Baseball is a complicated sport, especially on defence.
Each position poses its own nuances, challenges, and rewards for executing a play. For a right fielder, a one-hop gun to throw out a runner at third base might be the most enthralling play. At first base, a difficult pick or a quick pivot and throw for a 3-6-3 double play might get the blood pumping.
Shortstop, however, is more complex and a very difficult position to master, particularly for young players. The Toronto Blue Jays currently have Bo Bichette, one of the game’s brightest stars, manning that position. After over 2,100 big-league innings in the field, it’s clear he’s still working out the kinks.
Bichette’s -16 outs above average (OAA) since 2019 rank fourth-worst among qualified MLB shortstops, which isn’t to say he can’t play the position; it just means he needs more time.
“Usually, [shortstops] struggle a little bit at the beginning. Unless you're Omar Vizquel,” said Blue Jays infield coach Luis Rivera, referencing the 11-time Gold Glove-winning infielder.
The deeper metrics might not reflect it, but Bichette is improving defensively. Instead of letting mistakes consume him, the 24-year-old is determined to better himself between the lines, and that process starts with his voracious work ethic.
“He came with the attitude that last year, it was a tough year,” Rivera said of Bichette. “But this year he was gonna improve. And from day one, spring training, he was working at 6:30, 7 o’clock in the morning, taking ground balls, doing drills. And this is a kid that has a great will, and that's going to make him a lot better.”
Bichette’s improved time management skills at shortstop this season are a product of that hard work, Rivera said.
“That's a big step when you learn how to play defence knowing that you’ve got more time than you think,” said Rivera. “If you don't have a clock, you’re just gonna go for the ball without seeing the hops. [So] just watching the hops, reading the hops, knowing when to attack the ball, when not to, that's the thing that he's working on.”
In years past, Bichette tended to rush himself, resulting in occasionally shaky glove work or the odd errant throw. With a more polished internal clock, he’s removed a degree of panic from his approach to any given ground ball.
Still, it’s been a choppy season for Bichette, who’s tied for fourth in MLB with six errors. According to Statcast, he’s had the hardest time this season charging in on balls (-4 OAA) and moving to his right (-2 OAA). Right now, he’s working on counteracting that by leveling his throws across the diamond.
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“Consistency with my arm strength helps,” Bichette said. “[It] allows me to understand I have more time on my backhand than I originally had.”
If playing shortstop wasn’t already hard enough, the Blue Jays have added another wrinkle to the game by shifting their defence 65.3 per cent of the time, per Statcast — more than any other club in baseball — meaning Bichette doesn’t stay set in one spot all game.
Within a single game, Bichette will do stints at his traditional shortstop spot, then move up the middle or even to the right-field fringe, which forces him to take balls and make throws from awkward locations.
“This is part of our job at this point,” Bichette said. “So we’ve got to make sure that we're shifting our focus around the infield and the different spots we're gonna be in. But, yeah, I think it would be more beneficial for players to spend their time in one spot, just try to continue to get better at that spot, but the game is how it is.”
In a shifted defence, communication becomes more important since guys are starting in unnatural spots and switching places between pitches. That part, though, is easy for Toronto’s excitable infield crew.
“[Matt] Chapman’s the guy who talks a lot, makes a lot of fun of us,” Blue Jays second baseman Santiago Espinal said. “It's a great group of guys that we have in the infield. Especially with Vladdy [Guerrero Jr.], too, who can’t stay quiet, always talking. So it’s exciting to be playing there.”
According to Espinal — Toronto’s strongest defender at 5 OAA — nothing is more important than keeping “mentally strong” while playing shortstop for a full season. For Bichette, that means staying zoned in on his own craft and not bothering with how he compares to other players’ defensive stats.
“I’m focused on myself and getting better,” Bichette said. “I’ll learn as much as I can from [my teammates], but I don’t feel any pressure to play up to anybody’s standards.”
Overall, the Blue Jays’ 3 OAA shows the club is on a better defensive pace than last season. Per that metric, Toronto boasts the 10th best defence in the league — up from 19th in 2021 — and if Bichette continues to develop, the Jays could climb even higher.
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