The athletes on a baseball field may be universally classified as “baseball players”, but their individual roles and skill sets are quite different.
There are 9 official fielding positions in baseball. Although there is a traditional layout, modern baseball is beginning to shift the alignment of fielding positions around to adapt to the batted-ball tendencies of hitters. In this article we will discuss a wide range of topics surrounding baseball positions, including:
- Layout Diagram of all 9 positions
- The Roles and Responsibilities of Each Position
- What Type of Athlete Best Fits Each Position
- Shifting and How Modern Baseball is Changing Traditional Alignment
- Rank Position by Importance
Before we dive into typical athletes per position, it is important to note that there are always exceptions at each position. Major League teams will base their needs at each position on things such as the makeup of their current roster, their home ballpark dimensions, and the overall playing style of their team. That said, there is a typical blueprint for each position, and the exceptions will be rare (but they will exist).
Baseball Positions On Field
Here is a baseball position layout diagram:
Responsibilities and Type of Athlete Needed By Position
Responsibilities – The catcher has the most responsibilities out of all the defenders on a professional baseball team. Their first priority is to signal pitches to the pitcher. This is a process that changes from pitcher to pitcher. Each day is a new plan on how to attack hitters, and so catchers must spend time preparing with pitchers and coaches before the game.
Because they receive pitches, they also have the responsibility of framing the baseball so that borderline pitches look like strikes to umpires. This is an underappreciated skill of some catchers, and it can be a boost to pitchers if a catcher can get an extra strike call here and there by framing the pitch.
Catchers have to be aware of base runners, and make the necessary throws during steal attempts. Also, when runners are on base, catchers must block pitches in the dirt so the ball doesn’t go to the backstop and allow runners to advance.
Catchers also must field the position, which usually means the occasional bunt, pop up, or slow roller out in front of the plate. Sometimes there might be a play at the plate (force out or tag play).
In years past, catchers were responsible for blocking the plate, which could take a sever physical toll on their body. Many catchers suffered serious injuries putting their body on the line trying to block a base runner from reaching the plate.
Prior to the 2014 season, Major League Baseball implemented a new rule that prevented catcher from being able to block the plate. This was done in an effort to reduce the amount of collisions and limit injuries. The sport itself does not benefit from players getting hurt, and although some baseball purists lamented the fact that a long-standing part of the game was being eliminated, most players and fans appreciated the rule change and understood its positive consequence on the sport.
Catchers also have the responsibility of relaying signs to the defense if a manager puts on any sort of defensive play during an at-bat. This is something like how the team will play a bunt attempt or how they will handle a double-steal attempt.
Type of Athlete Needed – Most catchers are big so that when they present themselves to the pitcher to receive the pitch, they are a big target. Also, their large bodies help them block errant pitches in the dirt.
In previous years, before the 2014 rule change mentioned above, catchers also needed to be big so that they could effectively block the plate. Because of the rule change, that is no longer an issue.
Catchers must be exceptionally quick out of their stance and into their throwing motion. A popular statistic that is tracked for catchers is ‘pop time’. Pop time tracks how quick a catcher is at throwing out a base-stealer. It measures the amount of time between when the pitch hits the catcher’s glove and when the ball is received by the position player covering the base that is being stolen. In 2017, the league average was 2.01 seconds.
That is exceptionally quick. An average MLB catcher can catch the baseball, burst out of their stance and throw the baseball to the bag in just over two seconds. Catchers must have very strong arms to achieve that and to effectively control the base paths.
Responsibilities – First basemen have the responsibility of covering first base, which means they will receive a lot of throws from other fielders during the course of a game.
They also have the responsibility of holding the runner on first base, which means they will be positioned on the bag to receive pick-off attempts from the pitcher or catcher.
First baseman also have the responsibility of crashing down to field bunt attempts and for being in a position to cutoff certain throws from the outfield.
Type of Athlete Needed – In pee wee and little league baseball, first base can be one of the most important defensive positions just because it is important to have a consistent fielder at first base to receive throws.
At the professional level, the first base position isn’t as important defensively. In fact, the first base position requires the least amount of athleticism of all the defensive positions at the professional level (with the exception of pitcher).
