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Marcus Semien needs to alter his approach

A small sample look at the shortstop's offensive start.

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

If you were to map a typical Marcus Semien at bat from this season, it would probably look something like this.

Semien at bat (3)

Semien isn't off to a great offensive start. The results probably don't matter at this point, the sample is tiny and it's outrageously early. But even with the limited data we have, we can draw some conclusions about the way he's being pitched and his approach, numbers that should stabilize much faster than others.

In the at bat above, Semien took two strikes and found himself in a quick 0-2 hole. He struck out on the third pitch of the at bat which isn't really the problem: even the best hitters struggle in 0-2 counts. Last season, Bryce Harper's .540 OPS in 0-2 counts was 70% above league average. Hitting 0-2 is really hard.

The problem is how frequently he finds himself in pitchers' counts. Thus far, Semien has seen first pitch strikes in 73.9% of his at bats, more than 14% higher than the league average of 59.3%. There's good reason pitchers are attacking the zone to start - Semien has rarely swung at these first pitches. In his 23 plate appearances, he's seen 17 first pitch strikes and swung just three times. He's put two of those in play (going 1-2) but what's important is he's basically letting those pitches go by without any real threat.

Put more simply, pitchers have no reason not to throw Semien a first pitch strike and get ahead. Thus far, he's watched almost all of them and let himself fall behind. His early season struggles may be a reflection of his ability, but it's also in conjunction with his repeated at bats in pitchers' counts. No hitter will be successful if they're always behind in the count. Semien can fix this by being more aggressive early and punishing first pitches which as it stands, are almost always strikes.

It's not the simplest fix in the world. Semien isn't always seeing get-me-over fastballs in 0-0 counts, but he is seeing fastballs at a high enough rate where he could make the reasonable guess it's what's coming.

Pitch Type Count Percent Ball Strike Swing Ball in play
Fourseam 8 35% 1 6 2 1
Sinker 6 26% 2 3 1 1
Change 3 13% 1 2 0 0
Slider 3 13% 1 2 0 0
Curve 2 8% 0 2 0 0
Cutter 1 4% 1 0 0 0

Semien needs to get in the box looking for a specific pitch and going after it. If he is to see better counts, he'll need to be a real threat first pitch.

The good

Defensively, Semien looks like the solid defender he was in the second half last season, and then some. His arm looks strong, his range looks solid, and he's making plays he didn't have a shot at last season. Being a valuable baseball player is a two part equation and Semien looks like he can competently handle at least half of it at a valuable position. That's obviously a premature proclamation, but Semien has looked like the real deal thus far and has made huge strides in both defensive production and ceiling.

I started writing this prior to Sunday's game against Felix, and of course Semien came through with a dinger and a walk, making me look just a touch less credible. I'm cool with that if he's playing better, but it should be noted that he was pitched the same way and had the same approach in spite of his success - in three of his four plate appearances he took a first pitch strike, two of which were fastballs. He was successful in spite of his approach which is a great reminder he's a great talent - but that doesn't mean a fix wouldn't help.

Offensively, Semien's ability is undoubted. In the minors, he slashed a career .272/.374/.465 line, showing both power and patience while playing at important defensive positions. If he could continue at the current defensive rate he's at while producing at the offensive level he did last season, he'd be well above average. And of course, his numbers last year are well below his offensive ceiling.

Semien has a long way to go and could easily find himself a utility player or even out of baseball as the years wear on. But he's got the talent, he's clearly got the work ethic, he's made huge strides defensively, and he's got a year of passable offense under his belt. Now he's just got to make an adjustment with his approach, and the A's will have five years of an above average player.