When the A’s announced the rehiring of Ron Washington last season to coach their infielders, shortstop Marcus Semien had just experienced his roughest defensive stretch of the season – a span of 11 games in which he committed 10 errors. The A’s made Washington’s hire official May 21 and Washington met the team in Tampa, Fla., where he first talked with Semien.
“I told him, ‘This is a process,’ ” Washington recalled. “ ‘It’s going to take time. You just worry about the work and I’ll worry about all the other issues. There is nothing that you can do out there on the field that I can’t help you fix.’ ”
The two spent the next four months overhauling Semien’s defensive mechanics. Semien, in his first season as the A’s everyday shortstop, ended the year with a major-league-high 35 errors. But he also showed steady improvement under the tutelage of Washington, making just seven errors after the All-Star break and appearing more comfortable and surehanded in the field.
This spring, Washington said, Semien’s progress can be measured by the areas where he still needs to improve. Washington said he’s having Semien zero in on two aspects of his fielding – arm speed and the consistency of his stride when he throws to a base, both of which are geared toward improving the accuracy of his throws.
“The rest of it he’s got,” Washington said. “He got it last year. Now all we’re doing is maintenance. Come April 1, he’ll be ready to be one of the best shortstops in the game.”
If that seems a bold prediction given Semien’s trouble last year, Washington’s response is: “Watch him work.”
Semien garnered the respect of his coaches and teammates last season by how he handled the heavy scrutiny that came with his conspicuous error total. He routinely could be found on the field hours before games working on his defensive mechanics with Washington, who introduced him to a series of drills that have since become ingrained in Semien’s day-to-day routine.
The drills usually begin with Semien perched on his knees and using a smaller glove as Washington throws him one-hop ground balls from a short distance and ensures he is fielding with the correct fundamentals. Semien then trades the small glove for a flat pad and continues to field grounders, working his way back to the normal shortstop position. Only toward the end will he put on his normal glove and execute throws, either across the diamond to first base or to second if the infielders are practicing turning double plays.
Semien, who keeps a flat fielding pad in his locker, said this spring so far has been more of “the same stuff. But it’s still challenging work. It’s repetition, it’s focus. You’ve got to make sure you come out there ready to work, because if you’re a little bit off that day, you’ll get exposed.”
That is roughly how Semien explains his defensive struggles of last season. He won the A’s everyday shortstop job in spring training “working on things I thought I was doing right.” But as the season began and his mistakes began to mount, “Things got exposed a little bit.”
When Washington joined the team in May, Semien lacked knowledge of the position, Washington said. So instruction covered such wide-ranging topics as what angles to take to field ground balls, different ways to turn a double play and the importance of knowing the batters’ tendencies. Semien said working with Washington has changed even the most fundamental aspects of his defense.
“I catch the ball different, I hold my glove different, my stride is longer when I throw, my arm speed is better,” he said. “There are so many things to break down that I’m trying to apply. They were just things I wasn’t aware of.”
While ironing out his defensive issues, Semien also appeared in a team-high 155 games last season and batted .257 with 15 home runs and 45 RBIs – numbers strong enough to make him the incumbent at shortstop this spring. To Semien’s credit, Washington said, the criticism of his defense seemingly “never affected” him.
“I just had to keep Marcus from thinking about what people on the outside were saying,” Washington said. “You just think about what you do every day to get better and one day you’re going to step out here and have it figured out. And then we move forward.”