This isn’t to say that having a quality defender at first base doesn’t help – of course it does. But because the position receives much less batted-ball action than all the other non-battery (battery = pitcher plus catcher) positions, teams see first base as an opportunity to hide a power hitter.
Typical power hitters usually have strong, bulky frames. They often may carry extra weight. This strength helps them drive the baseball. But with this strength and bulk and extra weight often comes slower foot speed, less agility, and less defensive range.
Because of this, bulky power hitters cannot survive at certain defensive positions that require extreme range and athleticism. First base is a popular spot to hide these big, strong players so that the team can benefit from their offensive prowess, but also limit the negative defensive consequences of their limited range.
And it’s not all bad. Teams prefer a large target at first base to receive throws.
One trait first baseman do need to have is soft hands. They may have to dig errant throws out of the dirt, and having soft hands can save a lot of errors during the course of a big league season.
Responsibilities – The second baseman covers the base on any play made to the left side of the field. On plays to deep right field, they will be the cutoff man on the throw back to the infield.
On bunt plays, where the first baseman crashes in to field a bunt, second baseman will actually swing down and cover first base.
Second baseman will also have to cover second base on some steal attempts. This is a responsibility that they share with the shortstop. The decision on who will cover the base is made before an at-bat and often has to do with defensive alignment.
Type of Athlete Needed – Second base is a very important defensive position at the professional level. The athletes that play this position are asked to do a lot. They need to be quick with both their hands and their feet and be able to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time. This allows them to have the range to cover a wide array of plays, like a chopper up the middle of the diamond to a blooper in no-man’s land in shallow right field.
They also have the responsibility of turning certain double-plays. The exchange from glove to hand on double plays need to be quick, and so does their footwork.
In 2017, second baseman in Major League Baseball received the third-most amount of batted-ball action. The defensive workload and responsibility is significant.
The typical professional second baseman is shorter in stature, with quick feet and loose hips that allow them to change direction with ease. In many ways, the typical second-base athlete is a polar opposite of the typical first-base athlete.
Although it is nice if second baseman have strong throwing arms, it is not as important as it is on the left side of the infield (where third baseman and shortstops have to consistently make long throws across the diamond to first base).
Because the defensive versatility of this position demands that players be quick and loose, most second baseman are not big and bulky. This means that typical second baseman are not power hitters, and are players, for the most part, that will rely on contact and speed to be effective hitters.
Responsibilities – The shortstop is responsible for covering second base on any play to the right side of the field. They are also responsible for being the cutoff man for any baseball driven to deep center field or deep left field. Shortstops will often cover second base on steal attempts.
As we discussed in the section above, second baseman also may cover the bag on steal attempts. Who covers the bag will be determined before the at-bat. If the shortstop does not cover the bag, they will back up the throw from the catcher by positioning themselves in shallow center field behind second base.
Shortstops will cover third base on any bunt attempts where the third baseman must crash down to field the bunt.
Type of Athlete Needed – Shortstop is considered by many experts to be the most important defensive position in baseball. The shortstop position often has the most defensive opportunities during an MLB season, meaning they are the most-worked defender. In 2017, the shortstop position across all of baseball had 8,702 defensive opportunities, the most of any position.
Because of this extreme workload, combined with the physical demands of the position, the best athlete on many major league teams is the shortstop.
To play the position effectively, shortstops must be fast and rangy, with good body control. Although second baseman must have similar range and athletic ability, not all second baseman make good shortstops.
The main reason for this is shortstops need to have strong throwing arms because they make many long throws across the infield (the throw to first base from second baseman is much shorter). Shortstops must have the arm strength to make that long throw in time to beat the runner.
As we noted in the second base section above, most quick, agile players are smaller in size and bulk. The extra weight and long legs of bigger players often make them slower to react to batted balls and less efficient in their ability to range to the right and left.
But the problem, generally, with small, quick players, is they don’t possess the physical size to have elite throwing arms. Of course, there are many exceptions to this throughout history, and that’s what makes superstars elite: the rare combination of size and speed.
That rare combination is usually what is needed at the shortstop position. The quickness and agility to make plays ranging to both their right and left, but also strong enough to make the throw across the diamond in time to get the out consistently.
