There was one player out on the field five hours before the A’s faced the defending World Series champion Royals on Friday night: Marcus Semien, taking grounder after grounder under the watchful eye of Ron Washington.
“If you want to be the best player you can be, that’s what you have to do,” explained the club’s resident fielding guru, who’s been tutoring Semien since he rejoined the organization last May. “You have to put in the time and create some work ethic and Marcus has tremendous work ethic.”
Washington has high hopes for Semien, who has been one of the few bright spots for an Oakland club that has been slow out of the gate — especially with the bats.
“I felt like he was the best choice for the two spot,” manager Bob Melvin said of Semien who had a sacrifice fly in his first start near the top of the lineup on Saturday after he’d spent the early days of the season anchored in the nine hole. “It doesn’t mean he’s going to stay there, but the way he’s been swinging, he deserves it.”
It’s no fluke that Semien is the first A’s player to arrive.
“That’s something we do everyday,” Semien said. “Ever since Wash got here last season, he’s always been available to help anyone.”
With Semien decked out in a gray team shirt, green-and-gold shorts, a batting practice cap and knee-high green socks, the student and the teacher get to work.
They begin with a fungo drill. At first, Semien is less than 10 feet away from the veteran coach. Soon, the space between the pair grows and they eventually head out to the infield, as Semien hones his craft.
There’s a lot of honing to do. Last year, Semien racked up more errors than any other player in the bigs — much less any other shortstop.
Ask Washington about that relentless flood of miscues and suddenly the third base coach goes on the defensive himself.
“If the talk in the press box is about all the errors, then they haven’t been paying attention,” Washington said. “Last year he did make a lot of errors in the beginning. But he fixed that as we went into June toward the end of the year. That should never be any more of a conversation.”
Looking at the final stat line, Semien’s 35 errors look bad — really bad.
But after digging into the numbers, Washington is right to defend his pupil. Eighteen of those errors — including 12 during an abysmal May — came in the first two months of the season. During the final four months — after Washington got his hands on the shortstop — the error total stood at a far more manageable number: 17.
If Washington can continue to shape the 25-year-old into a serviceable fielder, the club will have a special player on its roster: a legit power threat who patrols a premier defensive position.
“Last year was my best season from that perspective,” Semien said when asked if he considers himself to be a power hitter. “I started running into some pitches.”
His 15 long balls were tied for the second-most in the American League among players at his position, and his resume suggests that more pop is on tap.
During the 2014 season, while appearing in 147 games between Triple-A and the bigs, the right-handed hitter connected for 21 homers. This year, he’s already left the park a team-leading four times.
“He does have power in that bat,” Washington said. “But I think more than anything else, he wants to be a complete player. He’s blessed with an asset in the game of baseball to generate good bat speed.”
As Semien embarks on his second season in Oakland, he not only has the chance to fulfill his star potential, but also has the opportunity to do so in his home market. The White Sox’s sixth-round draft pick in 2011 was born in San Francisco, played high school ball at St. Mary’s in Berkeley and then moved onto Cal.
“It’s great. I got to play in front of [my friends and family] at Cal and now here,” said Semien, who admits his parents raised him as a Giants fan — taking him to games at Candlestick and later AT&T Park. “It’s pretty rare to be able to do that as a pro player. I want to get any opportunity that I can at this level and it happens to be at home, so, it’s great.”
But even Washington — Semien’s staunchest defender — knows there are still plenty of growing pains to come.
“He’s not a finished product. He’s still going to make errors. He’s still going to make bad throws. He’s still going to make bad decisions and he’s going to boot balls,” Washington explained. “But I think as far as people remembering the Marcus Semien in April, in May [of 2015], it’s not the same guy. It’s not the same guy and they will never see that again.”