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Just about everyone knows there are 9 positions in baseball, and most fans know their names, but not every person knows what is expected from each player depending on where he or she stands on the field.
It may seem overly simple, but newcomers to baseball are apt to ask, What are the positions, and what do they do? So let’s break it down simply, in the order used in baseball scorebooks.
(By number as used in official scorebooks)
3. 1st Baseman
4. 2nd Baseman
5. 3rd baseman
7. Left Fielder
8. Center Fielder
9. Right Fielder
The designated hitter has no number, as the position is not defensive at all.
As with other team sports, in baseball at any time an offense and a defense operates, to contest one another. These players on defense are known as “fielders,” and there are 9 of them.
What do they do?
Almost everyone who speaks American English knows what a pitcher is: the guy who throws the ball to a hitter in baseball.
Of the major team sports, baseball is unique in that all play is initiated by a single player. That’s the player in the middle of the field, on a circular mound of dirt, the pitcher.
The pitcher’s primary duty is to set up by touching the pitcher’s plate, mostly known as the rubber, on top of the pitcher’s mound in the middle of the diamond. He faces a batter, located at the bottom-most position on the diamond that makes up a baseball field.
He or she throws the ball to the catcher, who is situated even deeper in that bottom corner of the field, behind home plate, and who has an umpire right behind him to call balls or strikes and enforce rules.
The goal of the pitcher is to put out batters, players on the opposing team who stand adjacent to home plate with a bat in hand with intention of putting the ball fairly into play, between the foul lines.
The pitcher can attain putouts by striking the batter out, meaning getting 3 strikes on him or her in an at-bat; or to have the batter strike the ball poorly in such a way that the pitcher’s teammate fielders can complete a putout according to the rules.
Successful pitchers can throw the baseball hard, or with significant velocity, as well as extremely accurately. They must have the skill to get the ball into the strike zone, which is immediately above home plate and roughly between the batter’s knees and armpits.
Good pitchers also can place the ball in any corner or edge of that strike zone, as called for. The best pitchers also can vary the velocity of pitches to make it harder for hitters to time their swing to connect with the ball.
The very best pitchers can make the baseball move in flight, like tail a few inches as it crosses home plate, drop before or onto the plate, curve in midair, or flutter uncontrollably (like a knuckleball). All of this is to confuse and frustrate the batter.
Once a pitcher lets go of a pitch, he is among the other 8 fielders who attempt to make putouts on hitters and base runners.
Managers try to put pitchers on the mound for strategic reasons, like whether they throw with the desired arm, either right or left arm. For most left-handed batters, it is much harder to hit off left-handed pitchers; and vice versa for right-hand hitters.
When pitchers fail to put out a hitter, which is often, that batter ends up a runner on 1 of the 3 bases. This adds to the pitcher’s duties, as he must keep an eye on these runners so they do not take big leads off bases, and especially so they do not “steal” bases.
Pitchers can throw to teammate infielders to try to pick off runners for putouts.
While some people believe pitchers are not great athletes, in reality most top-level pitchers have excellent balance, hand-eye coordination, and stamina to go along with their natural ability to huck a ball hard.
This is a pitcher who consistently begins games, that is, throws the initial pitch in the 1st inning. These pitchers should have solid stamina to enable them to throw multiple innings, and also a variety of types of pitches to help put out batters a 2nd or even 3rd time per game.
Starters can pitch an entire game, which is very rare in modern baseball; but they usually get taken out of the game because either they were tired, or ineffective (meaning allowing a lot of rubs), or both.
Notable Major League Baseball starting pitchers: Nolan Ryan, Justin Verlander; Gerrit Cole; Clayton Kershaw
A relief pitcher is a hurler who is submitted into a game to replace another pitcher. In most modern baseball games, multiple relief pitchers follow the starting pitcher; and relief pitchers do not pitch long, as few as a single batter! They rarely go more than 3 innings per game.
Notable MLB relief pitchers: Craig Kimbrel; David Robertson; Daniel Bard, Brad Hand
The closer on a baseball team is the pitcher who the manager feels is best suited to end the game when called upon. Usually this is the best reliever on a team, but not always. (Some managers prefer to use their very best reliever according to game situations, like in the 8th inning if better batters are scheduled to hit).
Notable MLB closers: Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman, Lee Smith, Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage
Relief pitcher expected to throw immediately before the closer. That is, come in during the 7th or 8th innings and allow so few runs to score so the closer can be brought in to end a winning game.
Notable MLB set-up pitchers: Andrew Miller, Zach Britton, Sergio Romo, Pedro Borbon.
These pitchers, and most teams have many, throw in the middle of games, or after the starter but before the set-up man and closer, usually for a limited number of batters.
Notable MLB middle relievers: Too many to list! Every relief pitcher has served in this capacity, whether or not they ended up in a different role.
This pitcher is known as a “hybrid” between a starter and reliever, usually designated by managers as an emergency fix for certain situations, like when a starter gets knocked out of a game very early and the manager does not want to tire all his relief pitchers; or if a pitcher gets injured or ejected from a game.
