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How ex-A’s Coach Ron Washington Helped Marcus Semien Become Elite Defender

Editor’s note: The 2019 Coaching Corps Game Changer Awards airs Sunday at 7 p.m. PT on NBC Bay Area.

Ron Washington got a call from Billy Beane in 2015, but he thought it was a mistake.

“When the phone rang and I picked it up and I answered it, it went dead,” Washington said at the 2019 Coaching Corps Game Changer Awards on Wednesday. “And the first thing told my wife [was], ‘Billy must’ve called the wrong number.

“But then he called right back, and [he said], ‘There’s a kid here that needs you, and you need him.”

This was months after Washington had resigned as manager of the Texas Rangers after he revealed he had an extramarital affair. The kid was shortstop Marcus Semien, whom the A’s acquired after trading Jeff Samardzija to the Chicago White Sox the previous offseason. 

In 42 games before Washington arrived, Semien committed 16 errors. The A’s brought in Washington to rebuild Semien’s confidence, and work on his defensive game. 

“I called around the league [and talked] to some people, and they said, ‘Wash, this guy can’t play shortstop,'” Washington said. “And my comment has always been, ‘Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s want Marcus to be a shortstop. Marcus Semien wants to be a shortstop.’ And guess what? I’m going to help Marcus semien become a shortstop.

“Because in the game of baseball — I’ve been in it a long time — I know about defense, and this guy right here has proved that he learned about defense.”

Semien learned under Washington while the latter spent parts of two seasons in Oakland, before becoming the Atlanta Braves’ third-base coach in 2017. Washington’s tutelage had a clear impact upon Semien, who presented his former coach the Coaching Corps Game Changer Award on Wednesday.

The pair re-built Semien’s defensive foundations, as Washington hit ground ball after ground ball at the young shortstop. Semien gradually improved under Washington, and was nearly five runs better defensively in his second season than his first, according to Fangraphs’ Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) metric. He cut down on the errors, too, committing 14 fewer in 2016 (21) than in 2015 (35).

“My second year into coaching [in Oakland], I cut [the cord] and I told Marcus he has it,” Washington said. “All he has to do is continue to believe, and go out there and get it done.” 

Semien continued to improve, too. His UZR was better in 2017 (-3.5) than 2016 (-3.5), and he was MLB’s third-best shortstop my that metric (8.3) in 2018. He also saved seven runs defensively, the seventh-most among big-league shortstops according to Fangraphs, and was ultimately named a finalist for the AL Gold Glove. 

The 28-year-old credited Washington for his improvement in the field, but the veteran coach noted in his speech that plenty of other people in the A’s organiztion deserved credit, too. Still, he beamed on stage when talking about his former pupil. 

“I’m very proud of Marcus, and I’m proud to be a part of this,” Washington said.  

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