This is why, more often than not, the shortstop is the best all-around athlete on a major league roster. They also have exceptional coordination and balance which allows them to make off-balance throws with accuracy.
This is very important for shortstops because the ball must come out of their hands quickly. The long throw across the diamond does not always allow them to set their feet and make a throw, because if they do, the runner will beat out the throw.
So there are many plays a good shortstop will make where their throwing motion is sidearm. Although the fundamentals of baseball teach to set and throw overhand for accuracy, the elite shortstops can maintain accuracy even from unique throwing angles. This allows them to get outs that ordinary players cannot. We discuss some of the complex throwing angles that shortstops face in our article here.
Responsibilities – Third baseman don’t have as many bag-coverage responsibilities as the other infielders because not as many runners reach third base.
They have the standard responsibilities of covering their bag when a play is to be made at the bag, including a steal attempt. They also must be ready for bunt attempts. Many bunt attempts are made towards third baseman and so they must be aware and ready to charge the ball if it happens.
Third baseman are not involved in cutoff relays like second baseman and shortstops.
Type of Athlete Needed – Third baseman don’t have to possess the range that shortstops do, but because they also make long throws across the diamond, they do need to have a similarly strong throwing arm.
Because of this, many third baseman are former shortstops who played shortstop either in high school, college, or the low minors, but added too much bulk and size to retain the quickness needed for the shortstop position, so were then moved to third base (where the position does not require as much side-to-side range).
That means they already have the strong throwing arm (because they were former shortstops), but no longer have the quickness needed for the shortstop position. Of course, not all third baseman are former shortstops, but when a player outgrows the shortstop position, the natural fit for them is usually third base.
Third baseman generally have good bulk and size, and the ability to drive the baseball when they bat. As we mentioned in the first base section, teams are looking for defensive spots to hide power hitters (because baseball is a two-way sport and they need quality hitters too).
First base is a popular place to hide large, less agile power hitters. Third base is another position that often has the ability to drive the baseball, but it isn’t as easy to hide a player at third base as it is first base.
Third baseman get a lot more batted-ball action than first basemen. In 2017, Major League third baseman had 7,008 defensive opportunities compared to only 4,888 for first baseman. Hiding a poor athlete at third base is not wise.
That is why you will often see third basemen have a compromised blend of size and speed. Shortstops also have this, but third baseman generally have a little less agility and a little more strength. Which again, is why third baseman are often former shortstops who added more strength and weight.
But it is important to emphasize, third baseman are still premium athletes and play an important role in team defense due to how many defensive opportunities they get over the course of a season. In the brief history of the platinum glove award (an award to recognize the league’s best defender), six of the 16 winners have been third baseman.
Third base, although not as important as the shortstop position, is a position that requires consistent skill and teams will pay a severe price if they have a bad defender playing the position.
Responsibilities – Center fielders have very basic responsibilities, but the position is extremely hard to play. Their responsibility is to make as many plays in the outfield as possible. They have the right of way in an outfield, and have the right to call off a left fielder or right fielder or infielder if they (the center fielder) can make the play.
Other than fielding the baseball, they will also backup throws made to second base by the catcher or pitcher.
Type of Athlete Needed – In the shortstop section above, I mentioned how the shortstop is often times the bast all-around athlete on a major league roster.
The center fielder is also a premium athlete, and in some occasions may actually be a better athlete than the shortstop. Center fielders are one of the core 4 important “up-the-middle” defensive positions: Catcher, second base, shortstop, and center field.
Center fielders are extremely fast and athletic and react quickly to the ball off the bat. They need to be able to cover a lot of ground in the outfield all while possessing a strong throwing arm. Usually only the shortstop makes more plays on batted-balls during the course of a 162-game professional season.
Because speed is a must, it’s much harder for center fielders to nurse small injuries and play through them. Their legs and their speed are their livelihood, so they must be in exceptional physical shape and learn to keep their body prepared over the course of a long season.
Responsibilities – Left fielder is another position where a Major League Baseball team may try to hide one of their worst fielders. The overall responsibilities of a left fielder are minimal compared to other positions on the diamond.