It should be noted that this pitcher is often barely not good enough to be included in the rotation of hurlers who start games for a team. This pitcher is sometimes called a “mop-up pitcher” (or mop-up man) because he is brought into games when his team is behind by a lot of runs and he is just expected to clean and finish up the mess.
Notable MLB long-relievers: Jeff Weaver, Hoyt Wilhelm, Joe Black
It should be noted that the above are pitchers’ roles, not officially their positions. For this list, all are considered pitchers, or No. 1 in the scorebooks.
Along with the pitcher, the player at this position gets involved with every play. The catcher is the position where the player squats down to give a low target for the pitcher to throw to.
The catcher’s primary role is catching pitches cleanly, without letting them pass or drop out of the padded mitt. His spot on the field is directly behind home plate.
Because of his involvement with every pitch, plus the fact that he is the only player facing all his teammates, the catcher is often considered the field general, or captain, of the defense.
Catchers might look like fools for having to wear a lot of protective equipment, but the best of them are among the smartest players on the field. Catchers are involved with calling which pitches are to come, and strategy from pitch-to-pitch, to individual batters, to inning-by-inning.
These players must be tough, because squatting over 100 times a game is not easy on the joints, and because errant pitches and fouled-off balls collide with various parts of the body. It is rare for a catcher to play in all or nearly all of his team’s games due to this.
These players are almost required to have at least decent communication skills, as they must know what the pitcher is throwing, and also what he might be thinking. Catchers get to call timeouts to walk out and talk with the pitcher directly sometimes.
A lot of catchers move on to become coaches or managers in baseball, due to their vast experience with the minutiae of the game.
They don’t just catch pitches. Good catchers must have above-average throwing arms and balance, to be able to pop up quickly and throw quickly and accurately to bases to catch base runners stealing or leading off.
In terms of game strategy, most catchers either call each pitch and give the preferred location, or they relay that information from coaches via hand signs before each pitch.
The quickness of feet and hands is also important in the case of managing baserunners. In order to throw out a stealing runner, catchers must be able to receive the pitch and release the baseball exceptionally quickly.
Other attributes for a good catcher include throwing accuracy; quick hands for ball transfers; right-hand throwers (which makes it easier to throw to 3rd base for steal attempts); and diplomacy since he is the closest player to the umpire.
Good hitting by catchers is almost optional. Of all the baseball positions, catchers are most likely to get into games for their defensive abilities, over their offensive (hitting) skills. Some catchers are good hitters, but most are not fast runners and tend to bat near the bottom of the lineup where he will bat less and therefore rest his legs.
Notable MLB catchers: Johnny Bench, Mike Piazza, J.T. Realmuto; Yogi Berra
After the pitcher and catcher, the 1st baseman touches the baseball the most in ballgames. For most ground-out putouts, an infielder throws to 1st base to get the ball to the 1st baseman before the runner gets there, resulting in an umpire-called Out!
This position is named for where the player is typically stationed, which is close to that base (actually, away from the line a few feet and quite a feet back from it when measured from home plate).
The primary task of the 1st baseman is to catch thrown balls cleanly, with his or her foot on that base, to record putouts.
Although catching throws is the main job, other tasks commanded of a 1st baseman might surprise some fans.
Attributes: the 1st baseman can throw with either hand, although left-handed throwing players are preferred here as it means the glove is on the side of a big infield hole (between him and the 2nd baseman), and it generally makes it easier to make throws when needed. (However, throwing arm strength is probably less important here than for any other position).
Good 1st basemen are adept at “scooping” up throws that do not make all the way on the fly, meaning they bounce just before arriving ~ a difficult catch for any infielder. In fact, because of this, players at this position are allowed to wear a bigger glove than other defenders.
Communication skills are also important here, as the 1st baseman is supposed to yell “Going!” when runners take off for steals so the pitcher and catcher know to hurry up with their tosses.
While defense is important here, 1st basemen are primarily known as sluggers ~ players who hit with power meaning home runs and extra-base hits.
This player is positioned between 2nd base and the 1st baseman, and the main skills needed are soft and fast hands, and balance. Turning double plays is a huge part of success for this player, who works a lot with the shortstop on strategies like positioning, and who covers the base when.
This player tends to be a bit smaller than the other infielders, and while in modern times some sluggers played the keystone bag, historically light hitters have been placed there. Physically these players are more apt to be quick of feet, and quite nimble to touch bases with the feet and avoid sliding baserunners.
If you hear the term “middle infielder,” it refers to the 2nd baseman and the shortstop ~ those players in the middle of the infield, either side of the 2 bag. This player needs to know to play closer to the bag if a runner is on 1st base, to ensure he can get to the base quickly to catch and throw for a double play.
It is extremely rare for a left-handed thrower to play 2nd base. It would mean having to completely spin the body just to throw to 1st base, which is the most common action there.
