Kelley L. Cox / USA TODAY Sports

Oakland shortstop Marcus Semien has been a rare bright spot for struggling Athletics

It's no coincidence that Oakland Athletics shortstop Marcus Semien is hitting his stride offensively, during the best defensive year of his career.

When Oakland Athletics shortstop Marcus Semien stepped to the plate in the top of the eighth in Monday's Bay Bridge Series opener against the San Francisco Giants, he already was sitting on a 2-for-3 night, with an RBI double and a three-run home run -- both against a player he was traded for: Jeff Samardzija. He flied out in his final plate appearance, but in the bottom half of the frame, with the bases loaded and no out, he deftly started a key double play that quashed the last best scoring opportunity for the cross-bay rivals, a team Semien grew up watching.

The Giants -- leading the National League West by 7.0 games, riding their even-year mojo -- are humming. Even the loss of the catalytic Hunter Pence hasn't slowed down 49-29 San Francisco. The A's are 33-43, 16.0 games behind the first-place Texas Rangers, with Josh Reddick on the DL and Sonny Gray struggling mightily. There hasn't been much joy in Oakland this season, but, there is native son Semien: calm, steady and quiet, letting his bat do the talking.

Semien has already tied his career-best for home runs (15), is on pace for a career-high 83 RBIs (surpassing his 45 las season), and is slugging a career-best .465 in 284 plate appearances. His 2-for-4 day on Monday pushed Oakland to an 8-3 win, and he's now 25-for-87 (.287) in the month of June.

"It's just more at-bats," Semien said. "More experience. Doing more homework on who we're facing, and what I need to do to be successful. I'm trying to use the whole field now, not just have power to the pull side. I'm trying to use the whole field and get my batting average up. The more at-bats you get, the better you'll be. I've gotten a little stronger, worked hard in the weight room. It's just lots of at-bats, and lots of experience, learning my swing and what I need to do to drive it."

He wouldn't be in this position, though, were it not for his glove, or, rather, Oakland's commitment to it. The A's have been patient. They've known that all Semien needed was a chance.

Semien had never had more than 255 plate appearances in a big league season before he arrived in Oakland, largely as a function of his defense.

In 2014, Semien made the White Sox out of camp, but by June, he was sent down, only to return when rosters expanded in September. Over his 64 total games, he played three different positions, with only 13.0 innings over three games spent at shortstop. Most of his action came at third, where he posted a dismal .896 fielding percentage, with 10 errors in 279.1 innings.

This year, he already has 280 plate appearances, after a 2015 where he tallied 601, hitting .257 with 15 home runs and 45 RBIs -- just a sampling of what scouts saw when the White Sox drafted him out of California. The line on Semien was that he would be a .280 hitter with 25-home run potential.

Semien never quite reached that potential with the Pale Hose. 

"I don't really know projections," said Semien. "The only thing I know is, the more at-bats you get, the better you'll get. Coming up in the big leagues, I was platooning with the White Sox, against lefties, sitting, waiting. When I got sent back down in '14, I got to play every day, and learn more and more about my swing, got called up again, and ended up getting traded here, where I can play every day. It's been a blessing. I got to come home, play a little bit more, play every day, and I can't be happier." In his first year with the Athletics, Semien played 152 games -- all at shortstop -- and posted a .947 fielding percentage -- better than he'd posted in the bigs up to that point, but worst among qualifying Major League shortstops. His 35 errors were the most in all of the Major Leagues.

"Whatever struggles that I had last year, it didn't affect me," Semien said. "I'd just try to focus on the at-bat, no matter what the defensive side was. I want to be be better defensively, and I'm doing better this year, so I just want to keep it up."

In late May of last season, the A's brought on fielding wizard Ron Washington to work with Semien. Now, Washington is a full-fledged bench coach.

Before every game, Washington stands maybe 30 feet from Semien, peppering him with grounders. Semien, at first armed with first a small glove -- barely bigger than his hand -- and then a fielding pad, works for an hour, working on the short hops and isolating his hands with the foreshortened mitt, and keeping the ball out in front with the fielding pad. He drops to his knees, picks up his mitt, and repeats the process -- short hops to each side, long hops and quick exchanges. Balls pile up along the foul line. Speed and quickness are the order of the day. Field, get into a throwing position, and toss the ball away, ready for the next salvo.

"We do that every day," Semien said. "We go on the field, most of the time, and find a way to get our work done."

After being the worst-fielding shortstop in all of baseball last year, Semien is now ranked No. 12 out of 26 everyday shortstops by FanGraphs.

In advanced metrics, the UZR (ultimate zone rating) compares the event that actually happened (hit/out/error) to data on similarly hit balls in the past to determine how much better or worse the fielder did than the "average" player. Last year, Semien's UZR150 (how many runs above or blow average a fielder is, per 150 defensive games) was -10.4 -- worst among big league shortstops. This year, his 0.0 UZR is right in the middle of the pack. In double play runs prevented, he's No. 7 among big league shortstops. In ErrR (number of runs above or below average a fielder is, determined by the number of errors he makes as compared to an average fielder at that position given the same distribution of balls in play), Semien is tenth.

If all of that is a bit too abstract, it translates into Semien's best fielding percentage of his big league career: .978.

Bringing in Washington signaled that the A's were going to commit, long-term, to playing Semien every day at short. While his defensive struggles didn't leak into his head in the box, they had limited his playing time in Chicago.

The trade that brought Semien from Chicago back home -- to Oakland -- just minutes from his alma mater, California, where he still works out in the offseason -- gave Semien a chance. It gave him the shot he'd been waiting for, to be an everyday starting shortstop in the Major Leagues. That's allowed his bat to come around.

"I have more knowledge of what my strengths are," Semien said. "I've always been quick to the inside pitch, so looking out over the plate and reacting in, still having the ability to drive the ball out of the ballpark is a good position to be in. When I'm going well, that's what I'm doing. I'm not looking for the ball inside, because then I can't cover the sliders and the change ups away. That's where I want to be. It takes a lot of work to get to that point."

When Semien was thrown into the fire as a sophomore at Berkeley in 2010, he hit .328 in 54 games, but his fielding still left quite a bit to be desired. He posted a .929 fielding percentage and committed 20 errors.

As a junior for a College World Series-bound team, he cut that nearly in half -- to 12. Sound familiar?

Semien's 35 errors last year came in 656 chances. His eight miscues this yea have come in 364 chances, which means he's on pace for roughly 15 errors -- less than half of last year.

His work ethic was never questioned. He turned himself into a dependable glove by sheer force of will in college, and now, Washington has been a conduit for that at the big league level. He'd always known, in his heart, that he was a shortstop. Now that he's been given that chance, he's proving himself right.

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