The Marcus Semien/Ron Washington Lesson

The Oakland A’s had a nightmarish season in 2015. They had the biggest difference in Base Runs vs. actual record out of any team since 2002. Their bullpen had historically-bad timing. And, finally, their defensive issues were on display most of the year, especially in the early stages of the season when they were on pace for a record-breaking number of errors. The infield was mostly to blame for the last problem, with Brett Lawrie and Marcus Semien routinely exhibiting the sort of lapses that have mostly been excised from players by the time they make it to the majors. It was ugly, and it was a part of why the A’s buried themselves in a hole in the AL West standings before the season was even a third of the way through.

Through May 21st of 2015, the A’s were on pace 169 errors, which would have been the most since the year 2000 by a fairly wide margin. Here’s a graphic from the previously-linked post from May 22nd of last season that shows the error gulf we were witnessing:

The A’s finished with only 126 errors, missing out on a particularly ignominious title. However, much of the defensive blame fell squarely on Semien during the early parts of the season, and for good reason: at the time of the May post, he had accounted for 16 of Oakland’s fielding and throwing errors. By the end of May, some were claiming that the A’s might not be able to afford to keep his glove at shortstop, despite his strong production at the plate. But the team did something about it: they hired Ron Washington to tutor the young shortstop on defense, and he started doing so on May 22nd. They got right to work, with Semien doing throwing mechanics drills, and often fielding ground balls with a plank-like glove to soften his hands:

His pregame fielding routine begins by taking grounders with a “flat glove.” Rather than a soft pocket, it has a flat surface, which forces a player to field the ball with soft hands. Semien fields balls to his left, then his right with the flat glove. Only after that does he slip on his regular glove.

By the modest forms of measurements we have available, the mentoring seemed to pay off, at least on the surface: Semien made “only” 19 errors from May 22nd until the end of the year, improved his fielding percentage by .50 points from what it was before May 21st, and finished the year with positive DRS (+4). UZR/150 really disliked him, but we can attribute that mainly to Semien having the worst Error Runs (ErrR) component of UZR among shortstops in the past 15 years (-12.5).

The standard caveats apply related to this sample size of defensive statistics: they’re hard to trust year-to-year, and we should regress them heavily. The bottom line: Semien had a brutal defensive campaign, but it did get a little better once Washington came on to help. Satisfied that the 24-year-old shortstop was at least on the right track, the A’s made Washington their new third base coach on August 24th, and Semien’s daily dose of fielding drills were scaled back.

There’s another layer to this story, of course, and it was what else happened during the timeframe when Washington and Semien were focusing on his defense. I first stumbled across this interesting factoid during my perusal of a certain popular social media platform, when Joseph DeClercq — a contributor to Athletics Nation – pointed out Semien’s offensive production before, during, and after directly working with Washington. Take a look:

Marcus Semien Offensive Stats, 2015
BB% K% ISO BABIP wOBA wRC+
Pre 5/22 6.1% 21.0% .183 .360 .358 130
5/22-8/24* 6.2% 22.5% .100 .277 .260 63
Post 8/24 9.9% 22.1% .205 .325 .359 131
SOURCE: FanGraphs
*Period when Semien was intensively working on defense with Ron Washington

The numbers are almost comically similar before and after working with Wash on defense, and it’s easy to see what happened during their time together: Semien couldn’t hit a thing. He was the second-best offensive shortstop in the majors by wRC+ from Opening Day to mid-May; then, from May 22nd to August 24th, he was Jean Segura. After August 24th, he went back to posting a similar wRC+ to Ryan Braun.

Small sample size abounds. BABIP happened a little bit. But so did ISO, and so did walk rate, which stabilize more quickly than other offensive stats. There’s signal in the noise, and there are brief bookends of outstanding production here. Let’s do this – have a look at Semien’s plate discipline statistics, again dividing them into our three time frames:

Marcus Semien Plate Discipline, 2015
O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% SwStr%
Pre 5/22 25.3% 59.6% 41.8% 64.1% 88.6% 81.0% 7.8%
5/22-8/24* 28.5% 67.0% 48.0% 54.8% 88.2% 78.5% 10.1%
Post 8/24 22.2% 61.1% 40.3% 62.9% 86.6% 79.6% 8.1%
SOURCE: FanGraphs
*Period when Semien was intensively working on defense with Ron Washington

Semien was simply more aggressive for the roughly three months he was working on his defense, and his out of zone contact/swing rates tell the story of his offensive struggles during that period. He also saw a larger majority of first-pitch strikes during the three middle months, which certainly could’ve been a contributing factor to his increased aggressiveness — as with most situations in baseball, nothing stands alone. I am reminded of the John Muir quote: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” Despite not knowing the man, I confidently state that Muir quite possibly may have been talking about our nation’s pastime.

The point being: Marcus Semien was really good at the plate for almost two months. Then, because of his history as a utility player, he actually had to learn how to play shortstop full time, and his offense suffered. Once his tutelage was over, he was an incredibly similar version of who he was at the plate before his defensive lessons. That’s not the entire story, of course. These things are never that simple — John Muir tells us so. But it makes a lot of sense given the knowledge that shortstop is an incredibly hard position to play defensively. Learning the basics almost from scratch while trying to effectively hit major league pitching at the same time is a monumental task. A human being can only do so much at one time, even ones that are gifted enough to go to Cal Berkeley and then play in the big leagues. Semien has shown signs that he really can hit. Now he should have the basics of playing shortstop down. At such a thin position, that seems like an interesting — and potentially very valuable — place to be.



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Owen Watson writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @ohwatson.


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Brian Reinhart
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Member
3 months 16 days ago

This article successfully passes the Ron Washington Defense Training Articles Must Use the Phrase “Incredibly Hard” at Least Once test.

