By Eric Johnson
In college baseball, center fielders have a specific set of skills. They are in a position that always requires excellent defensive ability, and usually requires some offensive output. It’s rare that a team will play a center fielder who can’t hit. If you want to play center at the next level, you’ll need to work on becoming a well-rounded player.
Defensive skills are absolutely essential for anyone who wants to play center field. Coaches will not play anyone out in center that they can’t trust to be the captain of their outfield defense. A center fielder has to be able to cover a lot of ground. Sometimes coaches will play a couple of big, slow guys in the corner outfield spots because they can hit. In that case, a center fielder has to be able to make up for the range that is lost by covering a ton of ground into the gaps. There are two aspects that make-up a player’s range, speed and the ability to get a good first step on a ball. First, center fielders are usually among the fastest guys on the team. That being said, plus speed isn’t always necessary for a center fielder. You can lack some speed when you possess the second aspect of range: a good first step. “First step” refers to the ability to quickly recognize the direction the ball has been hit, and is executed just like a sprinter exploding off the starting line. Watch big league center fielders to see how they get their first steps. If a center fielder has a great first step, he can get reads on balls that will help him cover a lot of ground in the outfield. Range is the biggest defensive asset for this position. Having a strong arm is great, but isn’t necessary. Covering ground is a must.
Offensively, center fielders are expected to produce with the bat. It’s not a position where a coach will hide a guy who can’t hit. That being said, center fielders don’t have to be the big boppers in the lineup. Often, center fielders project as 1-2 hitters, or bottom of the order guys. It’s rare that a center fielder will be a 3-5 hitter in college, but if he is, then it’s a good indication that he’s a stud. Good situational hitting is expected from center fielders. Whether his game revolves around speed or not, a center fielder has to focus on having productive ABs. This productivity could come from advancing a runner or making solid contact or working a walk. Some big, middle of the order guys can walk up to the plate just looking to mash. That’s not going to be a center fielder. Center fielders have to be productive hitters and stick to their strengths.
Overall, center fielders at the collegiate level have to be well-rounded players who can cover ground in the outfield and have tough, productive at-bats for their teams. Center fielders are looked at as the centerpiece of a team’s defense and are the captains of the outfield. Playing center field means being a balanced player with leadership skills, decent speed, plus defense, and solid situational hitting. If center field is your goal, work on improving all aspects of your game so that you can help your college team as much as possible.