While I was covering the Altoona Curve in September, I heard something that I never thought about in the past. What does an infielder watch when a pitch is thrown?
Obviously, the infielder is focused on the batter at the plate, like everyone else. But how does an infielder stay focused and ready to react to the ball off the bat when he doesn’t know where the ball will end up, or whether the hitter will swing and make contact?
While talking to first baseman Mason Martin, the topic was brought up about having a soft focus, followed by a narrow focus.
That specific description was something I hadn’t heard before. Fortunately, Altoona’s bench coach is Gary Green, and there’s no better person to talk with regarding infield fundamentals.
Green, a former MLB player with San Diego, Texas, and Cincinnati, has been with the Pirates since 2006, serving all types of roles, including being a minor league manager, an infield coordinator, and his current role as the bench coach in Altoona.
Altoona had a talented infield for Green to work with this year. Aside from Martin at first base, Altoona featured top prospects Oneil Cruz, Rodolfo Castro, and Ji-Hwan Bae.
“They’re talented,” Green said of the group, while discussing the topic of infield focus. “It’s a matter of showing up every single day mentally. That’s the toughest thing in the game, showing up mentally every day. Some nights you might play 80 pitches, some nights you might be responsible for 200 pitches, based on the pitcher that night. It’s hard when you’re playing 35 pitches an inning to show up mentally every pitch. That’s a hard thing to do.”
In the past, the Pirates had a chart at Pirate City, showing what MLB hitters saw from a pitcher compared to what minor league hitters saw. The MLB players focused on the pitcher’s head, until the ball came into view, at which point they shifted their focus to the ball. Minor leaguers were all over the map, both before the ball appeared, and after the release point was established.
The conclusions suggest that MLB hitters do a better job of focusing and training their eyes on a specific spot.
The same skill is needed in the infield.
“In hitting, you’re looking at the whole pitcher, then all of a sudden you transfer your eyes to the release point,” Green confirmed. “So, it’s a soft focus turned into a narrow focus. Same thing with playing defense. You get yourself ready based on what the pitcher is doing, with his rhythm and timing, and match him, and then you go from all of that and shrink your eyes down to the strike zone where the bat is going to come through the zone, to be able to see the ball off the bat as quick as possible. So, a soft focus to a small focus.”
The soft focus is a focus on the plate area. This much is obvious when we see infielders staring toward the plate when a pitch is thrown. From there, the small, narrowed focus shifts to the spot where the bat travels through the zone.
As Green mentioned, the infielder has to match the timing of the pitcher. And this process can happen up to 200 times a game on a bad night for the pitchers. You can see how it would be easy for a fielder to lose focus on an individual play. And if that play comes to them, you can see how that would lead to an error.
Just like the comparison between MLB and minor league hitters, what makes a good fielder is the ability to maintain consistent focus throughout the game, every single game.
Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.