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Baseball 101: Learn the game over the offseason

While we wait through the lockout, why not revisit the basics.

Baltimore Orioles v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images

Welcome to a brand new series here on DRaysBay, where we’ll be spending the offseason and lockout making the most of our time. We thought a great way to do that would be a new weekly series that will aim to teach baseball fans new and old about this game those of us here love so much.

For a seasoned baseball fan, the first few weeks of this series will be nothing new to you, but if there’s someone in your life who has been keen to share your passion, or wants to know more about the sport from the most basic beginner level, then send them this link.

Baseball can be a complicated sport to get into, and often die-hard fans can become frustrated while explaining the finer details to someone new, because the depth of knowledge can be very dense, and we’ve been watching these games for years.

With that in mind, these first three weeks are a very, very basic beginner’s guide to baseball.

This week, we’ll be talking about the different positions in the game as well as how batting orders are constructed; next week, we’ll be going over some very basic batting statistics like hits, walks, and what the differences between at-bats and plate appearances are; and in week three we’ll do something similar for basic pitching stats.

For many of you reading you may be saying “that’s all the easy stuff!” and for us it is, but for new fans none of this is a given, and we want to give everyone a chance to know the foundations of the game before we break out the big guns.

After week three we’ll start discussing statistics, from BA to SIERA; as well as important dates on the baseball calendar, and what various popular turns of phrase mean, because how can someone truly be a baseball fan unless they understand all of the food phrases involved?

Also, at the end of every new post, there will be a video from my YouTube channel helping explain these in case anyone wants to watch that instead of reading.

So without further ado, let’s get into the first Baseball 101 post of the offseason.

Player Positions

Every team must field nine players when they take the field, and must have nine players represented in their batting order. These are the nine (actually ten) positions we see in baseball.

Pitcher - The pitcher is responsible for throwing to the opposing team's batters, and his primary objective is to get the batter out, either by strikes (three strikes ends an at-bat, or four balls will send a player to first base) or by inducing a hit that will be caught by one of his teammates (these are called groundouts, flyouts, etc, depending where they are caught). There are two types of pitchers in baseball: starting pitchers (SP) who typically start the game and pitch most of the innings; and relief pitchers (RP) who come in when the starting pitcher has either thrown too many pitches, or is showing signs of strain. In the National League, pitchers will also bat. On a scorecard, the pitcher position is represented by the number 1.

Catcher - The catcher is situated behind home plate, in front of the umpire. It is his responsibility to catch each pitch the pitcher throws, but more importantly he “calls” the game, which means he suggests which pitches should be thrown depending on the batter, and will also communicate directly with the pitcher if things start to go poorly. The catcher must be aware of which pitches each pitcher on the team uses and how they can best be utilized against opposing batters. He is also responsible for trying to throw out any runners attempting to steal from first to second base. On a scorecard, the catcher position is represented by the number 2.

First Base (1B) - The first baseman plays a vital defensive role. He’s responsible for getting a runner out a first when a play will allow for it, which can lead to some very acrobatic plays. The first baseman must be quick with the glove, accurate to make catches, and most importantly must be able to keep his foot on the bag when making those catches. The first baseman is very frequently involved in double plays. On a scorecard, the first base position is represented by the number 3.

Second Base (2B) - The second baseman, along with the shortstop, are routinely covering the area around second base to block groundballs and also induce double plays (a play in which a runner is tagged out at both second base and first base, usually). The second baseman must also be aware of what’s going on at first base, because if a runner on first tries to steal second, the catcher will throw to second, and if the second baseman doesn’t catch it, that runner can advance to third. On a scorecard, the second base position is represented by the number 4.

Third Base (3B) - The third baseman is the last line of infield defense to stop a baserunner from scoring. The third baseman need to be quick on his feet to block groundballs to left field or near the foul line, because he will very frequently be the only player on that side of the infield. On a scorecard, the third base position is represented by the number 5.