Sleepy
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Sleepy
3 months 16 days ago

Tell ’em, Brian.

Slacker George
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Member
Slacker George
3 months 16 days ago

Other lesson to learn: don’t hire Ron Washington as hitting instructor.

Ryan M
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Ryan M
3 months 16 days ago

Very good article! Semien is going to have a monster 2016! Love the young Oakland A’s core and the crop of prospects (Beane reloaded that farm system in the blink of an eye, and after the A’s first bad season in almost 18 years, amazing. Amazing that after playoffs in 3 of the last 4 years and “going all in,” he was able to regain so much depth and talent at the minor league level) that will be ML ready by 2017

awalnoha
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awalnoha
3 months 16 days ago

Fyi factoid is not actually defiened as you use it and has been used wrong by the media for the last 10-20 years. It is not defined as a small or interest piece ofr information as it is commonly used (because really thats just a fact). It has been used that way for so long that it has become accepted though. It is

an assumption or speculation that is reported and repeated so often that it becomes accepted as fact.

For example humans inly use 10% of their brain. Not true at all. But it is reported as such all the time.

Not a grammer Nazi but this usage of the sord bothers me. Irregardless…good article.

awalnoha
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awalnoha
3 months 16 days ago

Typo on the otherhand…

Serbian to Vietnamese to French and back
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Serbian to Vietnamese to French and back
3 months 16 days ago

Now it is interesting that with you to the abuse of the media for 10 to 20 years of use. It is not defined as a child or are interested in information about the room during use (because really, it’s just a fact). Use this medium while it is acceptable or. you

Conjecture and speculation that these reports and so often that it becomes accepted as fact repeated.

For example, the makers use 10% of your brain. I does not make sense. But these reports.

No Grammar Nazi, but the use of the Ford bothers me. Do not use … Good article.

Brian Reinhart
Member
Member
3 months 16 days ago

Proud Ford owner and Grammar Social Democrat.

YABooble
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YABooble
3 months 16 days ago

Which 10% of your brain do the makers use?

awalnoha
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awalnoha
3 months 16 days ago

Funny because the Vietnemese and French use the word factoid to mean Luxury Yacht. But the T is not silent for them.

Gluten-Free AEC
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Gluten-Free AEC
3 months 16 days ago

So a facoid is a luxury yacht?

Lenard
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Lenard
3 months 16 days ago

“irregardless”

awalnoha
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awalnoha
3 months 16 days ago

Um… That was on purpose.

chaokang
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chaokang
3 months 15 days ago

I thought that was a neat joke at the end

lebesgueToDiffer
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lebesgueToDiffer
3 months 16 days ago

grammer (noun) – a person who grams

Brian Reinhart
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Member
3 months 16 days ago

grammer (noun) – a person who doesn’t know what to do with those tossed salads and scrambled eggs

Bootjosh
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Bootjosh
3 months 16 days ago

“Usage of the sord” bothers me as well… Now, usage of swords on the other hand….

formerly matt w
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formerly matt w
3 months 16 days ago

“It has been used that way for so long that it has become accepted though.”

This is how words get new meanings. Since “factoid” is now used and understood to mean what Owen used it to mean, that’s what it means now, even if it used to mean something else.

awalnoha
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awalnoha
3 months 16 days ago

Im just takin factoid back

free-range turducken
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free-range turducken
3 months 16 days ago

Response of the year!! +1

Baller McCheese
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Baller McCheese
3 months 16 days ago

If you act like a grammer Nazi, then you’re a grammer Nazi. It doesn’t matter if you declare yourself to be one or not.

free-range turducken
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free-range turducken
3 months 16 days ago

That’s right. Live by the sord, die by the sord.

awalnoha
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awalnoha
3 months 16 days ago

I’ve been told I’m compulsive. Its not true. I would leave a longer response but i have to go wash my hands until they bleed.

BigChief
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BigChief
3 months 16 days ago

This is the hottest take I’ve seen on fangraphs since they have started making commenters login.

awalnoha
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awalnoha
3 months 15 days ago

Don’t even get me started on the word utilize.

Mean Mr. Mustard
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Mean Mr. Mustard
3 months 16 days ago

Irregardless is a nonsensical non-word that many people use mistakenly. You mean “regardless”.

awalnoha
Member
awalnoha
3 months 15 days ago

That was part of the joke. It has been widely used and is also accepted, also is still wrong.

OaktownSteve
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OaktownSteve
3 months 16 days ago

I love how Washington has talked about they way he approaches teaching defense from the ground up. He starts with footwork as the foundation for everything. He talked about completely tearing down and building Semien back from scratch as a defensive player. Then they move on to talking a lot about angles. When you hear Wash talk about it, it’s almost like listening to a geometry lesson. You could definitely start to see Semien in better positions later in the year, especially when going to his left and making a throw to first. He had so many errors on just that one type of play where he never got square to the throw.

troybruno
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Member
troybruno
3 months 16 days ago

That’s the way baseball go.

Ebenezer
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Ebenezer
3 months 16 days ago

It could be coincidence, but given the data, it is a reasonable conclusion. I was wondering something similar regarding Chris Iannetta and his horrible 2015 start with the bat – was it due to his focus on improving his framing skills while catching? It’ll be interesting to see how both Iannetta and Semien play this year without being distracted by intensive defensive work.

TrevorCap
Member
TrevorCap
3 months 16 days ago

Agreed. It’s easy to form a narrative with such a small sample size, but these are human beings, so it is entirely possible.

Crash37
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Member
Crash37
3 months 16 days ago

Holy Pirated Ships, er, I mean Aaaarrrrticles, Batman!

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