The 2nd baseman also does not have to have a strong throwing arm. In fact, those guys usually end up at shortstop or 3rd base, while the players with weaker arm strength end up at 2B.
Most often, defense is the focus of this position, to stop as many grounders and liners as possible, turn double plays, and generally help put out hitters.
Notable MLB 2nd basemen: Ryne Sandberg, Joe Morgan, Rogers Hornsby, Jackie Robinson, Jose Altuve.
This player is the opposite of the 1st baseman, in that he plays next to a foul line, and close to the base in which the position is named for. The primary skills here are strong and accurate throwing arm, and very fast reaction times much like a goalie in hockey.
Together these players are known as “corner infielders,” or guys who play on the corners of the diamond; and most often they are associated with powerful hitting.
The 3rd baseman can be among the largest or heaviest members of the infield, since he is not required often to sprint to the base for tags. The position is called the “hot corner” due to the tendency for extremely hard-hit balls to come this way ~ and the main job of the 3rd baseman is to stop these screamers.
Other attributes include quick feet to charge toward home plate fast in case of bunts; solid hand-eye coordination for the same reason, grabbing the ball and transferring to the throwing hand; and extreme agility to dive or lunge for hard-struck balls that come close.
They always throw with the right hand, are rarely short in height, and don’t often possess great foot speed. Rare is the 3rd baseman who is among the league leaders in stolen bases.
Notable MLB 3rd basemen: Mike Schmidt, Brooks Robinson, Manny Machado, Ron Cey, Craig Nettles.
This is probably the only position in baseball where the name doesn’t give a hint to where he or she will play. The shortstop is the opposite of the 2nd baseman on the other side of the infield, differing from his colleague in that his throws to 1st base are much longer.
Shortstops have to have strong and accurate arms because for the most part they have the longest toss to get runners on grounders, and because they play back they usually have to release the ball fast on throws.
Like the 2nd baseman, the shortstop is expected to be quite agile and nimble to cover a lot of ground and to make tags or force outs at 2nd base. In the past, this player was rarely known to hit for power, but that is untrue in the modern game ~ many of the biggest sluggers in the MLB play this position.
Whereas the catcher might be the field general of the defense, the shortstop is the “captain of the infield,” expected to exhibit leadership skills and guide other infielders where to play and what to do in situations.
Notable MLB shortstops: Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra, Trey Turner, Cal Ripken Jr., Ozzie Smith
This is the start of the outfielders, beginning to the left side or the area behind the 3rd baseman and shortstop. This is the outfield position for players with the weakest throwing arm of the 3 players out on the grass.
These players are almost always more known for their hitting prowess than for their infielding skills. Great examples include Barry Bonds and Rickey Henderson.
Still, this outfielder must be adept at handling pop flies of any elevation or location; in handling the foul line and corner with the outfield fence; and communicating with the shortstop to avoid collisions on pop-ups.
Besides slugging, the main attributes for a left fielder are soft hands and great hand-eye coordination to ensure catches.
Notable MLB left fielders: Barry Bonds, Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Carl Yastrzemski
This is the outfield’s version of the shortstop ~ the captain of the outfield, those players stationed out on the grass. This player must have fast foot speed, excellent instincts on hard-hit balls, soft hands, and an above-average throwing arm.
This is the hardest position in the outfield by far, due to the sheer amount of grass the player must cover to grab fly balls or line drives to the gaps, and those very gaps.
The centerfielder must take command on fly balls and call the other 2 outfielders away from the ball when necessary. This outfielder must know how to throw a baseball quickly and strongly from any angle.
This position is part of the triumvirate that coaches insist upon for a good team: “Strong up the middle,” as in, have a great catcher, shortstop, and center fielder.
Notable MLB center fielders: Ken Griffey Jr., Willie Mays, Mike Trout
This outfielder is primarily a slugger, who also might have the strongest throwing arm of the players out there. Of the outfield positions, fewer balls are struck to right field, making foot speed less valuable here.
Babe Ruth ultimately played right field, to give a perfect example of the types of players who get positioned here. Big guys who can hit the ball far and hard, and just need a place on the field on defense to be part of the game (before invention of the designated hitter).
Attributes needed for left field regarding catching fly balls and defending the line and corner apply here also, just on the other side of the field.
(Notable right fielders: Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Aaron Judge)
Question: Why is pitcher listed as No. 1 in baseball scorebooks?
Answer: Whoever invented the numbering of baseball positions began where the action begins, and kind of follows the ball around. Think about where most action occurs: pitchers throw, catcher’s catch, then usually someone throws a ball to the 1st basemen. In reality, the numbers snake around the field, alternating course after the 3rd baseman as well as the shortstop.
Q.: Where do catchers show their hand signs to the pitcher?
A.: Right in front of his crotch. That is, between the thighs and knees to hide the throwing hand as it holds down fingers denoting a number representing a pitch, or tapping a side to indicate where he wants the pitch to be located. Good catchers don’t throw the pitch signs too low, so they might be seen poking underneath him visible to the other dugout.