This week, Jeremy Koo and I are in Arizona to check out some Oakland A's spring training games, beginning with Thursday's tilt against the Seattle Mariners. It can be tough to know how to analyze Cactus League performances, since the stats are meaningless and the contests are rarely televised. That means that all you have to go by is a box score that might be more deceiving than useful, or at best the account of the radio broadcast -- a nice way to enjoy a game, but also not that helpful in analyzing the proceedings.
Fortunately, we can provide some eyeball scout reports for the next few days. Here are my notes on a handful of players.
Of everyone on the team, Semien is the guy I was most interested in watching on Thursday. At the beginning of 2015 his fielding at shortstop was a mess, but as the season went on his work with defensive guru Ron Washington yielded immediate dividends. How would he look after an offseason's worth of continued practice?
The answer: He looks like a big league shortstop. It was only one game, and I'm not saying he's going to win a Gold Glove or anything, but if you're still clinging to a perception of him as a defensive liability then it is officially time to adjust that mindset. Marcus Semien can now handle his position.
In his six innings of work, he was involved in six different plays and nailed every single one. What's more, there was enough variety in the types of plays that it felt like he was putting on a clinic. They included:
- On a 6-3 putout: Ranged to his right, dropped down to field on the backhand, straightened up and made a good throw
- Another 6-3 putout: Ranged up the middle (ended up on the other side of 2B), fielded and made the throw
- 4-6-3 DP: Lowrie had to throw ~40 feet, Semien received it and turned the DP perfectly
- Two more routine 6-3 putouts, and a 6-4 forceout
- There weren't any other pasta-type plays; he got to every ball he should have reached
None of these were Web Gems, but that's not the point. Semien struggled even with routine plays last year, whether it was clumsy feet or an iron glove or an errant arm. On Thursday, I was watching a completely different player than the guy I saw last April. His footwork was clean, allowing him to field the ball in proper position, take his steps toward his target, and deliver an accurate throw. When the ball hit his glove, it stayed there instead of clanking out like it did so often last year. As for his throws, one of them was a bit low to Yonder Alonso but was still easily catchable, and the rest were right on the money. I even think his range looked a bit better, possibly because of the footwork allowing him to get to where he needed to be (as well as knowing what angles to take to reach the ball).
Semien has worked hard on his defense, and it shows. Don't expect acrobatic feats or superhuman throws like the ones Andrelton Simmons regularly makes, but also rest assured that we won't have to suffer through another 35 errors this year. Not only can I envision Semien turning in league-average defense in 2016, I'm now expecting it and wondering if he might be able to do even better than that.
The biggest hit of the game for the A's came off the bat off Danny Valencia. In the 1st inning, the third baseman launched an absolute jack, a screaming liner that sailed easily over the fence just to the right of the batter's eye* in center field. When I think of Valencia's power, my mental image is of him pulling the ball with authority, but in reality he's capable of hitting it hard in any direction -- seven of his 18 homers last year landed to the right of second base.
The homer came off a lefty. That lefty struggled throughout the game and got hammered by the rest of the lineup too. The hit carried on a warm desert day. But dang, Valencia has serious power. I guess we already knew that, and the real question is if he can continue to flash it against right-handers, but it seems worth noting nonetheless.
* The batter's eye is the visual backdrop in center field that helps the batter see the ball when it is pitched. It's usually located beyond the wall in CF, but in HoHoKam Stadium it is an extension of the wall itself. That means that there is a mini Green Monster 410 feet away in dead CF, which seems bonkers to me because it means you probably have to hit it at least 450 feet to homer to that part of the park.
It's no secret that age and injuries have taken their toll on Coco's physical skills, but I left this game with a renewed optimism that he still has something left in the tank. He started in center field, and at one point made a nifty running catch -- not a crazy dive, or a leap over the wall to rob a homer, but still a quality play. With the bat, he knocked a liner off the top of the wall for a double -- sure, maybe three years ago he deposits it over the wall for a homer, but he still put a charge into it. There's no question that Coco is in his decline phase, but that doesn't have to mean he's finished. As long as Bob Melvin can manage his playing time and keep him fresh and healthy, Coco might still have something left to contribute to a winning team.
A handful of the team's top prospects got some reps in the final innings.
Franklin Barreto looked shaky at short. On one play, he charged in on a slow grounder and went for the barehand, but the ball scooted under his hand and was ruled a single. That's a tough play, but it's one that many shortstops will convert. He also committed an error in the 9th -- again, it came on a tough play, but he got close enough to get a glove on it and the out was attainable. This seems like a good time to mention that Barreto recently turned 20 years old and will open in Double-A this year, and that we already knew his defense needs work.
Barreto's error helped open the door for an eight-run 9th inning for the Mariners, which might trigger some bad memories of last season's regular bullpen collapses. The good news is that the runs were all allowed by non-roster pitchers who will not be factoring into the team this year. The even better news is that it allowed the A's to have one final ups, and for a few more top prospects to notch some clutch performances. Chad Pinder, who earlier had poked a single to right field, drew a leadoff walk to start the rally. Matt Olson followed by smashing a double, only his second hit of the spring. A few batters later, with two outs and the deficit cut to just one run, Matt Chapman sent a solid single back up the middle to tie the game.
Next stop: Goodyear Park for A's vs. Indians!