Shortstop (SS) - The shortstop patrols the area midway between third base all the way over to second base depending on the defensive layout of players (we’ll discuss “The Shift” in later articles. The shortstop is among the best defensive players on the team and needs to be able to catch balls that others miss and is usually the player who will initiate the beginning of a double play. On a scorecard, the shortstop position is represented by the number 6. (if you hear someone call a 6-4-3 double play, this means it was thrown from the shortstop to the second baseman to the first baseman.)

Left Field (LF) - The left fielder is responsible for patrolling the area around left field, catching any balls that are pop-ups or close-call near home runs. The left fielder, like all outfielders, needs to cover a lot of distance in a game, so they are typically some of the faster runners. On a scorecard, the left field position is represented by the number 7.

Center Field (CF) - The centerfielder is typically the best defensive player in the outfield, having to cover a substantial amount of space, and is quite frequently the more accurate and athletic of the three outfielders simply because of the rigorous demands of playing that depth of filed and amount of ground. On a scorecard, the center field position is represented by the number 8.

Right Field (RF) - The right fielder plays a very similar role to the left fielder. On a scorecard, the right field position is represented by the number 9.

Designated Hitter (DH) - The designated hitter is a position that only exists (presently) for American League teams. The DH takes the place of the pitcher in the batting order for AL teams. Typically this is a strong power hitter who is perhaps a bit older and less reliable in a field role, but is a very good hitter. Or plays in a position player where the team has plenty of depth (ie: many players who can cover first base), but is a strong hitter. In the National League, since this role does not exist, the pitcher always hits in one of the nine batting order positions. If an American League team plays at a National League park, the pitcher will hit. If a National League team plays at an American League park, they will select a player to act as their DH.

The positions on the field look like this:

Construction of Batting Lineup

This part is a little trickier because managers can have different approaches to building their line from game to game. A Batting Lineup is the order in which batters will hit during the game, and this must be established before the game begins. Lineup cards are presented to the home plate umpire, and the lineup cannot be changed when set. Managers can swap out players from their lineup, but those players are then replaced by bench players who were not on the original lineup card. Once a player is removed from the lineup they are no longer able to play in the game.

Typically there are a few basic rules of thumb in constructing a lineup, but the most important one is this: you want your best batters to hit earliest in the lineup.

Batters 1 and 2: Your leadoff batter will usually be someone who gets on base readily, either by being a strong hitter or able to take walks. The idea being that if you can get your first hitter on base right away you have a better shot at scoring a run with him thanks to another batter. Similarly, your number 2 batter will be a strong hitter with good on-base numbers, and usually, these two hitters will be very fast on the base paths.

Batters 3, 4, and 5: These will not be your fastest runners but they will usually be your best hitters. Considered the “heart of the order” these will be the batters you’re relying on to bring any baserunners home. Your number 3 batter is typically one of the best hitters on the team, while number 4 is called the “clean up hitter” meaning his job is to clear the bases of anyone who happens to be on them. Number 5 will usually be a good hitter as well, though 3 and 4 are typically the team’s best.

Batters 6 and 7: These are usually decent quality hitters with good on-base numbers so that as we’re getting through the order in subsequent innings the team still has a good opportunity to place baserunners.

Batter 8 and 9: The “bottom of the order” these are usually players whose strengths are in their defense rather than in their bat. In the bottom of the order you’ll usually find your catcher, your pitcher (if it’s a National League park), and sometimes your shortstop, as these are the players who frequently bring more to the table in a defensive rather than an offensive role.

Again, this is just a generalization, as managers will change their orders depending on whether the other team’s starting pitcher is left-handed or right-handed, or if they’re known for a particular type of pitch that certain hitters are better against. But the above is a very high-level look at how most batting orders are constructed.

If video is more your speed, here’s a quick breakdown of all the information from above.

Hope this first post was a good introduction for some new fans and a refresher for others, and don’t worry, they get more involved from here. I just know that if I was trying to learn football, for example, I would need to know the positions first and foremost. So while it might seem like obvious information for seasoned fans, I promise this was helpful to someone brand new to the game.