MESA, Ariz. — Ron Washington stood side by side with shortstop Marcus Semien in the batting cage within the depths of the Oakland Coliseum last month, each smiling as they worked together for a FanFest session.
These two have struck quite a bond in the short time Washington has been back with the Athletics as third base coach, a job he had years ago while helping defensively develop former stars such as six-time Gold Glove third baseman Eric Chavez, first baseman Jason Giambi and shortstop Miguel Tejada.
Semien committed a majors-leading 35 errors in his first season with the A’s last year, but the 25-year-old shortstop made major strides with his glove over the second half after Washington returned in May before being promoted into his old third-base gig come August.
“The way we work, the way that I’ve learned to work on defense with Wash, has really made me more confident,” Semien said. “Looking at the entire year as an experience, it’s only going to make me better. There were more errors than I wanted to have, but it’s going to make me a better player. The second half, looking at the numbers, of course that’s good. But the whole year itself is what’s going to make the difference for me moving forward.”
Oakland executive Billy Beane came calling last year when Washington needed work, already with a major project in mind: Semien. It’s been a perfect fit for Washington’s second time around with the franchise following his eight-year tenure as Texas manager from 2007-14, which included two AL pennants, before some time out of the professional game.
After Semien’s 12-error month of May, which included nine in nine games during one especially tough stretch, he began to improve. He had six errors in June, five in July and three each in August and September.
“The numbers speak for themselves as far as his defensive second half compared to the first,” manager Bob Melvin said of Semien, who batted .257 with 15 homers and 45 RBIs.
Now, Semien is ready to help anchor a strong infield featuring third baseman Danny Valencia, second baseman Jed Lowrie back with the club after a stint with Houston and new first baseman Yonder Alonso. Eric Sogard will be in the mix as a utilityman.
Semien earned respect in the clubhouse for how he handled himself through the struggles and criticism.
“For him last year defensively he was night and day better than he was starting,” ace Sonny Gray said. “He’s one of those guys, too, you see him out there literally every single day working early. If something did go wrong during the game he was the first one to stand up and hold his head high and say he’ll get better at it. And he really did. He’s going to be a big part of this team. There’s no doubt in my mind he’s going to continue to work and get better.”
The 63-year-old Washington arrived at spring training last week and quickly walked around Hohokam Stadium to survey his workspace — the practice fields.
He plans regular infield meetings, to “discuss what is our purpose.” Oakland’s first full-squad workout of spring training is Friday, but his infielders were early arrivals.
“They all are here because they’re excited, and I’m excited,” Washington said. “I’ve got to get with those kids and develop a relationship. A lot of them I know but not all of them. … I know I can help them be what they want to be on the defensive end.”
Melvin appreciates all the attention to detail at this stage for a team that finished last in the AL West at 68-94 following three straight playoff berths.
“He really wants to let each and every one of these guys know what his expectations of them are, whether it’s what their workload’s going to be, whether it’s early work, the versatility we have with some guys moving around to different positions. He wants to make sure they’re clear with that. He is on top of things as we saw last year. He’s a great infield guy and very passionate about it.”
Washington even shared some books with Semien during their journey together last year.
“He brought me to another level in work ethic,” Semien said. “Some of the books he told me he’s read may have helped him with that work ethic, that attitude, mind over matter attitude, and that helped me show up every day with the willingness to work and get better no matter how my body felt, no matter who we were facing that day.”