I recall the days when I was in Little League and the coach would look around thinking to himself – who here can catch the ball? And I don’t know what the rules are now, but back then the runner couldn’t advance on a passed ball so it didn’t matter if the catcher could catch or not. Inevitably, when he decided he would say, “Okay, you’re playing first”.
But first base is a complex position that requires a diverse skill set, especially at the major league level. Compounding the problem though is that most teams require a “big bat” at first so you end up needing a multi- skilled player in that position……….a run producer and a competent fielder.
Even at the major league level today, managers often call on a utility infielder to fill in for an inning or two when the need arises. Joe Girardi experimented with the idea that an aging Alex Rodriguez could play first to get additional at bats when another player needed to be rested in the DH slot. That didn’t last long…….
So let’s take a minute to look at the myriad of reasons why first base is a underrated position…….
To begin with, the most important skill needed is footwork. On a high throw from an infielder, you need to step back crossing the bag while avoiding the oncoming runner. You also need to learn how to execute “the stretch “ left or right depending on where the ball is being thrown……..while keeping contact with the base.
Typically, you want your first baseman to be left handed. Although again, if you have a right hander who hits 30 home runs and drives in 120 (Mark Texeria for instance), you’ll live with it. This is because a lefty fielding bunts can easily sneak a peek at the runner moving to second while fielding the bunt deciding in a split second if he should go there or to first to record an out.
Whereas, a righty needs to pivot in order to see the runner taking that split second that can result in everyone being safe. Here’s Keith Hernandez talking about teaching Daniel Murphy (then with the Mets) about playing first base – “It’s not an easy position,” said Hernandez, an 11-time Gold Glove first baseman. “Outside of the pitcher and catcher, first base gets the most action in a nine-inning game. You can lose a lot of ball games out there if you have a bad first baseman.”. Murphy, by the way, was another of those “Anybody can play first” experiments that didn’t go too well.
Your first baseman is also your primary cut off guy on balls hit to right field with a runner coming in to score. Again, it’s a split second judgement call……..let it go through if all the stars are aligned just right…..or cut it off nailing a runner trying to advance behind the throw……..
Part of your repertoire is also holding runners on your base while still protecting your ability to catch balls hit your way and field pick off throws from the pitcher. It’s a juggling act that few can perform well.
Add to all that, you also have the job of scooping errant throws from your infielders out of the dirt to record an out, or at least blocking them to insure that runners don’t advance….
Finally, a first baseman must master the field and toss to the pitcher covering the bag on a ball hit wide of first. This play is almost as intricate as the exchange at second on a double play. Timing is everything and you must “show” the ball to the pitcher and toss it firmly but not hard to him shoulder high so he can see and catch the ball while looking to touch the inner part of the bag.
When the good ones do it, it all looks easy. Think again though – and managers should too the next time they ask a player to “cover us today and just catch everything that comes your way”. As Gold Glover Keith Hernandez reminds us,…..”It’s not as easy as it looks”……..