Heading in Opposite Directions: Manny Machado and Marcus Semien

If, at this time a year ago, I had told you that between Manny Machado and Marcus Semien, one was going to finish sixth among shortstop-eligible players in 5×5 Roto value and one was going to finish 16th, there would have been no question about which player was going to rank where. But all of us (except for the most prescient) would have been wrong. Semien trailed only Alex Bregman, Trevor Story, Xander Bogaerts, Ketel Marte and Jonathan Villar, while Machado — who played in all but six of the Padres’ games — amassed less value than either Elvis Andrus or Amed Rosario.

Machado’s dropoff and Semien’s surge were both surprising, so it’s not unexpected that early 2020 rankings for both players are all over the map. Among shortstops, Paul Sporer has them ranked consecutively, with Machado at 14th and Semien at 15th. Tristan Cockcroft of ESPN has Machado seventh, 14 spots ahead of Semien. CBS’ Scott White and The Athletic’s Derek Van Riper have Semien ranked ahead of Machado, with White ranking them 10th and 12th and Van Riper ranking them eighth and 10th. The six leagues in the #2EarlyMocks were definitive in their preference for Machado, giving him an ADP of 37.0, as compared to Semien’s 122.5 ADP. The Twittersphere — or at least the portion of it that responded to my poll — sided with Cockcroft and the #2EarlyMock owners, showing a strong preference for drafting Machado ahead of Semien in 2020.

There is little evidence of owners buying into both players’ 2019 results. The perceived best-case scenario for Semien is that he will be a little more valuable than Machado, and the worst-case scenario is that he and Machado will revert to their positions in the 2018 pecking order, which was roughly the opposite of where they finished this season. If we are not giving enough weight to both players’ 2019 performances, then Semien’s actual best-case scenario might be even better than what some of his more enthusiastic backers are expecting.

So let’s begin with Machado and figure out what was amiss for him. The most obvious starting point is his change in venue. Having played nearly all of his prior games as an Oriole, Machado had the benefit of playing home games at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, and it showed. Going back to his breakout season of 2015, he posted a 19.4 percent HR/FB and a .263 ISO in his home games with Baltimore, as compared to a 16.5 percent HR/FB and a .229 ISO in away games. During his first season as a Padre, Machado had similar road splits, with a 17.5 percent HR/FB and a .224 ISO, but at PETCO Park, he had just a 16.1 percent HR/FB and a .187 ISO.

Yet those full-season splits may exaggerate the degree to which Machado’s power was sapped by PETCO Park. In August and September, he suffered through a bad slump during which he hit flies and liners with less exit velocity (but still a respectable 93.0 mph), and he became one of the least pull-happy hitters in the majors on flyballs. His 17.5 percent flyball pull rate was the fifth-lowest among 77 hitters who launched at least 50 flies over those final two months of the season. The reduced power and aversion to pulling contributed to Machado hitting just six home runs and compiling a .139 ISO from August 1 forward.

Machado also dragged his batting average down with a .209 mark over that period, and he did that in spite of averaging 96.0 mph in exit velocity on his grounders. That would be a robust average for flies and liners, and it’s a practically unheard-of level of exit velocity for ground balls. No other hitter with at least 50 grounders averaged as much as 92 mph in EV GB over August and September. We should hardly be surprised, then, that Machado had a .256 xBA over that period.

If we remove those two months from Machado’s stats, he had a .248 Avg and .223 ISO at home, though his xBA was .267. Even the xBA is lower than Machado’s fantasy owners would like to see, but his power was on a par with his road numbers with the Orioles. Then again, with the rocket ball in play in 2019, it would have been more ideal to see Machado’s home ISO be a little bit higher.

It’s not clear why Machado lost power and pulled flies less often in the season’s final third, but before then, he put up a .278/.348/.515 slash line with a 19.5 percent HR/FB and .237 ISO overall. If he maintained those numbers for the entire season, there would undoubtedly be less of a debate over which player should get drafted first in 2020. Those looking for a Machado rebound can also point to his career-high 19.4 percent strikeout rate, which could regress and, in turn, boost his batting average and ISO next season.

Part of determining which hitter to target in drafts will depend on what we think we can expect from Semien. He improved in a variety of ways in his fifth season with the Athletics, hitting with greater exit velocity, exercising better plate discipline and making contact more frequently. That resulted in Semien setting career highs in every 5×5 category other than stolen bases, and he still had 10 of those. His .285 Avg, 92 RBIs and 123 runs were far better than any of his previous marks, as was his .369 OBP. Semien’s progress was somewhat overstated by these stats, as his .494 xSLG was 44 points lower than his actual mark. Even if we put faith in his xSLG, a repeat of this performance would still put Semien roughly on a par with the pre-August version of Machado.

Semien chalks his breakout up to using a smaller bat as well as sticking with his swing after honing it in spring training. We can’t know if those changes — and the results they possibly helped to produce — will spill over into another season, and there isn’t much that fantasy owners can do, other to hedge their bets by assuming some regression towards his 2018 levels. It is interesting to note that Semien really took off after switching to an even smaller bat in early June (per Marcus Thompson II of The Athletic). Given how consistently productive Semien was after making this change, I will be inclined to assume his regression is going to be minor.

I don’t know how Machado will reverse his ballooning strikeout rate or his low pulled flyball rate, but given that the 27-year-old is not yet in a typical decline phase of his career, I am going to assume he will do those things. That means I expect to see a version of Machado who is a little better than how we was through his first four months as a Padre. That will be just better enough that I will rank him slightly ahead of Semien for 2020 drafts, but it will be close. If ADPs have Semien considerably lower than Machado, I will not be tempted to reach for the latter, especially since both shortstop and third base will be deep this year.

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Al Melchior has been writing about Fantasy baseball and sim games since 2000, and his work has appeared at CBSSports.com, BaseballHQ, Ron Shandler's Baseball Forecaster and FanRagSports. He has also participated in Tout Wars' mixed auction league since 2013. You can follow Al on Twitter @almelchiorbb and find more of his work at almelchior.com.

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Was just googling Semien and am kind of shocked that he (almost definitely) finished third in AL MVP voting, What an amazing breakout.

If ADPs have Semien much cheaper, I’ll always be waiting on him, but I have to take Machado if they’re close. I imagine Machado adjust to a new league hurt him a lot. I expect significant positive regression next season.