There’s one scene in particular from Moneyball that I’ll pick out. Scott Hatteberg (Chris Pratt) is sitting in his living room with Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) and Washington (Brent Jennings). Hatteberg laments that his throwing elbow is shot. Beane says he wants Hatteberg to play first. Hatteberg says he doesn’t know how to do that.
“It’s not that hard, Scott,” Beane says. “Tell ‘em, Wash.”
“It’s incredibly hard."
Did that conversation, or some semblance of it, actually take place? Maybe. But it’s true that Washington coached Oakland’s infielders during the real-life events that inspired Moneyball, working with players like Hatteberg and Eric Chavez, who won six straight Gold Gloves at third base.
Now, Washington is back in Oakland after resigning as manager of the Rangers in late 2014 and spending some time as a volunteer assistant at the University of New Orleans earlier this year. He’s been charged with improving the A’s infield defense, the mediocrity of which has underwritten the team’s underperformance in one-run games and in general this season.
The move to hire Washington didn’t involve any corresponding departures or demotions. Oakland’s uniformed coaching staff is full, so Washington won’t be in the dugout during game action. His work will take place before and after games.
And while Washington’s role in the movie focused on his relationship with Hatteberg, the story of this most recent hire has focused on A’s shortstop Marcus Semien, who has spearheaded Oakland’s defensive struggles. As of Monday night, Semien’s .920 fielding percentage was by far the worst among full-time shortstops. His 19 errors were six more than the second-worst figure.
Has Washington’s hiring made a made a difference, numerically, on Semien? In the 43 games before Washington came on, Semien made 16 errors. In the 15 since, he’s made three. That is .37 errors/game versus .2. The ratios like the hire! They like it even more when we look at FRAA/game, where Semien’s figures jumped from -.048 to -.001.
Those numbers, though, are absolutely screaming about their small sample size. The main contributing factor to Semien’s improvement is almost certainly regression. But how much can be attributed to Washington? How, exactly, does a job like this one get done?
The most obvious place to look is to the media, the ones covering Washington and the A’s on a daily basis. Susan Slusser, who covers the A’s for the San Francisco Chronicle, has taken photos like this, this and this of Washington working with Semien. Matt Kawahara of the Sacramento Bee wrote an article that included scenes like this:
<blockquote>Hours before the A’s played the Detroit Tigers on Tuesday, Washington was hitting grounders to Semien, who fielded them not with his glove but a large, flat pad that resembled a pancake with a slight indentation in the middle. The pad, which Washington said “trains the hands how to catch the ball properly,” has been part of his repertoire since he became an infield coach. Semien later said the last time he had used one was in college.
“He’s implemented a lot of drills to help me with my glove work, my footwork and just my focus,” Semien said. “I feel good with what we’re doing and just want to continue to get better at it.</blockquote>
We have some some small sample size metrics and a few snippets of anecdotal evidence of what Washington has done so far. I’m more interested in the concept of what Washington is doing, the magnitude of the task he’s faced with and the chances he has of making a significant impact on Semien and the rest of Oakland’s defense.
So I got in touch with John Cohen, the head baseball coach at Mississippi State. He brought the Bulldogs to a national runner-up finish in 2013 and alumni of the program during Cohen’s time in Starkville include A’s pitcher Kendall Graveman, Yankees reliever Jacob Lindgren and Padres crack prospect Hunter Renfroe. Cohen has also made a few DVDs of baseball drills and has a YouTube channel with videos like this one. He’s also the one that gave me the idea of leading with that scene from Moneyball.
He’s something of a fielding guru, is what I’m trying to say. And while Cohen makes his living working with 18 to 22-year-olds, rather than fully grown men, like Washington, someone of his coaching stature can still teach us a few lessons about coaching defense.
“Always, always, always, the skill level of a player is always the primary issue,” Cohen says. “I think, quite frankly, there’s too much emphasis (on) fixing something and not enough emphasis on ‘enhancing’ something. I think as an instructor, what you’re trying to do is enhance somebody’s abilities.”
Here's what Semien does well, or at least adequately, on defense: His draft report from Baseball America mentions “sure hands” and “some arm strength,” albeit that “he may lack the first-step quickness to stay at shortstop.” (Oddly enough, that reports mentions that “scouts have questions about his bat,” which is the one area in which Semien has performed this season.) BA’s reports on Semien as a minor leaguer mention similar strengths, in his arm, first step and hands. The reports here at BP have been a bit less favorable. In 2013, Jason Parks called Semien's arm "average" and said it "isn't a weapon on the left side." Earlier that year, Mark Anderson mentioned Semien's lack of "lateral quickness, hands or arm strength" in a fairly damning assessment of his ability to stick at shortstop.
With Cohen’s advice in mind, then, Washington will want to work with what Semien at least has, if not in abundance: harnessing the arm strength he does have for optimal accuracy, establishing on-field positioning that maximizes the utility of Semien’s first step, and getting him to trust his hands.
One might think that Washington being absent during games could be a detriment to Semien or slow his progress. What if, on a particular day, his positioning is off, or he’s chopping his feet, or dropping his arm slot on throws to first? Who will recognize and fix those issues? That’s not a concern, says Cohen.
“In fact, I think in some ways, it’s the way it ought to be,” he says. “Because really, you’re going to make adjustments after a game or make adjustments before a game. You don’t want a player thinking about the mechanics of fielding a ground ball or making any defensive plays during the course of the game, because it’s reactive. And the only way that you can instinctively react in an aggressive way is to not be focused in on body parts and mechanics.”
He also rejects the “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” argument, that after so many years of baseball, a player’s footwork, positioning and actions might be so deeply ingrained that it is impossible to change. Just because one is focused on enhancement, rather than correction, doesn’t mean change is off limits.
Cohen's reasoning is based on partly on human biology: The frontal lobe of the brain reaches full development at 25 years; that is when a person’s decision making and judgment reach full effectiveness. When a player has full capability in those areas, he will be able to more effectively filter and implement new information, discarding the non-useful and focusing on what he or she deems most relevant.
"I think at a younger age, you'd be much more likely to either not listen at all, or blindly follow and not be able to make decisions for yourself," Cohen says.
Even with all of the differences between Washington’s and Cohen's coaching experience, from length of the season to age of the players to the materials of the bats, Cohen is certain of this: There are no quick fixes. Washington won't be able to fix the A's infield defense in a single series, or maybe in a month, or maybe at all. There's so much individual variation in how you must coach each player and how long it takes for a certain pointer or mechanical tweak to take hold. Baseball, especially in the major leagues, is so fast that instincts and reactions are more important than anything, and those simply cannot be taught in a set amount of time. It's more like learning a language: Constant immersion, constant repetition, and then one day—nobody knows when—something clicks.
Can Washington teach the A's good infield defense? Well, their season probably depends on the answer.
Thanks to Rob McQuown for research assistance and John Cohen for his time.
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