Editor’s note – This article originally appeared on AstrosConnection.com.
Baseball traditionalists, who may be a dying breed, would much rather watch a game dominated by pitching and defense than watch today’s home run derby contests that are represented to be major league baseball games. A well-played defensive game consists of beautiful choreography; the players move to the ball and to other positions relative to the ball according to rules that are well-defined and much-practiced. The movements that implement the rules must be practiced so often that the defenders recognize situations and move to their respective places without thinking. If the rules are executed properly, all of the defenders will be in motion when the ball is put into play, and no player, including the pitcher, will be a mere spectator, no matter where the ball is hit. This article examines the rules used for various defensive situations.Fly Ball Rules
The outfielder must catch every ball he can reach coming toward the infield. An infielder is never to call off an outfielder, and the outfielder must call for the ball as soon as he sees he can catch it. The infielder should go into the outfield intending to catch the ball until the outfielder calls for it and the infielder has to immediately get out of the way when the outfielder calls for the ball. Not following this rule sometimes results in spectacular collisions, serious injuries and dropped fly balls. The outfielder’s call always controls, even if the infielder already has called for the ball.
Rules also govern flies hit beyond the reach of an infielder. The center fielder must catch every ball he can reach in the gaps, and he must call off the left fielder and the right fielder if he can get to the ball. When the center fielder calls for the ball, the left fielder or right fielder immediately move to a position behind him to back up the play. The center fielder’s call always controls. Rules for cutoffs and infielders’ positioning on throws from the outfield also are very important but were discussed in detail in a previous Dugout article.
The pitcher is the “traffic cop” for any ball popped up inside the infield dirt. He must call for a specific player to catch the ball, and this especially is important for the popup that is directly above the mound. The pitcher should never call for the ball himself, unless it is hit very low, and the infielders rarely should let the pitcher catch a popup. The pitcher will prevent a collision by calling loudly and often for the person he chooses to catch the ball. More often than not, the first baseman, third baseman and catcher will converge at the mound, and it is up to the pitcher to avert disaster and to assist the putout by directing the traffic to and away from the ball. The pitcher’s call supercedes any earlier call by an infielder.
The shortstop must catch any popup hit behind the third baseman, including into foul territory all the way to the stands. He has a much better angle on the ball and should call off the third baseman as soon as he sees he can get to the ball. The third baseman is to give way and return to the bag as soon as he hears the shortstop call for the ball. A similar rule governs any popup hit behind the first baseman. The second baseman must take any ball hit behind the first baseman, including into foul territory to the stands, and he should call off the first baseman as soon as he determines he can get to the ball. When the first baseman hears the second baseman’s call, he should get away immediately and return to the bag for a possible play if the ball drops.
Ground Ball Rules
There are rules to follow in the infield also. On a ball hit in the hole between third and short, the third baseman must get any ball he can reach going to his left. His path is a straight line toward second base, rather than back into the hole, and he should catch the ball if he can reach it as he extends himself toward second base. The third baseman driving to his left has a much easier throw than the shortstop does from the hole. If the third baseman intercepts the ball that is headed toward the hole, the shortstop should continue to his right and cover third base.
A similar rule applies to the second baseman on balls hit to his left. He must call off the first baseman as soon as he determines that he can reach the ball hit between him and the first baseman. By making the play going to his left, the second baseman will allow the first baseman to return to the bag for the short throw. If the first baseman ranges to his right unnecessarily far, the pitcher will have to cover first, and getting the out becomes much harder because of the more difficult throw to the pitcher running toward the bag. The second baseman must call for the ball as early as possible, and the first baseman then will immediately retreat to the bag to receive the throw. The pitcher will be there, too, because his rule is to move quickly toward first base on all balls hit to the right side of the infield. The catcher must yell “get over there” to the pitcher as a reminder every time the ball is hit to the right side, and the pitcher has to stay out of the way when he sees he is not needed to cover first.
The catcher is the “traffic cop” on all bunts or dribblers in front of the plate. With runners on, he must direct the throw of the pitcher, first baseman or third baseman fielding the bunt. Whether the catcher is right or wrong in his decision, the defender must throw the ball to the base called by the catcher. To allow the defenders the discretion to ignore the catcher’s call may result in indecision and delay and may also result in getting no outs on the play.
Bunt coverage is nothing but following rules, and there are multiple options for some situations; a signal will determine the choice of coverage before the pitch. For a simple sacrifice bunt with a runner at first, the first baseman and third baseman charge hard down the lines and the pitcher covers the middle of the diamond. The second baseman covers first base to receive the throw, and the shortstop covers second. Third base is uncovered, and the left fielder, the pitcher or the catcher should move in that direction to cover the bag if the third baseman is making the play on the bunt. If he does not field the ball, the third baseman has to retreat quickly to the bag.
In a bunt situation with runners at first and second, or a runner at second only, the decisions get more complex. There essentially are two rules for defending a bunt when a play at third may be possible. The safer coverage requires the third baseman to stay back at the bag, the pitcher to break quickly to his right to cover the third base line, and the first baseman to charge to cover the first base line. As before, the second baseman covers first for the throw, and the shortstop covers second.
A variation to this bunt coverage, usually called the “wheel,” is designed to try to retire the runner who is trying to advance from second to third. Because this play is a gamble and creates holes in the infield, teams usually do not use it unless the run at second base is very important. When the wheel play is on, the shortstop cheats toward third base in his initial alignment and sprints toward third base as the pitcher starts his delivery to the hitter. The second baseman bluffs the runner back to second and then runs to cover first as the pitcher makes his delivery. Both the first baseman and the third baseman charge hard down the lines, and the pitcher covers the middle. Second base is uncovered, but the whole point of the play is to retire the runner moving into third.
