First base is often thought of as the position where you hide your worst infield defender.
In a lot of ways, it's similar to how right field is viewed in the outfield, at least for youth baseball.
But this way of viewing the skills of a first baseman couldn't be further from the truth. In fact, first base is a pretty demanding position that requires a lot of top-rate skills.
A first baseman doesn't just have to stand at a bag and catch a ball.
He must make all different types of adjustments very quickly, which requires him to be quick, have great hands, and have good footwork.
A first baseman also has a lot of responsibilities that many people don't think about at first. They’re literally the first line of defense in the infield.
Much like a catcher, if he’s doing his job well, then he’ll go unnoticed most of the time.
But if he makes even a small mistake, it’ll stand out like a sore thumb, because it can result in big negative outcomes.
A first baseman has a lot of responsibilities, and while his main duty is simple (to catch the ball), it's not as easy as it sounds.
First base isn’t a position for everyone, as it takes a lot of physical and mental traits that may not be a fit for all players.
Let's take a look at what some of these traits are, as well as the roles and responsibilities of playing first base and some tips for players who want to be great first basemen.
5 Traits of a Great First Baseman
1. First Basemen Are Big
It's no surprise that most first basemen you see playing in Major League Baseball or other top leagues around the world are bigger.
Being big (tall, especially) helps a first baseman reach more balls that are thrown his way.
A tall player has the ability to reach throws that are sailing high in the air, and also to reach balls that are thrown up or down the first baseline.
While being tall isn't a requirement -- and it's obviously not something any player can work to achieve -- it certainly helps if you're taller.
2. First Basemen Have Great Awareness
A first baseman must cover a lot of ground in a short period of time.
Just think about it...
When there are no runners on base, he’ll likely be positioned deep behind the first base bag and off the foul line.
As soon as a ball is hit, the first baseman must recognize if it's hit on the ground, and whether it's a ball he can make a play on himself, or whether he needs to head to the bag to receive a throw from one of his other infielders.
If it is, then he must sprint to first base and get himself in the best position possible to receive the throw.
In order to do this, a first baseman must be able to recognize exactly where the ball is going almost immediately after contact.
He can't hesitate for a minute, otherwise he may not get to the bag in time, causing the infielder to have to pause in making his throw.
He must be able to find the bag quickly, almost without looking directly at it, and then spin and be ready to accept a throw that’ll be coming at him at a high rate of speed.
3. First Basemen Have Great Footwork
First basemen must also have great footwork.
Once a first baseman makes his way to the bag to catch a throw from another infielder, he’ll often have to make adjustments quickly depending on where the ball is thrown.
Unfortunately, not all throws to first base will come straight at him, shoulder-high.
Some come high. Some come low. Some come to the left. Some come to the right. But all come at a high rate of speed.
This means that a first baseman won’t have a lot of time to make a decision about where he'll need to stretch to catch the ball.
Being able to adjust your body that quickly takes a lot of great footwork.
A first baseman must be able to shuffle his feet to the left and write section of the bag, so that he can stretch to catch an off-line throw while still maintaining contact with the bag.
Sometimes, this will mean leading with his left leg and sometimes with his right.
4. First Basemen Have Great Hands
In order to be able to catch all those throws, a first baseman must have great hands.
It takes excellent hand-eye coordination to be able to quickly recognize where a throw to the bag is going, make the adjustments with your body to get there, and then finally actually catch it successfully in your glove.
A first baseman will often have to dig a ball out of the dirt (or scoop a throw) from one of his infielders.
And unlike the other infielders, he must catch the ball cleanly out of the dirt without any bobble -- otherwise, the runner will most likely be safe at first base.
There’s literally no room for error in this aspect of a first baseman's job.
Other infielders can simply knock a ball down, juggle or bobble it a little and still make up for it with a strong throw to first base.
If the first baseman juggles or bobbles a throw (or just keeps the ball in front of him), that mistake will result in the team not making an out.
5. First Basemen Are Good Hitters
Traditionally, a first baseman is one of the better hitters on the team.
While this certainly isn't a requirement to play the position well in the field, it’s important that your first baseman is an above-average hitter.
That's because most of the time, at least the catcher, shortstop, and maybe even second baseman will not be great at the plate.
This means someone else in the lineup must step up to be the leader of the team from an offensive standpoint.
Since first basemen are traditionally bigger in stature, they're often counted on as the power hitters who bat in the middle of the lineup.
This is another added pressure on a first baseman, as he must be able to separate playing in the field with hitting at the plate when the inning is over.
