There is little nuance in the names we use for baseball’s positions—they describe, simply and directly, either what you do or where you stand. The pitcher pitches; the right fielder is in right field; the shortstop stretches this characterization by being a 19th century adaptation of the cricket term “long stop,” but whatever. The logic is, on the whole, satisfyingly and explicitly clear, and it gives us a language that is specific and deliberate.

But sometimes the circumstances of the game force us to question the foundations of that language’s specificity. To wit—the first baseman covers first base. And yet:

That is one moment of extreme caring in a late-September affair that was full of not caring. The bottom of the fourth inning in last Wednesday’s Cubs-Pirates game, the outcome of which meant nothing to two teams with futures already decided. It was Anthony Rizzo (first baseman playing in to defend against a bunt) and Ben Zobrist (second baseman covering first base for this one play) and Clint Hurdle (maybe a fierce defendant of the rules, maybe a frustrating pedant, definitely someone who cared very much about this play in this moment).

Rizzo and Zobrist had switched positions, Hurdle told the umpiring crew, and so they would need to change gloves―a first baseman’s mitt, after all, is different from the gloves of other infielders. The umpires agreed; Joe Maddon briefly cared and then cared not so much; Rizzo and Zobrist changed gloves as they were asked; the bunt advanced the runner; the unimportant baseball went on.

Hurdle, to reporters after the game: “It’s in the rulebook.”

Maddon, to reporters after the game: “There’s no actual rule that says you can’t do that. … It’s all semantics.”

Different. Yet both right! Also both wrong! Hurdle is correct in that the Official Baseball Rules specify the size of a first baseman’s mitt compared to that of other fielders’ gloves. Maddon is correct in that the rules say nothing about who a first baseman is or what distinguishes him from a second baseman. Maddon is also correct in that, really, what isn’t all semantics? (This, though, is beside the point.)

The Official Baseball Rules—real name, same subtlety we get in the names of the positions themselves—tells us exactly what a first baseman’s glove must be. But in so doing, they rely on a presumed collective understanding of who and what a first baseman is. There’s no official definition of a first baseman; there’s not even any official requirement that there be a first baseman. There’s only the mandate that “when the ball is put in play at the start of, or during a game, all fielders other than the catcher shall be on fair territory” (Rule 5.02).

“What is a first baseman?” then, is not so much the weird existential question it might seem. For Joe Maddon on Wednesday, the first baseman was the guy who had been written on the lineup card as such, his relative distance from first base notwithstanding. The first baseman is the first baseman because he’s the first baseman, or something along those lines. For Clint Hurdle, the first baseman was the guy covering first base, even if only for one play. And so this can be a question of identity or proximity or semiotics or Anthony Rizzo’s feelings about who and what he is—it’s just not a question with a satisfying answer in the Official Baseball Rules.

These written rules only address positioning to say that there are no rules, but the rulebook itself is built on a shared and unspoken understanding regarding these positions that it does not identify. We are expected to recognize meaning as use here, to understand that the first baseman exists and that he must wear the glove that is explicitly described in Rule 3.05, but we are given no definition of what he is or description of who he might be.

This open-endedness is not a bad thing. But in situations like these—places where the rules demand precision on one count and remain deliberately ambiguous on all others—it is a confusing thing. This is where our shared and unspoken understanding of positions begins to fall apart, because the rulebook demands that we speak something without giving us any guidelines on what to say. Does the position exist as something tied to the fielder himself or as something tied to the specific space on the field? Neither? Both? An umpire’s judgment, a player’s intent, a reflection caught between the fielder and how we perceive him—a matter of perspective, or an absolute state?

This is where we have the shift, where we can begin to conceive of defense as something built on fielders rather than positions. And this is also where we have pushback on the shift as something that might be legislated against, as a compromise of some supposedly implicit moral component of defensive positioning.

It is not so much a gray area as it is a blank space. This is where we might imagine some future version of baseball as more or less position-less, where we can peel back the century of convention that weighs on the names of these positions and question what gives them their meaning in the first place. It’s a weird intersection of rules written and unwritten, pressing us to decide which one is laid atop the other.

It’s all semantics, basically. But maybe it doesn’t have to be.

Thank you for reading

This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.

