MESA, Ariz. – The thought of Bay Area native Marcus Semien playing shortstop for the A’s on Opening Night at the Coliseum makes for great theatre.
The work that goes into making that a reality isn’t so glamorous.
Semien is taking grounder after grounder this spring, trying to engrain the lessons imparted by A’s infield coach Mike Gallego until they become second nature. Team officials believe they’ve got quite a talent in Semien, 24, who was acquired in December from the White Sox as part of a four-player package for pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Michael Ynoa.
How well he develops in his first crack at becoming an everyday major league shortstop is one of Oakland’s biggest keys for 2015.
“I would say Marcus ranks right up there with the most athletic guys at the position,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said.
On the day Semien was acquired, general manager Billy Beane predicted that he could blossom into a 20-homer player. Indeed, Semien has showed some pop over parts of two seasons with Chicago, and he’s hit 14 or more homers three times in four minor league seasons. But the emphasis this spring is on mastering the nuances of playing short.
Semien played shortstop collegiately at Cal and has spent the majority of his minor league time there. But in 85 career major league games, he’s played mostly second and third base, and the jury is out among some scouts on whether he can handle shortstop on a regular basis in the bigs.
The A’s have no such questions. But Gallego is working with Semien on his anticipation in the field – watching a hitter’s swing and getting a read on where the ball is going even before the crack of the bat.
The goal is “getting a good jump on the baseball from the start instead of when it’s already coming at you,” Semien said.
“What I’d like for him to do is hone that athleticism and basically own that position,” Gallego said. “The key to doing that is to allow his athleticism to work for him and not let his mind speed up the game. There’s ways to slow the baseball down. The main way is to be able to see it better on a consistent basis.
“You learn to read the bat head, you learn to read a player’s hands. Certain tips you’ll read on certain hitters. Right now, most young fielders are reading it off the bat. But if you focus deep into the hitting zone, that’s gonna allow you to see the ball a lot sooner off the bat and be more explosive off the first step.”
Semien was born in San Francisco but played Little League in El Cerrito and then attended St. Mary’s High in Berkeley before moving on to Cal. He comes across soft-spoken and low-key in demeanor, hardly a player who’s caught up thinking about the prospect of coming home and playing before a cheering section of family and friends on a nightly basis.
But to be sure, when news reports surfaced that Semien might be coming to Oakland the night before his trade was made official, the calls started coming in from loved ones. Semien couldn’t get to sleep inside his Berkeley home.
“I was getting a lot of calls from family members,” he said. “That night I didn’t really sleep that much because my whole career was going through my mind. The future was going through my mind.”
If Semien can establish himself at shortstop, it will help provide stability for an A’s infield featuring new starters at every position. Brett Lawrie has replaced Josh Donaldson at third base, Ben Zobrist is slated to be the regular second baseman and a combination of Ike Davis, Billy Butler and/or Mark Canha will handle first.
Semien plans to grasp the opportunity that’s before him.
“There’s always something to prove, no matter what position you’re in,” he said. “You want to prove you can do it at this level. You want to take advantage of every opportunity you can. Right now I’m trying to do that.”