Trout’s was at the premium position of center field (though the metrics suggest that he was more like mediocre and benefited from a weak field of candidates). Bregman primarily played a corner at third base, but he also chipped in 65 games at short.
A quick comparison makes it clear that Semien is third out of three in this race if you go purely by the numbers. Also remember that Trout missed most of September due to injury and only played 134 games — you don’t have to give him extra credit for what he might have done in a proper full season, but it’s also tough to ignore that he more or less led the league in WAR despite sitting out a month. He was unquestionably the best player in the AL, and if you go by stats alone then he should be the pick.
If you go by fWAR, the other pair are each around a full win above Semien. If you go by bWAR, it’s closer to even, but with Semien still marginally in third place. He makes up for the massive gap in offense with sky-high defensive value, which itself is a combination of strong metrics and a huge positional adjustment for shortstop. All of that definitely counts and shouldn’t be written off, but even fully factoring it in he’s still at best tied with Trout and Bregman, and at worst comfortably behind them.
No, Semien won’t win on his stats alone, but he also doesn’t have to be eliminated by them either. He’s clearly third, but he’s still close enough to stay in the running if some other considerations can put him over the top. That’s where the “valuable” part comes in.
If you believe that the MVP must come from a contender, then Trout is out. He’s won it on a sub-.500 Angels team before, in 2016, but that year he had far and away the best personal stats in the league. He doesn’t this time due to that late injury, though, so his 90-loss teammates might cost him. He would have run away with this MVP if he’d stayed healthy, but he didn’t so the door is open for someone else to swoop in.
That would leave Bregman and Semien duking it out for the “most valuable player on a playoff team” award. The next criteria for some voters might be that Bregman’s team was so much better than Semien’s, with an enormous 10-game advantage. Houston was a 107-win juggernaut, a historic superteam, while Oakland was just really really good. You might reasonably reward the best player on that superteam.
Or, the very fact that the Astros were a superteam at all might work against Bregman, and this is where Semien can make his case. What would be worse: Houston without just one of their eight superstars, or Oakland without their top player? Bregman was slightly better and his team finished well ahead, but Semien might have been more singularly important to his relatively ragtag team’s success.
Houston had multiple aces in their rotation, and five hitters in their lineup who have been All-Star starters at least once in the last three years. They were stacked. The A’s had one other huge star in Matt Chapman (who himself was only an All-Star reserve, behind Bregman), a few more really good players, and arguably the best closer in the majors. They had much less margin for error, and Semien seemed like a bigger percentage of the equation that led them to October than Bregman was for the Astros.
That’s what Semien’s case boils down to. He was the most valuable player in the sense that he was the best player with the least help on a postseason team. That’s the combination of factors that puts him on top of the list.
There’s a convenient and familiar historical precedent for this, too. In 2002, Miguel Tejada won the MVP while wearing the green and gold, the last time any A’s player did so. He didn’t have the best numbers, with Peak Alex Rodriguez in the Trout role as obviously the best player in the league (and Jim Thome following behind him). But A-Rod and Thome’s teams were both bad, so they didn’t get as much love in the voting as they might have on winners.
Meanwhile, Jason Giambi had superior numbers that year, with a nearly 100-point advantage in both OBP and SLG while nearly matching Tejada’s gaudy RBI total (which still mattered then). His defensive value was less, but WAR suggests he more than made up for it with his bat, if any voter was even looking at any of that then. However, Giambi was part of the Yankees dynasty, surrounded by a multi-championship-caliber roster, while Tejada’s team was so famously an underdog (partly due to losing Giambi himself the previous winter) that there’s a whole bestselling book and Oscar-nominated movie about their incredibly unlikely success.
Tejada won in 2002 because he was the best player with the least help on a postseason team. That’s exactly what Semien is now, and at the same position and on the same underdog team as Tejada had been. I think Bregman will probably win, and that’s probably the right call with his combination of great numbers and greatest team. But if Semien snags the MVP in an upset decision, then all of this will be why.
(Update: Trout won.)