Roles and Responsibilities
A first baseman has a wide range of roles and responsibilities. Here are a few of them:
1. He Must Catch as Many Throws as He Can
The saying goes that baseball is a game of failure.
After all, some of the best hitters have a batting average around .300. That means that 7 times out of 10, they fail when they get in the batter's box.
Unfortunately, that saying doesn't apply to a first baseman's fielding duties.
He can’t fail most of the time and still be successful.
In fact, he must succeed just about every time in catching all throws that come his way that are reasonably within his reach.
Of course, this doesn't mean that a first baseman can't make any mistakes. Even the greatest players in the world make errors.
But a first baseman needs to limit those errors more so than almost any other position, because his errors result in big negative outcomes.
2. He Must Keep the Ball in Front of Him
This responsibility seems almost in direct contrast with what we said just above.
But you need to remember that not every throw to first base will be within a first baseman's reasonable range.
Sometimes, a throw is just too low, high, wide, left, or right for the first baseman to be able to catch it cleanly with his foot remaining on the bag.
In these instances, a first baseman's responsibility is to move off the bag and do everything he can to just keep the ball in front of him.
In many ways, this responsibility is a lot like a catcher's duty to block pitches that are thrown in the dirt.
By keeping the ball in front of him, the first baseman will be limiting the damage that's done as a result of the errant throw.
Instead of the ball getting behind him and the runners advancing an extra base, it'll only usually result in the runners advancing the one bag, which isn't too bad considering the alternative.
3. He Must Be a Vocal Leader
A first baseman's job is to constantly re-assure his other infielders that they’re doing a good job.
Even when they make an error, he must build them up to keep them motivated and flying high.
Aside from the catcher, the first baseman will also be the position player who interacts with the pitcher the most.
He'll throw the ball back to the pitcher a lot after outs and pick-off attempts.
He'll also talk with the pitcher separately about things he sees and notices, such as if the pitcher is "tipping off" when he's going to attempt a pick-off move.
In this sense, a first baseman will serve as a sort-of second catcher who’s watching the pitcher from a different angle.
4. He Must Help Cut Down Runners
Another main responsibility of a first baseman is to serve as the cut-off man for throws to home from outfielders.
When a runner is on second base, a first baseman must get to the middle of the infield to be the cut-off man for outfielders when a ball is hit on the ground their way.
He'll need to get his distance between home and the outfielder right, then catch the ball and sometimes quickly pivot and throw a strike to home plate to catch a runner trying to score.
This is a critical job for first basemen and one that’s quite different from their other roles and responsibilities.
3 Tips for a First Baseman
Here are some tips for players who want to be a good first baseman:
1. Work on Your Hand-Eye Coordination
If you want to be a great first baseman, you need to work on your hand-eye coordination.
You'll also need to work on catching a ball cleanly with your glove after it bounces on the ground.
The great part is you can work on both of these things by yourself. All you need is a tennis ball and a wall outside.
First, stand relatively close to the wall (about 5 feet back) and throw the ball off the wall with your throwing hand, then catch it with your catching hand.
Don't fire the ball at the wall, as that'll give you no chance. You just want to toss it hard enough that it bounces back to you in a straight line.
Don't use a glove for this exercise.
Next, put on your glove and stand farther back, maybe 10 feet or so.
Then, throw the ball much harder against the wall, in a direction so that it'll bounce on the ground before it gets to you.
Then, work on scooping the ball up with your glove cleanly after it bounces.
2. Work on Your Footwork
To be a good first baseman, you'll need to have quick feet and be able to shift from side to side easily.
You can work on this in a few ways.
First, simply do shuffling exercises to your left and to your right.
Have someone stand in front of you and point to the direction they want you to shuffle in, and then have them switch you to the other direction quickly.
Obviously, you shouldn't know where they'll ask you to go so you can prepare better.
Next, go to a baseball field with a bag, and work on shifting your first around first base.
Start with your back foot in the middle of the bag, and then shuffle to your left (toward the front corner) and to your right (to the back corner).
You want to make sure you get comfortable at different positions on the bag.
3. Hit the Cages
The best way to improve your offensive game is to hit the batting cages.
See as many pitches as you possibly can and get down your timing.
Do this with slower speeds at first, but also challenge yourself with faster speeds once you're comfortable.
It'll be one of your jobs to lead the team offensively, so getting your work in at the plate will be very important, too.
Playing first base should not be seen as a punishment.
First base is a very challenging position to play, and takes a lot of skills that many other positions on the field don't require.
To be a good first baseman, you need good hands, quick feet, and a penchant for being a good offensive player.
It takes a lot of work to master this position, but it's something you can do with practice.