Left fielders obviously cover left field, but they will also backup some throws made to third base and second base. The center fielder has the right of way in the outfield and so on many plays in the left-field gap, a left fielder will be called off by the center fielder.
Type of Athlete Needed – Left field is another position where a Major League Baseball team may try to hide one of their worst fielders, especially if the team has an elite defender playing center field who can cover a lot of ground and make up for a lack of defense in left.
The athletic makeup of big league left fielders is quite diverse. Quality left field defenders will have many of the same traits as center fielders: fast, ability to read the ball off the bat, quality arm.
But some teams may choose to hide a poor athlete in left field. Now, this comes with the obvious caveat that they won’t put someone out there who can’t run at all. Some players don’t track fly balls well, and a major league team would never embarrass itself by putting a player in the outfield who can’t make routine plays.
That said, if a team has a quality hitter who doesn’t have a premium defensive position, left field is a decent spot to stick them if they have the natural ability to at least track fly balls.
Well, first of all, as mentioned above, if the team has an elite center fielder, that center fielder can protect the left fielder and make a lot of plays in the gap.
But second, the left fielder does not have to make as many long throws across the field like the right fielder does. Right fielders will have to make throws from right field to third base. Left fielders will never have to make throws from left field to first base.
Imagine a baseball driven to the wall in right field. Because the ball reached the wall, the runner will likely have a double, maybe even a triple. If the play is at third base, the throw across the field from the right field wall all the way to third base is extremely long. There will of course be a relay throw in the middle, but if the right fielder has a weak arm, a Major League Baseball team will pay a severe price for this over the course of 162-game season.
But if a ball is driven to the left-field wall, and the throw needs to be made to third base, that throw is a much shorter throw. This means the quality of the throwing arm in left field doesn’t always have to be as elite as the other two outfield spots.
There are of course exceptions to this in Major League Baseball. Some stadiums (like Kaufman stadium where the Kansas City Royals play) have large outfields with deep alleys in both right-center and left-center. This means there is still a lot of ground to cover in left field, and so they benefit from having quality defenders in left field.
Alex Gordon, who has been the Kansas City Royals’ left fielder for nearly a decade, is considered one of the best defensive left-fielders to ever play the game. He has won six Gold Glove awards, four Fielding Bible awards, and a Platinum Glove Award. Because Kansas City has a home ballpark with deep left-field dimensions, they need a quality defender in left field.
Responsibilities – Right fielders cover the right side of the outfield, but because first base is such an active spot for throws, right fielders also play a critical role in backing up the first base position in case an errant throw gets by the first baseman.
There are also some throws made to second base (from the left side of the infield) that will be backed up by a right fielder.
Type of Athlete Needed – Right field is another position in Major League Baseball where the exact type of athlete a team chooses to use in right field will be dependent not only on their roster makeup, but also the dimensions of the home ballpark they play in.
If a team has a small ballpark, with not a lot of ground to cover in right field, they will not feel the pressure to stick one of their fastest athletes out in right field. In a scenario like this, a team may choose to play in right field a lean power hitter (with a strong arm), who maybe isn’t one of the fastest players on the team, but still is in good enough shape to move around out there and cover ground at a league-average rate.
Because both the right-field power alley in deep right-center field and the right-field corner produce some of the longest throws in baseball, as we discussed in the left-field section above, teams will pay a severe price if their right-fielder has a weak throwing arm.
Imagine baseballs up against the wall in those right-field spots. If a team has a slow runner with a weak arm tracking down those baseballs, it will lead to a plethora of extra bases for opponents over the course of a 162-game MLB season.
Teams whose home stadium has a huge right field (like for example the Boston Red Sox) will usually prefer to stick another elite athlete in right-field, and treat it almost like a second center-field position, meaning they need a premium athlete who can cover a lot of ground quickly.
During Boston’s 2018 season (a season in which they won the World Series), they often started Jackie Bradley Jr. in center field and Mookie Betts in right field (both won gold gloves in 2018). Mookie Betts is an elite athlete who can cover a lot of ground and has the ability to play center field at a high level. So when Boston plays him in right field, and visiting teams don’t have a premium athlete in right field, Boston has a distinct advantage over that road team.
