Defense is the hardest of skills to scout, because it is the last to develop and the most volatile. A center fielder might be a corner outfielder by the time he makes it to the majors; a third baseman might profile better at first. A shortstop is almost never an MLB-level shortstop, and a catcher is rarely an MLB-level catcher. Sometimes a position player becomes a pitcher, such as is the case with the Cardinals’ Jack Flaherty. Yet there are defensive hallmarks to look for at each position, to try to project if a player can sustain that position as he begins his ascent through pro ball. Here are a few things to look for, listed in ascending order of positional challenge (using Bill James’ defensive spectrum).
First base is where you stick sluggers who don’t have great defensive chops. Someone who’s regularly playing first in the minors had better be able to hit, and how. You still want an athlete there, who appears to have some range and ability to pick the ball, but first base is really the Candyland of positions.
With all bat-first outfielders, you want to be watching for good ball awareness, crisp route running/ball tracking ability, and strong throws to the infield. Accuracy in throws is the most desirable quality, with accurate line-drive throws being more valued than a high, arcing rainbow—but being able to deliver the ball to the target is the most important quality. Speed also plays a role here, although it’s less important than for a center fielder. Traditionally, a worse defensive player will be assigned to left field, and a better one to right field. Right fielders have the challenge of making good throws to third more often than left fielders are called upon to make good throws to first; therefore, a stronger arm is more desirable in right. A corner outfielder is depended on for his bat more than his defensive ability, so a strong-hitting corner outfield prospect who also shows flashes of defensive brilliance is a solid bet.
There is a huge gap between the 1B/corner outfield spots and the defensive demands of the hot corner. A third baseman doesn’t have to have the same range of a middle infielder, but he has to have a very strong, accurate arm. A projectable third baseman should also have good side-to-side quickness, so a particularly large and lumbering 3B has obviously played his way into the position with a big bat, which may or may not play as he advances through levels.
The center fielder is the shortstop of the outfield. Someone who will stick at the CF position in the majors should have a certified cannon for an arm, be incredibly fleet of foot, and show leadership ability in the outfield, directing his corner outfielders where appropriate. A strong bat is a plus, but a top player’s speed will usually translate in base-stealing and general on-base disruption.
As third base and center field represent a step up from the tier of first basemen and corner infielders, so too does second base signal another tier shift. Second base is the first level at which a player’s defensive ability is valued significantly more than their offensive ability. A second baseman must show great range, lateral agility, an accurate arm—although arm strength is not quite as important as with third base—and excellent speed.
Shortstop is the AP version of second base. Everything a second baseman can do, the shortstop must do better. They have to be faster, have even more range, a stronger arm, and maintain accuracy while making agile plays. It is understandable, then, that strong defensive shortstops are allowed to be lesser contributors at the plate. Be suspicious of anyone who is listed as a shortstop in college or the low minors; as a premium defensive position, it’s very hard to get them to stick at the MLB level. You’ll hear talk about prospects being a “true” shortstop, meaning they maybe, probably, hopefully have the chops to make it at the MLB level, which usually also means they can’t hit a lick. If I was a shortstop prospect, I would spend a lot of negative karmic energy thinking bad thoughts about Xander Bogaerts.
Fun fact: when I played Charlie Brown baseball in third grade, I was a catcher. I got whacked in the head a lot by errant bats (I was awful. They only kept me around because, as a left-handed batter, I got hit by pitches every at-bat, so free baserunner), and I hated every second of it. Here’s what I learned about being a catcher at the MLB level, researching this piece: OH MY GOD CATCHER IS HARD. It is soooooo hard. Here’s what a catcher has to do:
- Help pitchers sequence pitches and call for particular pitches;
- Frame pitches so they look like strikes;
- Manage a pitcher’s comfort (what a pitcher wants to throw) against what the game demands (what a pitcher needs to throw);
- Manage the game tempo, keeping things moving quickly if a pitcher is experiencing success or slowing the game down when a pitcher is struggling;
- Monitor a pitcher’s motion to keep them healthy and focused, look for signs of fatigue, and intervene if a pitcher is starting to lose his mechanics;
- Block balls in the dirt;
- Distract a batter who is too locked in;
- Make nice with the umpire to get more favorable calls;
- Help hold runners on-base; throw out any potential base-stealers;
- Catch pop-ups.
And this is before they have to go out and hit. Jeezy Pete. Most catching prospects won’t be able to hit a lick, and that’s okay. Watch for their leadership ability in managing pitchers, strong arms on pick-off plays, and ability to keep the ball in front of them.
Overall, defensive scouting at the amateur or low minors levels is an exercise in frustration, as it can be wildly fungible. Look for strong, accurate throws, speedy feet and easy lateral motion as earmarks of general athleticism rather than shackling players to positions at the lowest levels. And be really nice to the catchers.