Judging the Royals

Baseball 101: How to read an infield defense

Kansas City Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar.
Kansas City Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar. jsleezer@kcstar.com

Like most things, baseball rewards those that pay attention. If you don’t focus on the details of the game — if the only thing that gets you to put down your iPhone is a home run or a beer vendor — you’ll miss what makes baseball great.

If you want to enjoy the game it helps to understand the game, so for those who don’t already know, here’s a guide to infield defense.

Infield back:

This is the most common infield defense; the infielders will be on the back edge of the infield dirt or the front edge of the outfield grass. The infield’s goal is to get an out at first base.

If the infield is back with less than two outs and a runner on third, it means the defense will let the run score while getting an out at first base. Either the run doesn’t matter or the defensive manager thinks his team will come back and cover the opposition’s run with a run of its own.

Infield in:

You’ll see this defense with less than two outs and a runner on third; now the infield’s primary goal is to prevent the run from scoring. The infielders will now be on the front edge of the infield dirt or back edge of the infield grass.

If the runner on third heads for home on a ground ball, the play will be at the plate; if the runner holds, the play will be at first base.

Infield in makes the defensive players vulnerable because they’re closer to home plate and have less range; a grounder that would have been an easy out with the infield back can sneak through the defense with the infield in. Trying to prevent one run can lead to several.

Early in the game, if the opposition pitcher is an ace, play the infield in: one run might be the difference in the ballgame. But if the opposition pitcher gives up runs in bunches, play back and make up for any run that scores with a run of your own.

Infield halfway:

Same situation: less than two outs and a runner on third. The infielders will be halfway between the front edge of the infield dirt and the back edge of the infield dirt.

You can play this defense when you want to prevent the run and the guy on third isn’t fast. The infielders don’t have to be all the way in to cut the run down at the plate and playing halfway back gives them more range.

If a grounder is hit to an infielder, he has to make a decision; if the grounder was hit hard and the runner broke for home, the infielder can try for the out at the plate. But if the grounder was a soft one, the infielder might have to let the run score and get an out at first base.

Infield at double-play depth:

With less than two outs and a runner on first base, the two middle infielders will stand closer to second base; they have to be closer to the bag to turn a double play.

But middle infielders standing closer to second base widens the gap between them and the corner infielders; this opens up holes that the batter can exploit.

This is why it’s a big deal if the runner on first base has shown he’ll attempt a stolen base; no matter how many outs there are, a base stealer forces the middle infielders to pinch closer to the bag so someone will be there in time to receive the catcher’s throw on a steal attempt.

This is why the Royals like having the reputation for stealing bases; the runner might not take off, but he can still help his teammate get a hit just by being a stolen base threat.

Corners in, middle back:

Less than two outs, runners at first and third. The middle infielders play back to turn a double play; the corners play in for a play at the plate.

Double plays started by corner infielders are harder because they take longer to start; instead of a short flip, the first or third baseman has to make a long throw to second base to get things going.

Since the odds of a 5-4-3 or 3-6-3 double play aren’t good, the corner infielders play in to cut down the runner on third should he try to score.

Third base in:

If the situation calls for a bunt, the third baseman might play in on the grass; how far in depends on how likely the batter is to bunt.

With no strikes, the third baseman might be all the way in, with one strike the third baseman might back up a bit, and with two strikes the third baseman might play his normal position. When the hitter falls behind in the count, a bunt attempt becomes less likely.

With nobody out and a runner on second, the third baseman’s positioning tells you what the defense thinks the batter will do. If the third baseman is in, they think the batter will try to move the runner with a bunt; if the third baseman is back, they think the batter will swing away.

The batter can cross up the defense by bunting when the third baseman is back or swinging away when the third baseman is in.

Playing behind the runner:

If you see a first baseman cross his wrists and look in the dugout, he’s asking if he should play behind the runner. Let’s say you have a 5-run lead in the ninth inning; you might not care if the runner takes second base and playing the first baseman back will give him more range.

But what if there are less than two outs and the hitter at the plate is a right-handed pull hitter?

That hitter is unlikely to hit a ball to the first baseman, so you don’t care about the first-baseman’s range; have him hold the runner at first base and keep the double play in order.

If the first baseman is going to play behind the runner, he’ll get the pitcher’s attention and let him know: don’t attempt a pickoff, I won’t be there.

Shifts:

By now, all baseball fans are used to seeing defensive shifts: infielders overloaded to one side of the field or the other.

The pitcher needs a ground ball pulled into those shifts for them to be effective, so he’s likely to throw something off-speed or an inside fastball to get the results he’s looking for.

Some hitters pull everything and, if that’s the case, the pitcher can throw fastballs away and still count on the ball being pulled. Hitters that want to cross up the scouting report will try to hit those pitches to the opposite field.

And if you’ve ever wondered why a defense will leave the third baseman in his regular spot to start the at-bat, then move him after one strike, it’s because they think the batter might try a bunt with no strikes, but is less likely to try a bunt with one strike.

Guarding the lines, no doubles:

The first and/or third baseman will be positioned near the foul lines. This positioning is used when the defense can afford a single, but not a double.

For instance: the defending team has a one-run lead in the ninth inning. If the batter singles, he’s still two more singles from scoring; if he doubles, just one more single might push him across the plate.

For a ground ball to be a double it probably has to go down a foul line and guarding the lines prevents that.

But some infield coaches don’t like guarding the lines; it opens up gaps between the corner infielders and the middle infielders and can make singles more likely. Those coaches prefer to use normal positioning and take their chances.

Those are the basics

Infield positioning can get far more complicated than one article can cover.

For instance:

If Peter Moylan’s sinker is really working and diving down-and-in to a right-handed hitter, the third baseman and shortstop should move toward the left field line because the ball will probably be pulled.

If Moylan’s sinker is so-so that day, the third baseman and shortstop should move toward second base, the ball has a better chance of being hit up the middle.

But even if the subtleties elude us, understanding the basics — understanding what the batter is trying to do and what the defense is doing to prevent that — can make even the most routine ground ball out a thing of beauty.

But to see that beauty, you have to pay attention.

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