This is a peak behind the strategy curtain in Major League Baseball. For teams with huge right fields (81 home games), if they have an elite athlete out there taking away base hits that slow right-fielders cannot, that will produce an advantage for the home team during those 81 games.
It does work both ways, however. If a team chooses to run a quick defender out in right field, who doesn’t have power at the plate when they hit, they also pay a price when they visit small ballparks. In these small ballparks, with small right-fields (for example Yankee stadium), home teams have the ability to play power hitters in right field, who only cover ground at an average rate (or maybe even less at times).
These teams do not pay a severe price for having only an average defender in right field because the dimensions of the ballpark are so small, that the average-runner in right can still make most of the plays needed. In these scenarios, teams typically use a lean, strong power hitter, who has average speed, and an above-average throwing arm.
The 2018 Yankees are a prime example of this, because they started one of the league’s best young power hitters in right field: Aaron Judge. He is a tall, lean, strong power hitter, who is not elite at covering ground. But because Yankee stadium has a small right-field, this does not cause major issues for them. And it allows them to have another premium bat in the lineup.
Some teams have the luxury of having both qualities in the same player. Mookie Betts for Boston is an example of a player is both elite at the plate, and elite in the field. In 2018, he was the first player ever to win the World Series, the Silver Slugger award, the Gold Glove award, and the MVP.
So, again, the type of athlete a team chooses to use in right field will often be dependent on the makeup of their roster and the dimensions of their home ballpark.
Responsibilities – Major league pitchers are asked to make routine plays around the mound on any type of slowly hit baseballs back up the middle. Popups on the infield are handled by the other infielders and so pitchers will be called off.
Probably the two biggest responsibilities a pitcher has defensively is to 1) cover first base when the first baseman fields a ball away from the bag and 2) be aware of base runners and keep them from extending leads and stealing bases.
Pitchers take regular fielding work, but mainly teams want to make sure their pitchers do not get hurt trying to make a play in the field. The most important role for pitchers is obviously to pitch. Teams want pitchers healthy and focused on accomplishing that at all times.
Also, if pitchers try to make plays other than routine tappers back to the mound, they can sometime distract middle infielders or even touch the baseball and alter the path of the ground ball. Because of this, pitchers are taught not to try and make plays on hard it ground balls and line drives back up the middle.
Most pitchers say it is very difficult to train the brain not to react to balls hit right back at them. But it is very important for them to protect their bodies from injury, especially their pitching arm and hand.
The role of covering first base is a necessity, and has to be practiced regularly for pitchers so that they have rapport with the first baseman and learn to get their footing down near the bag. Having their foot too far on the base could cause it to be stepped on by a base runner and result in injury.
Type of Athlete Needed – We won’t dive into the type of athlete needed to play pitcher defensively, because teams aren’t selecting pitchers based on their ability to field the position.
Pitchers come in all shapes and sizes. Major league teams look for large-bodied pitchers to be starters so that their frame can support the number of innings starting pitchers must throw over the course of a full season. If you want to read further about what teams are looking for in pitchers, and how they manage workload, you can read my article here.
Modern baseball has begun to challenge the traditional layout of baseball positions by scrapping that traditional alignment during certain at-bats against players that have batted-ball tendencies that favor, dramatically, one side of the field.
Instead of having two players on each side of the infield, a team may shift a third defender to a certain side and overload one side of the infield if the current batter hits a large percentage of ground balls to that particular side.
Teams will use spray charts to look at the batted-ball tendencies of their opponents, and align their defense accordingly. For example, let’s look at this spray chart:
In this example let’s assume the hitter is right-handed. The player pulls the large majority of his ground balls to the left side of the infield. His fly ball contact is much more straight-away and balanced.
Modern baseball has begun to question: why should two infielders be on the right side in a situation like this, when a certain player hits ~80% or more of their ground balls to the left side (or vice versa).
This thinking has led to the adoption of the shift: which is loosely defined as overloading at least three players on the same side of the infield. However, there are scenarios where teams may not fully pull the fielder to the other side of the bag, and instead play them maybe a step over on the traditional side of the bag.
