Marcus Semien Talks Hitting

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Marcus Semien isn’t on pace to match his career-best 2019 and 2021 numbers, but he remains a productive hitter. Two months shy of his 33rd birthday and in his second season with the Texas Rangers, the venerable middle infielder is slashing .271/.338/.438 with 11 home runs and a 115 wRC+. A key cog in the lineup for a first place club, Semien batted leadoff for the American League in last night’s All-Star Game.

Semien sat down to talk hitting during the Rangers’ recent visit to Fenway Park.

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David Laurila: Let’s start with your formative years in the game. How did you learn to hit?

Marcus Semien: “As a kid, I watched major league baseball. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay area as a Giants fan — my dad is a Giants fan — and we always had baseball on. From there, I was imitating Barry Bonds’ swing, Jeff Kent’s swing — all those guys I used to watch as a kid.

“At school, we’d play kickball and be running the bases. After school, we’d go to the park and play tennis-ball, and hit. Those were things I loved to do. Once I got to play in an organized league, it was all natural ability. There’s really no teaching going on at six years old; you just see how hard you can hit it and how fast you can run.”

Laurila: Did you try to model your game after Kent’s, or anyone else’s?

Semien: “No, but I did mess with things like the Barry Bonds bat waggle and things of that nature. At the end of the day, what my swing was… I say to a lot of guys that your swing is your swing. If you could look at my swing when I was a young kid and compare it to now, you’d see similar characteristics.”

Laurila: What is that swing? How would you describe it?

Semien: “Well, it’s a handsy swing. Quick hands. Quick twitch. I don’t necessarily get ready too early. I kind of have my hands and my eyes do all the work.”

Laurila: Is wanting to let the ball travel part of that, or is it mostly just what’s always felt natural?

Semien: “I’ve always just wanted to be able to hit the best fastball.”

Laurila: A lot of hitters try to be early on good fastballs.

Semien: “Exactly. For me, with all the velocity in the game now, I’ve learned that if I can wait as long as I possibly can, but still catch up to the fastest velocity, then I’ll have a better chance of taking bad breaking balls and hitting hanging breaking balls. Everything does start with the fastball.”

Laurila: When did you start training for high velocity?

Semien: “In college. David Esquer, my college coach [at UC Berkeley], always had three machines going in the cage. It would be two breaking balls and a short, hard fastball machine. We were lucky enough to use metal bats, but it was definitely a challenging drill. He wanted to make sure that 90 mph felt normal.

“Nowadays, I’m hitting off a machine using foam balls and pitches that imitate a hard fastball with a lot of vertical. I usually have it anywhere from 95 to 100 [mph], and with foam balls it’s a drill you can do every single day because you’re not jamming your thumb; you’re not hurting your hands like you would with a normal baseball. Chances are you’re not going to barrel it up every single time, but you can kind of train your eyes and your hands.”

Laurila: Is how much the velocity is cranked up dictated by the pitcher you’re about to face?

Semien: “A lot of times, yeah. You can simulate it to the starter you’re going to face, but they’re still bullpen at-bats. In my opinion, you want to make sure you’re working on the best fastball because at some point in the night, you’re probably going to face somebody throwing 98. And I train a lot of right-handed breaking balls, too. That’s a pitch I see quite often, so I’m trying to make sure I’m swinging at the right ones and laying off the bad ones.”

Laurila: You mentioned your swing being natural. What about your setup and where you have your hands? Have those things changed over the years?

Semien: “My setup and hands are things I’m always tinkering with, depending on how I’m doing and how I’m feeling. I want to make sure my eyes and my actual swing are on point — they’re doing the right things every single day — but sometimes you need a little adjustment to your setup based off how your body is feeling. That, or how the the other team may be attacking you.”

Laurila: Can you give any examples?

Semien: “You can raise your hands, lower your hands, stand a little taller, squat a little bit, put the weight in a different part of your legs, make sure your head is staying still. There are so many different little thoughts you can have that are realistic when you’re out there facing 95 to 100 mph. The problem that a lot of players get into, myself included, is when you try to make too many changes in the cage with an underhand flip. You get into the game and it doesn’t quite work that way.”

Laurila: When I talked hitting with Edgar Martinez a few years ago, he said that he wanted to have his hands close to where he was firing to hit a fastball.

Semien: “Edgar is probably a lot stronger than me. Some guys are blessed with the strength to be able to hit like that. You work with your body, what you’ve been blessed with. With the thousands and thousands of plate appearances I’ve had, there are different things and different go-tos that I like to use when I need them.”

Laurila: What about toe taps and leg lifts?

Semien: “I’ve never toe tapped. With my leg kick, I just want to make sure I’m in sync and not out of rhythm. But I definitely don’t think about how I’m lifting my leg; I’m thinking about how I’m starting my entire move.”

Laurila: How do you approach pitch recognition?

Semien: “A lot of times we think about, ‘Hey, where are we looking for the ball?’ What we sometimes forget about is, ‘Where is the ball coming from? Where is his release?’ With a sidearm guy, you probably don’t want to be looking at the same spot as you would with a normal guy. Maybe you need to keep your eyes a little lower, where the ball is coming from. Seeing the ball is only half the battle, but it’s probably the most important thing. On days where your swing may not feel great, but your eyes are working well, you can have a productive day.

