What's the Hardest Defensive Position in Baseball? Hint: It's Shortstop

Bleacher ReportSenior Writer INovember 27, 2008

OK, so the title may be a little misleading. I'm sure a lot of you saw it and came rushing on here to see how I can put shortstop above catcher. Others did so to destroy me for merely making the suggestion. And you would have been right, I would have to be insane if that were my intent.

Obviously, catcher is more difficult, far more difficult.

Nothing saps your strength, produces more sustainable injuries, and/or shortens a player's career like donning the tools of ignorance. No defensive position requires more concentration and wears a player down mentally like the backstop.

There are two possible outcomes to every pitch: a take or an offer. The former involves the catcher every time. On an offer, there are two outcomes: a miss or contact. The former involves the catcher every time. If the batter makes contact, the catcher may or may not be directly involved depending on the quality of contact.

That's a lot of physical and mental responsibility.

But it's of a different kind. Like taking the mound, it's a wear and tear that you see coming. Both pitcher and catcher KNOW when they will be involved. Most times, they know how and to what extent. Even more importantly, they know any error will be quickly erased via their involvement in the next play, and the next, and the next.

Massaging a pitcher through the strikeout of a dangerous hitter might not seem to make up for a throwing error that turns a steal of second into a runner on third. You'd be surprised how quickly action—even trivial action—makes you forget.

The other guys on the field don't have that luxury.

Not only do they have to prepare for every pitch as if it might come to them, knowing all the while that the odds are against it unless one of the very best control pitchers is on the mound. They have to execute in a vacuum of opportunity, where each error could be the last chance they see for the day. Where mistakes usually cost outs rather than extra bases.

It is unpleasant. A different kind of stress—both physical and psychological—that deserves a separate comparison.

Plus, the question isn't interesting if you include the catching position.

So, having removed it (and pitcher since that position isn't difficult because of defense), we can toss out all the outfield positions. Center is obviously the most demanding and could arguably be more difficult than second base, but it's still not in the discussion.

The pure and simple fact is, all other things being equal, catching a baseball in flight is easier than cleanly fielding one that is hit on the ground. There is no debate.

It comes down to SS and the bases.

First and second are a notch below third and short.

They are on the right side of the infield, which is most batters' opposite field. That means they see fewer chances and, usually, easier ones. They see more jam shots or poor attempts to go the opposite way.

That's not to suggest either is easy. Nothing at the major-league level is easy.

They see their fair share of screamers pulled off the bat of lefties or driven the other way with authority by righties. This is "the Show" after all, where a lot of hitters can go to right well and lefties are more common. Not only that, both have sophisticated responsibilities for their bags.

But they are still easier than their counterparts on the left side of the diamond.

I'd argue first is harder than second just because of handling short-hops and other wayward throws. But that also weighs in second's favor as the more difficult since first typically gets to see more action. And turning a double play, even from second, is no picnic.

Luckily for me, that's not the question.

The question is whether shortstop is more difficult than third.

Both see a good amount of action. Both see grass-cutters on a regular basis. Both are expected to cover a serious amount of ground to be elite. Both have complicated rotational duties on specialty plays. Both must have cannons hanging from the right shoulder. Both must have velvety hands and nimble footwork.

It comes down to a matter of degree.

The shortstop sees a little more action. Third probably sees a higher number of vicious "chances" and the most dangerous ones. But short must cover more ground, rotate to cover both second and third routinely, have a better arm, have better hands, and have better feet. The difference is not extreme in any instance, but there is a difference.

And it can be seen, not in the best players at the positions, but in the average ones.

Your average shortstop could move to third. Your average third-sacker could certainly NOT move to short. They would either be too slow or to awkward or too, uh, mentally limited.

That is why most pro infielders (with the exception of the huge first basemen) were shortstops at some point in their careers. They started off as the best athlete and were put at SS. At a certain level, their defense became average for the spot, so they were moved to another position.

Check it out, even some catchers and pitchers used to be shortstops.

Undoubtedly, this column will anger some of the fantasy-geeks and/or sabermetricians. It doesn't use any of the new Star-Trek-sounding stats that are so in vogue amongst those communities. It doesn't use stats of any kind. And it's not because I dismiss those things.

They serve their purpose, and the defensive ones are getting better.

But they still have a ways to go before they can approximate value and proficiency as well as the offensive versions. And even the offensive versions can be juked and/or fail to capture some intangible aspect of a hitter's value. So I stick with experience playing and watching the game.

I stick with what I see at the highest level combined with what I know from the lower levels.

And I'll stand behind that.