Defensive Strategies by Tom Emanski
First-base defense. The basic positioning of a first baseman depends on the batter, on the inning, and on how many outs there are. The standard position is five steps back toward the right-field wall on a diamond with 60-foot bases. (For regulation diamonds with 90-foot base paths, seven steps off the line and seven steps back is standard.) The first baseman should try for as much depth as possible without giving up the chance to field a routine ground ball and beat the runner in a race to first – yet still be able to cover a bunt.
Double-play depth depends on whether the batter bats right- or left-handed. For a right-handed hitter, the first baseman should hold the runner close, then drop back. For a lefty he should stay closer, then, when the pitch is released, shuffle off the bag.
With runners on first and second, play in front of the runner and the bag, but keep an eye on the runner so he doesn’t get too big a lead. With good hitters or with those who hit to the right side of the infield, play behind the runner, then jab-step toward the bag to hold the runner. In the late innings in a close game, play closer to first base to guard against doubles hit down the right-field line.
Second-base defense. For second basemen, the standard positioning on a diamond of 60 foot bases is six steps toward first base and six steps toward right field. (On a regulation diamond, nine steps toward first and nine steps back.)
In double-play situations, the middle infielders should “pinch” the middle of the infield, with the second baseman moving to a spot four steps toward first and four steps back. When left-handed hitters are up, play seven steps back and seven steps toward first. In bunt situations, play closer to first base.
Shortstop Defense. The standard position for shortstop play on 60-foot diamonds is six steps toward third base and six steps toward left field (nine steps plus nine steps on regulation diamonds), because most action is up the “spine” of the infield. Young players often play too close to third base or “in the hole.”
In double-play situations or to cover a steal, the shortstop should take the risk of pinching the middle and letting any ball hit in the hole go; he should be between four and seven steps (on a regulation diamond) away from the bag toward third and the same number of steps back.
Third base defense. Six steps toward second base and two steps toward left field is the standard position for a third baseman. In the late innings or in close games, the third baseman should guard against doubles down the line.
Third basemen shouldn’t try to hold runners at third. If a runner takes too big a lead, the catcher should call a pitchout and throw to third.
General Defense. Eighty percent of the time, standard bunt defense calls for the first and third basemen, along with the pitcher, the charge the ball, while the second baseman covers first. In the “wheel” defense with runners at first and second, the same players charge the ball, but the shortstop – after he “drives” the runner on second back to the bag with an aggressive jab step – then races to cover third. The second baseman covers second. The ball is thrown to third unless the fielder is certain the runner will be safe.
With runners on first and third, there are three basic defensive strategies: First, the catcher can try to throw out the runner heading for second base. Second, the shortstop or second baseman can cut off a throw to second in front of the bag and relay it to the catcher to put out a runner trying to steal home. Finally, the catcher can throw to third to attempt to pick off the runner.
When the bases are loaded or runners are at first and third with less than two outs, infielders should be placed in a “split” position, with the first and third basemen playing in and the middle infielders at double-play depth.
Other situations that should be practiced include do-or-die plays, holding runners on base, picking off runners, rundowns, balks, a “wheel” with a pickoff, first and third defense, outfield positioning, and relays.
Special Thanks to Baseball Parent for this article