Subscribe now
You need to be logged in to comment. Login or Subscribe
Players change position in the NL all the time. Outfield to first base (or the opposite) for example, as part of a double-switch or a pinch hitter of the correct handedness. So it cannot be that what is written in the lineup card initially for the player must be eternal. It seems to me that if Rizzo could become a second baseman if a substitute came in for Ben Zobrist (say an injury) then there should be no reason they could not switch. Perhaps it dawned on Hurdle that it was not a great objection, but of course, he could not say that.
Actually the rule re position switches and gloves/mitts is there specifically to keep lefty position players and mitts at first base. The last lefty position player to play 2B in the field was George Crowe in 1958. They were expecting a bunt and the 2B (Johnny Temple) was faster. So they switched Temple to first and Crowe to second. Temple charged the bunt (which was a popup and caught) and doubled the runner throwing to Crowe who covered first base. It was challenged - and the challenge was overruled on the field. But the umpires got the NL Prez to clarify the rule that night - and it was deemed that what 1B and C wear is defined as a 'mitt' not a 'glove' and other infielders can only wear 'gloves' not 'mitts'. So 1B can't position switch mid-inning without also switching from mitt to glove.

Personally I'd love to see more of these types of position switches. It is true that righty 2B/SS/3B have a general fielding advantage - but that also means that, in some circumstances, it is the lefty at one of those positions who would have the fielding advantage. That circumstance may only last for one batter/baserunner/gamestate configuration. But it would be fun to see a lefty play some other infield position more often than once every 60 years.
But since there's no rule where he stands, anyone can use any glove or mitt, except the catcher, right? Crowe or Zobrist didn't become a firstbaseman, he just stood near first. Otherwise just shifting could change positions.
No. 2B/SS/3B/OF can stand anywhere or everywhere because they wear 'gloves' as defined in rule 1.14. C mitts are defined in 1.12. 1B mitts (as interpreted in 1958 - cuz the writing says 1b gloves or mitts) are defined in rule 1.13. P glove is specd in rule 1.15

Because 2B/SS/3B/OF can stand anywhere or cover any bag, they merely 'shift' position and nothing is recorded in official scores. P/C field positions are defined by the rules. 1B position isn't defined by rules but it can't go anywhere else. It can't 'shift' to a different place on the field. It must be a formal 'switch' to a different position (which means someone else needs to switch to 1B).

I suppose, in theory, a lineup could be submitted that doesn't HAVE a 1B listed and in that case all the fielders could just shift. But if a manager ever does that, they will probably get spanked by MLB.
Itsy-bitsy clarifying thing if anyone is trying to look these up: they changed the numbering system with the 2016 edition of the rules, so 1.14 is now 3.06, 1.12 is now 3.04, 1.13 is now 3.05, and 1.15 is now 3.07. There's a reference table starting on page 170 of the current edition that matches the old numbers to the new (which is probably way more than anyone ever wanted / needed to know about the organization of MLB's official rules, but there you go.)
But technically the 1B can stand anywhere he wants... he just has to do so wearing a mitt. At least that's how I read it.
Well the rule has only been interpreted twice since 1B 'mitts' started (in the 1930's) looking a bit different than other 'gloves' (fingerless, an extra half-inch or so all-around to force a caught ball deep into the glove so it can't come out). Both times it was a lefty 1B who was challenged (once with post-facto rule interpretation to uphold challenge, once with successful field challenge) for positioning themselves further from 1B than some other fielder.

There may be instances where a RH 1B has shifted away from the bag - but a glove/mitt switch is easy when both players are RH - and it would be pointless to move lower-value fielder to higher-value field position ceteris parabis. So the only de facto impact of the rule is to keep lefties AT first base (glove switch ain't easy when it forces both players to switch throwing hand too) and mitts AT first base.

Its silly too since a fingerless 1B mitt used for fielding grounders and then quickly taking ball out of glove to make the throw for an out at some other place is a BIG disadvantage for the fielder. 1B mitt is not a 'better fielding' glove. It is a one-purpose glove - to catch thrown balls and keep them caught.
The official scorer also recorded this as a position switch for Rizzo and Zobrist, which may be the first time I've seen a shift show up in a box score. (It also gave the world a left-handed "second baseman" for one out, which is surely the first time that's happened in many, many years.)
I love that Hurdle and the Pirates had thought enough about the possibility to request that the opposing players be forced to switch gloves.
just taking a dig at our rivals.
Why not just let Rizzo hold the bag and have Zobrist play in?
Probably because if Zobrist is playing in (or charging in), then he crosses/impedes the pitcher's throw/feint to first to keep a runner on/near the bag.