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The debate over the most difficult position to play in baseball has been going on since, well, the beginning of baseball. More often than not, arguments point to shortstop as the hardest position in baseball. Some may point to the catcher, or center fielder, or maybe even pitcher ~ but shortstop almost always ranks high on lists.
Why is shortstop the hardest position in baseball? It’s a combination of a number of factors, including its central location on the field, difficulty of the fielding chances, distance of throws to first base, a myriad of cutoff and double-play responsibilities, and being located in a spot where more balls are hit than any other.
There are solid reasons why shortstops are considered the “captain of the infield.” It’s almost always a position commanding a leadership role on the team. The shortstop definitely is the king of the defenders not behind home plate; and on some teams, of all defenders on the field.
Those new to watching baseball may just see one of four guys playing closer to the plate than those way out on the grass, or the one dude in the middle on a mound of dirt. But upon a closer inspection, the shortstop has a whole bunch of things going on with every pitch. Here’s a summary of each:
- Relaying pitches to outfielders. Shortstops are often called upon to see all the way to the catcher and identify the pitch to be thrown, and relay that information to other fielders to help them position or anticipate where hit baseballs will go.
- Calling who covers second base on steals. Every time a runner reaches first, the second baseman will look to the shortstop for a signal indicating which of the 2 defenders will cover second base to take the ball from a catcher’s throw in case of a steal attempt.
- Calling who covers second base on balls hit to the pitcher. The shortstop usually takes this throw, though sometimes he might ask the second baseman to do so, if the batter tends to hit mostly to the shortstop’s side of second base. In that instance, the shortstop decides to “stay put,” or not move in case a ball is struck his way, while the second baseman takes the steal throw. “Shortstops can’t take a pitch off especially with runners on base,” said Mike Hankins, former shortstop for UCLA who played as high as AAA minor-league baseball in the New York Yankees organization.
- Going into the outfield to cut off throws to bases. This assignment is more difficult than it may seem, as the shortstop needs to align himself straight between the outfielder at the point where he grabs the ball, and the base that he needs to throw to. He also must decide just how far out to go. Too far, and he takes away some of the power of the outfielder’s initial throw; too far back near the infield and it makes the outfielder’s job just that much more difficult.
- Turn double plays on balls hit to the opposite side of the infield. With a runner on first base, any ground ball struck to the first- or second baseman means the shortstop must race to second base to take the lead throw, and then catch the throw and almost simultaneously touch second base with a foot, before relaying the throw to first base for 2 quick outs.
It’s not just the number of responsibilities for a shortstop, but also the level of difficulty for some duties, even in fielding routine grounders. Consider the following details from Hankins, the former UCLA standout:
- “Shortstops have the least amount of time to throw the runner out at first. If they bobble a ball most of the time the runner is safe. Other positions (2B, 1B, and to an extent 3B) have time to still get the runner out if they bobble a ball or it takes a bad hop off the chest.”
- “Shortstops have to make the longest throw of the infielders and it has to be accurate.”
- “Shortstops are the captains of the infield and have priority over all other infielders in pop-up situations, and they also have priority over 2B and 3B on ground balls so they always have to be thinking and analyzing situations.”
On top of that all, statistics show that of all the infielders, more balls are hit to the shortstop than the others. Just being ready and able to field grounders and throw a long way to first base is not easy.
- Quick feet for instant jumps.
- Lateral quickness to quickly move side-to-side.
- Strong and accurate arm.
- Balance for double-plays around second base.
- Soft hands to avoid bobbling.
- Fast hands to turn double plays.
- Knowledge of where to be in the infield for any given circumstance
Catcher certainly is the most demanding position in baseball physically, and definitely can take a toll. Aside from having to wear a lot of heavy and hot protective gear while on the field, and the constant fear of injury by tipped foul-ball pitches, the catcher has a myriad of responsibilities that are vital for a baseball team.
The catcher must either call every pitch to be thrown, or relay a signal provided by a coach. This occurs with every single pitch, which you witness by the catcher holding his hand and wiggling fingers at his crotch just before the pitcher begins the windup to throw.
The catcher tells the pitcher what to throw, and also in effect informs fielders where a ball most likely will be struck, because they know if a pitch will be thrown with high or low velocity. (Slower and inside pitches tend to be pulled more).
Catchers also sometimes have to relay other signals from coaches, by standing up in front of the plate, facing the field and fellow defenders, and touching various parts of his body to indicate a specific play called, or how deep or shallow to position themselves pre-pitch.
The catcher could be called the quarterback of baseball, because of all the signal-calling. However, it’s the location of the position that tends to make people think shortstop is harder. In a far corner of the overall playing field, the catcher is a rather solitary position, except for constant communication with the pitcher, and maybe an infielder if they are trying to keep a runner honest.
The position is dominated by the repetitive process of catching baseballs and tossing them back to the pitcher. It’s difficulty is the danger involved with foul tips, errant bats, and charging base runners who cause collisions, and mental fatigue from all the gear, squatting and thinking.
The shortstop must move swiftly and deftly to field struck balls, from a spot that’s the hardest to throw from in the infield, as well as communicate with other players, and run into the outfield for cutoffs. The shortstop has a lot to think about in every direction around him; the catcher focuses mostly on the pitcher straight out front, and every now and then has to run out to field bunts or softly struck hits, or to catch a pop-up.
Baseball experts can debate forever on which position is most difficult to play. For those who insist that shortstop is the hardest, the reasons outlined above pose pretty strong arguments.
Aside from the difficulty of regular activities like fielding balls and throwing to bases, shortstops are called upon as a leader for a number of fundamental plays on the field. The shortstop is the captain of the infield, and may very well be the captain of all defenders not pitching or catching.