As on all bunts, the catcher must determine and call where the ball should be thrown when the wheel is on, and the second baseman will be covering first for the easy out if a throw to third base is too risky. Most teams have a pickoff play that starts like the wheel, with the second baseman covering at second after the shortstop starts running for third base. Invariably, teams run the two complementary plays on consecutive pitches. Watch for it.
Attempted Steal Rules
When a runner attempts to steal a base, the catcher cannot worry about who will cover the base. He must throw the ball over the base as quickly and as accurately as possible and hope that someone is at the base to receive the throw. Whether the shortstop or the second baseman will cover second base often is determined by what type of hitter is at the plate and by what pitch the pitcher will throw. For example, the second baseman often will cover with a right-handed pull hitter at the plate or if the pitch is likely to be hit to the left side. The two middle infielders signal each other on each pitch who will cover. Important to this defensive situation is the first baseman, who has to yell “going” to alert the catcher and the middle infielders that the runner is breaking to second. After that, defense against a steal is just a game of catch and throw.
At third base, of course, there is no decision about who will cover. The third baseman should concentrate on the hitter, especially a right-hand hitter, and should hold his ground as long as possible before moving to cover third base. For this situation, the shortstop has to yell “going” to alert the third baseman that the runner is coming. The catcher must throw immediately and cannot wait for the third baseman to get to the bag. If the hitter has not put the ball in play, the third baseman cannot tarry in getting to the bag for the throw.
A related defensive situation is the passed ball or wild pitch with a runner at third and other runners also on base. The pitcher will cover home, but even more important to this play is the first baseman. He must move to a position in front of the mound to back up the catcher’s throw to the pitcher covering home. More often than not, the run will score, but if the first baseman does not follow his rule, an errant throw from the catcher will allow the other runners to move up two bases.
A double steal with runners at first and third presents several options to the defensive team. Generally, a team will defense the double steal in one of three ways, and a signal from the catcher will inform the pitcher and infielders what option the manager wants. Few defensive plays require as much coordinated effort as double steal defense does.
First, the catcher may “throw through” in an effort to throw out the runner stealing second base. As the catcher comes out of his crouch to throw, he must look briefly at third in an effort to freeze that runner. If the runner is breaking or has an irresponsible lead, the catcher may choose to throw to third immediately to trap him. The third baseman has to be at the bag, and teams often have him signal the catcher to throw the ball to third instead of second if the runner’s lead at third base is too great. This requires split second decision-making by the third baseman and instant recognition by the catcher.
After his glance to third, the catcher will throw the ball on a line over the second base bag. Either the shortstop or second baseman must go to the bag to cover; whichever middle infielder is not covering backs up the throw and watches the runner at third base. If the runner at third breaks for home, the infielder who is not covering exercises his judgment to tell the covering infielder to tag the runner or to throw home. If it is the latter, the infielder covering second base will leave the bag, run into the infield to meet the throw and throw the ball back to the catcher for a play at the plate. Often, however, the defending team decides to concede the run in an effort to get a more sure out at second base. In that event, the infielder covering the base will catch the throw and tag the runner with no decision to be made.
Next, the catcher may throw the ball back to the pitcher in an effort to trap the runner off third base. On this play, the catcher does not look at the runner at third base before throwing because the defense wants him far off the base. The catcher throws the ball over the pitcher’s head as though he is throwing through to second base. The pitcher must reach up to cut the ball off and throw immediately to the third baseman at the bag. If the pitcher is not alert, disaster may result in the form of a wild throw or a plunked pitcher.
Last, the catcher may fake a throw to second base and then throw to third base to trap the runner off the base. As in the second option, the catcher will not look at third base as he comes out of his crouch to throw. He must make a hard pump fake to second and then throw immediately down the third base line about head high over the bag. If he is lucky, the runner at third will have to go to the ground to avoid being hit by the throw and will be an easy tagout for the third baseman. By far, the highest percentage play of the double steal defense options for getting a sure out is to throw through to second base, and that option is used the large majority of the time by major league teams.
General Defensive Principles
The overriding principle of any good defensive team is to turn every routine play into at least one out. Every routine play should be made. Giving away outs by allowing extra outs generally results in runs. Excellent defensive teams rarely leave bases uncovered; pitchers, catchers and outfielders should back up plays and cover bases when necessary. Every ball hit into the air that can be caught has to be caught. This requires the defenders to know the rules for defense and to call for the ball. The cutoff man must be hit every time, and each player should be in the proper area of the field for each situation.
Each fielder, including the pitcher, must know the outs and the situation and anticipate that the ball will be hit to him. The Little League coach’s adage of: ”know what you are going to do with the ball before it is hit” is good advice and works in every level of competitive baseball. Great defense is nothing more than recognizing situations and being consistent at catching and throwing the ball.
Defense wins championships, even in this hitters’ era. The rules of defense determine who goes where and does what when he gets there, and there are very few truly spontaneous movements for an outstanding defensive club. The players move in synchronized patterns to their required positions according to the rules, every base is covered, each player knows what to do with the ball, usually someone is directing the throw, and there is at least one player backing up every throw and every play. When played according to the rules of defense, defensive baseball is a joy to watch.