“Nowadays, with the technology that’s out there with TrackMan, Rapsodo, slow-motion cameras — all of those things — pitchers can put themselves in a position to be very unorthodox. Stuff can play better than what the miles per hour say; a 92 mph sinker from a crossfire angle, with a low arm slot, is going to play differently than one from a conventional over-the-top. And lots of pitchers make little adjustments, moving around on the mound, changing their landing spot. It’s our job as hitters to understand that stuff, where the ball is starting and where it’s actually ending.”

Laurila: Which pitchers stand out as being unique for whatever reason?

Semien: “There are a ton of them. Off the top of my head, one of the toughest guys I face is [Andrés] Muñoz from Seattle, just because of his pitch usage. He throws 102, but a lot of times he has better feel with his 91 mph big slider. It’s hard to be ready for 102 but also understand, ‘Hey, he’s throwing that slider more often.’ Guys who throw that hard, yet their pitch usage is like his, are tough on us. Those are usually the toughest guys.”

Laurila: You mentioned tinkering, but also talked about having a natural swing. With those things in mind, what would I see if I watched video of you when you broke into pro ball and compared it to now?

Semien: “You’d see the same guy with a lot less experience. There was a lot more chasing out of the zone, because I felt like I was late on fastballs. I wasn’t training well enough to hit fastballs. And I just hadn’t seen enough pitches in my professional career. I think experience is everything in this league. I say that all the time: you really need to take some time to get to be… it’s not always fair when organizations say a player is too old. He may actually be at his optimal experience and can actually help the team even more.”

Laurila: When do you feel you turned a corner? I’m referring to the hitter equivalent of transitioning from being a thrower to a “pitcher.”

Semien: “I think the end of 2018. I came off a wrist injury in 2017 and got my strength back towards the end of 2018. I controlled the strike zone great in 2019 and produced extra-base hits. If you’re controlling the zone, getting extra-base hits, and scoring runs, you’re doing a lot to help your team.”

Laurila: Any final thoughts?

Semien: “You haven’t asked me what exactly I’m looking for at the plate. A lot of young hitters ask major league hitters, ‘What’s your approach? What are you looking for?’ For me, it’s not the same every single day. It depends on the guy. It depends on where his damage is and where he tries to get his swing-and-miss. I’m usually looking where the damage is and away from the swing-and-miss.”

Laurila: You’re not someone who looks fastball-middle and adjusts from there?

Semien: “There can be guys where I would do that, and there have been years where I’ve done that more often than not. But with some pitchers, if you’re looking right down the middle and they’re throwing back-door two-seamers and front-door cutters, you’re going to take because they’re not starting middle. You need to have a plan when you’re facing a pitcher.”

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Earlier “Talks Hitting” interviews can found through these links: Jo Adell, Jeff Albert, Greg Allen, Nolan Arenado, Aaron Bates, Jacob Berry, Alex Bregman, Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, Charlie Blackmon, JJ Bleday, Bobby Bradley, Will Brennan, Jay Bruce, Matt Chapman, Michael Chavis, Gavin Cross, Jacob Cruz, Nelson Cruz, Paul DeJong, Josh Donaldson, Brendan Donovan, Donnie Ecker, Rick Eckstein, Drew Ferguson, Justin Foscue, Michael Fransoso, Ryan Fuller, Joey Gallo, Paul Goldschmidt, Devlin Granberg, Andy Haines, Mitch Haniger, Robert Hassell III, Nico Hoerner, Rhys Hoskins, Eric Hosmer, Tim Hyers, Connor Joe, Josh Jung, Jimmy Kerr, Heston Kjerstad, Steven Kwan, Trevor Larnach, Doug Latta, Evan Longoria, Michael Lorenzen, Gavin Lux, Dave Magadan, Trey Mancini, Edgar Martinez, Don Mattingly, Hunter Mense, Owen Miller, Ryan Mountcastle, Cedric Mullins, Daniel Murphy, Lars Nootbaar, Logan O’Hoppe, Vinnie Pasquantino, Luke Raley, Brent Rooker, Drew Saylor, Giancarlo Stanton, Spencer Steer, Trevor Story, Fernando Tatis Jr., Spencer Torkelson, Mark Trumbo, Justin Turner, Trea Turner, Josh VanMeter, Robert Van Scoyoc, Chris Valaika, Zac Veen, Alex Verdugo, Mark Vientos, Matt Vierling, Luke Voit, Anthony Volpe, Joey Votto, Christian Walker, Jared Walsh, Jordan Westburg, Jesse Winker, Mike Yastrzemski, Nick Yorke, Kevin Youkilis





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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sogoodlooking
9 months ago

Terrific interview. Tremendous player who got a bit of short shrift in a recent fg article emphasizing his durability. —Far too little fuss was made in sports media over Semien hitting 45 HR while winning a GG at 2B, playing in all 162 games. —HOF chances? fWAR doesn’t like him nearly as much as rWAR does, a remarkable difference of 29.2 vs. 37.9 across 5,498 PA.

Last edited 9 months ago by sogoodlooking