Angels' Johnny Giavotella has improved fielding with help of Ron Washington

Angels' Johnny Giavotella has improved fielding with help of Ron Washington
Angels second baseman fields a ball during a spring training game against the San Francisco Giants on March 3. (Chris Carlson / Associated Press)

Mark Harris placed a baseball on the dirt a few feet in front of Johnny Giavotella and instructed him the same way he might a child, pausing between each bit of basic information.

Read the ball. Move your right foot. Move your left foot. Field the ball.


That was in June 2008, during Giavotella's first week in professional baseball. The Kansas City Royals had selected the second baseman in the second round and sent him to Class A in Iowa, where Harris, then a minor league infield coordinator, encountered a talented offensive prospect with an alarming defensive background.

"He really had very little knowledge about exactly how to do it," Harris said.

But, one month from turning 21, Giavotella was eager to learn.

"He, to me, was no different than a high school kid you get for the first time," Harris said. "He wanted it all and he wanted it in a hurry. He wanted you to map out a way for him. The more information you gave him, the more excited he got."

Giavotella tried to follow the fundamental map Harris provided over the next 2 1/2 seasons, but he was an errant traveler, frequently getting lost. He could not hit enough in the majors to stick after he hit his way up the minor league chain. When the Washington Nationals hired away Harris in 2011, Giavotella said, he fell back to bad habits.

That is, until the winter of 2014, when he found ex-Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington, a noted teacher of infielders. The New Orleans natives met at a banquet, and Giavotella asked for help.

For a month, Washington obliged.

"Johnny Giavotella is not what you might call a tremendous athlete," said Washington, now the Oakland Athletics' third base coach. "He has to work at his game."

Acquired by the Angels before last season, Giavotella won the starting job at second base and hit around the major league mean for the position, with a .272 batting average, .318 on-base percentage and doubles power. Scouts who had seen him in the minor leagues remarked on his improved fielding, but he was still one of the worst on defense in the majors at his position, particularly lacking in range.

After the season, Washington and Giavotella met three times a week all winter, 90 minutes per session. Every time, they'd work on his hips and legs first, his hands second, then practice tracking pitches and angling toward ground balls. By the final session, Washington was convinced his pupil would be a "solid" second baseman in 2016.

Asked recently what marked reasonable improvement considering the depths at which Giavotella started, Washington recalled the 1987 season he spent playing with Cal Ripken Jr. in Baltimore.

"Everybody said Cal was tall and lanky and had all kinds of range. That was not the truth," Washington said. "Cal Ripken had no range. But Cal Ripken was smart, as far as positioning goes. And Cal Ripken had pitchers that put balls where they were supposed to. So Cal could cheat, and Cal could take advantage of that."

Washington said Giavotella must do the same sort of preparation. He must know the tendencies of the opposing hitters. He must cheat. And Giavotella knows what's at stake with his defense: Players who can't handle his position can't generally play anywhere else.

"If I don't secure my role as a second baseman," he said, "I'm probably going to be out of the game pretty quick."


Short hops

Angels left-hander Tyler Skaggs, recovering from Tommy John surgery, resumed throwing bullpen sessions Friday. He plans to pitch in a Cactus League game by March 14, putting his opening-day readiness in doubt. … Left-hander C.J. Wilson returned to camp after the birth of his first child and threw off flat ground. He has suffered from shoulder tendinitis this spring and may start the season on the disabled list.

Follow Pedro Moura on Twitter @pedromoura