Let’s say the spray chart above is real, and is the spray chart for the batter in the picture below. This is how a Major League Baseball team may choose to loosely shift their defensive alignment to account for the hitter’s batted-ball tendencies:
Notice the second baseman is not in his traditional spot. He is nearly straight up the middle (probably 10 feet closer to the left side than he normally would be in a traditional alignment).
This allows the defense to overload more defenders in the area where the majority of the batter’s ground balls occur. The second baseman is shifted towards the left side, and is also in a position to hold the runner on second base.
As we discussed above in the second base and shortstop sections, who holds the runner and covers the bag on steal attempts changes from at-bat to at-bat. A team would never ask the shortstop to cover the bag or hold a runner in a scenario like the picture above, because it would then cause a giant hole on the side of the infield where the hitter hits most of his ground balls. This would be poor strategy.
Instead, they can shift the second baseman over, overloading the side of the field where most of the ground ball action occurs, and also put the second baseman in a natural position to quickly cover the bag.
Also, notice in the picture above, the outfield is playing a more traditional straight-up, balanced alignment. This is because although the batted-ball tendencies of the hitter show him pulling ground balls, he hits fly balls to all fields, and it does not benefit the defense to move their outfield alignment.
It is important to understand that the fly ball tendencies of a batter are often completely different than the ground ball tendencies of that same hitter. But even if the fly ball tendencies do dramatically favor one side of the field over the other, a team will never totally abandon one side of the outfield.
Instead, they will “shade” their outfield defense one way or the other. Shading allows them to move towards the area where most of the fly balls occur, but not totally abandon one side of the field.
Major League Baseball teams each have their own unique opinion on how often to shift and how to handle the shift. Some teams (like the Houston Astros) believe in it very strongly. The amount of shifts per team will vary dramatically.
Baseball Positions By Number
Each baseball position is assigned a number that is used for scorekeeping purposes. For example, you may hear a baseball commentator say something like a “6-3 putout” or a “5-4-3 double play”. This commentary is in reference to the numbers assigned to the positions. Here are the numbers that are assigned to each position (they never change):
- Pitcher – 1
- Catcher – 2
- First Base – 3
- Second Base – 4
- Third Base – 5
- Shortstop – 6
- Left Field – 7
- Center Field – 8
- Right Field – 9
So when a commentator says “5-4-3 double-play”, that means the third baseman fielded it, threw it to the second baseman, and then the second baseman threw it to the first baseman.
Can Baseball Players Switch Positions?
Yes, players can switch the position they are playing during a game. A player can switch positions as many times as needed as long as they do it within the guidelines of the rule book. For example, a player cannot be removed from the game, and then later come back into the game at a different position.
Players changing positions during a game happens often in Major League Baseball and is why depth is an important part of roster construction.
Which Is Harder Left Field or Right Field?
As we discussed in the left field and right field sections above, right field is considered the more difficult and more important position at the professional level.
In youth baseball, it is usually the opposite (left is more important). This is due to the fact that young hitters usually pull the baseball because they have not yet learned how to effectively hit the ball to the opposite field. Also, the pitches that batters face in youth baseball are much easier to pull than the pitches a professional hitter will see.
Because of this, on the youth level, the workload in left field is much heavier than the workload in right field.
But on the professional level, right field is generally viewed as the more important position due to the fact that the position has to make more across-diamond throws than the left fielder. A weak arm in right field will hurt a team over the course of a big league season (more so than it would in left).
But it is important to understand that the left fields in some MLB ballparks are more demanding than others. Every situation is unique, and some teams benefit a lot from having elite left fielders.
Baseball Positions Ranked by Importance
So, what are the most important baseball positions defensively at the MLB level? Here is my opinion below. Of course, all situations and ballparks are unique.
- Catcher – Huge workload and responsibility
- Shortstop – Most athletically demanding position plus huge workload
- Center Field – Second-most athletically demanding position plus workload.
- Second Base – Large area to cover plus big workload and multiple roles.
- Third Base – “Hot corner” has tough plays to make.
- Right Field – Elite arm needed
- Left Field – Decent workload but not as demanding
- First Base – Easiest responsibilities of all non-pitchers
- Pitcher – Minimal usage. Pitching is first priority.