As long as you’ve played team sports, coaches have instructed you to stay in an athletic position and square to the action so you can react and use the appropriate line of attack as the play unfolds.
A basketball defender epitomizes this advice. He’s prepared for the ball-handler to drive to either side and reads the chest of the player he’s guarding, his feet and shoulders square to the opponent, just like the guy below.
Same with a soccer goalie preparing to defense a penalty kick. He’s positioned in the center of the goal, square to the kicker, and capable of diving to either side, which makes sense given the unpredictable path of the ball.
But what about a shortstop or second baseman?
Superficial reasoning suggests that each should position himself in a similar way, i.e. square to the hitter. We can recall those instructional videos in which an authority figure (probably a college baseball player or coach with a distracting mustache and classic-’80s mesh baseball cap) reminds us to step toward the hitter and ease into a ready position just before the pitch crosses the plate.
Were these experts wrong?
Because as an infielder, you must both field the groundball and throw the hitter out at first. We’d agree with the goalie and basketball player if the second part—the throw to first to complete the out–didn’t factor in. But those other athletes are primarily concerned with gaining possession of the ball, less so with what happens once they have possession. Throwing the ball to first makes a substantial difference in our approach.
Here’s how, more specifically.
Take a minute and walk to where the shortstop stands positioned in the infield. Square up to the imaginary hitter as you have all these years and mentally draw a line from your feet to home plate. Now make a T by drawing a second, perpendicular line where you’re standing so you’re on the point of intersection. Here’s the overhead view.
Notice anything odd? The second line you drew–the one that runs between second and third base–is your lateral range. You’ll see that the line isn’t parallel to the base path, though, and so your range gets deeper to the third-base side of the infield and shallower as you approach second.
That’s highly problematic.
Remember that as you move toward third throws to first are longer and therefore take more time, and so completing plays for outs at first is less likely. Deepening our range in that direction might make us feel like Derek Jeter to the ball, but if we can’t get the ball across the infield before the batter kicks the chalk off first base, that added range isn’t beneficial and should be put to better use elsewhere.
So here’s your adjustment as a shortstop. Turn your feet counterclockwise until they’re pointing just to the right of the pitcher. Your updated range based on your new angle will look like this.
We’ve now added important range to the second-base side, which was our intent. Again, why? Because throws get shorter as we approach second base, and so that added range can potentially get converted to outs at first, and that’s more than we could say about those balls nearly in left field with our original T. We gave up some depth to the third base side, but that’s a concession we’re happy to make–and we have a third baseman eager to cut that ball off anyway.
For second basemen, it’s the same idea, roughly. Range should be greater to the throwing-target side (first base) than the non-throwing-target side (second base), but by pointing his feet at the hitter (the default of untrained fielders), the second baseman expands range to the first-base side too much. He should adjust his feet clockwise until they’re pointing at or just to the left of the pitcher because balls deep on the second-base side of his range can still be converted to outs at first at a high rate. Here’s the second baseman’s correct angle and range.
If you’re feeling uncomfortable about suddenly being turned away from the action, consider three things. First, your head and eyes should still be square to the hitter, so it’s not as if your perception of a pitched or batted ball will change in the slightest. Your brain will do the same work it’s always done (for better or worse). Also, you’re turned about fifteen to twenty degrees, which is hardly dramatic; yes, this small adjustment magnified over an infield yields an important shift in your range and effectiveness, but it’s doubtful anyone in the ballpark apart from those who’ve read this post will take note of your unorthodox alignment, and you should still feel as if you’re generally facing the action to come and as athletic as always. The last and most important consideration is that you field the ball, not the hitter, and the origin of the ball matters a lot less than where you field it–and neither matters unless you can produce an out.
So take a stand for outs by standing differently!