The novel begins on a deserted baseball field near Peoria, Ill. A catcher resting his tired back watches a young, scrawny kid field grounder after grounder at shortstop. His strong arm finds the target each time. He moves as though he knows where the ball will go before it leaves the bat. The catcher, awestruck, eventually approaches the young shortstop to convince him to join his college team.
This is the opening scene of Chad Harbach's 2011 book, "The Art of Fielding," in which the fictional shortstop, Henry Skrimshander, leads the Westish College Harpooners to the best season in school history. He works his way into consideration as a first-round draft pick. Scouts attend his games, call him to discuss signing bonuses, warn him about his agent.
Skrimshander, with help from that catcher, turns himself into a good hitter. He turns himself into a leader. But he becomes such a valuable prospect because of the one ability he had to begin with: Henry Skrimshander could play shortstop.
That concern -- can he stick at shortstop? -- follows thousands of amateur players. Scouting directors and area supervisors across the country are considering that very question in advance of the Major League Baseball amateur draft, which begins Thursday.
The position requires a unique blend of size, speed, arm strength, good hands and quick feet. Shortstops also must process information quickly enough to make use of those physical tools. They relay signs, serve as an alternate pitching coach and never, not once, can they take a play off.
"Everybody talks about the catcher being the quarterback, or that link," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "If he's the quarterback, then the shortstop should be the guy with the headset calling the plays."
"To reach a ball he has never reached before, to extend himself to the very limits of his range, and then a step further; this is the shortstop's dream."
Those are the words of Aparicio Rodriguez, a fictional major league shortstop whom Skrimshander adores and who is based on a combination of Luis Aparicio and Ozzie Smith. The real Aparicio played 18 seasons at shortstop and made the Hall of Fame in 1984. Smith made 15 All-Star teams. They both stuck at shortstop.
The fictional Rodriguez is the author of the book within the book, "The Art of Fielding," a manual on the shortstop position. Skrimshander learned by reading. Some learn by watching.
As a kid, Gary Green watched Dave Concepcion, a Cincinnati Reds shortstop for 19 years in the 1970s and '80s. Green liked how aggressive Concepcion played and how he used one hand rather than two.
"I think basically why he did it was to pick out the hops that he liked," Green said.
Green played four years of baseball at Oklahoma State and started at shortstop for Team USA in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. The San Diego Padres drafted him as a shortstop that year. Green, now the Pirates' infield coordinator, said the best shortstops succeed because they read balls well off the bat and field the ball in rhythm. They position themselves so as to "create" the hop they want instead of letting the ball dictate their movement.
"What happens with a lot of younger players is they generally stop their feet on routine ground balls," Green said.
"Now they have to play the hop. Sometimes you get bad hops. Guys that read hops generally have better flow through the play."
To create a favorable hop, a shortstop needs an idea of where the ball is going, sometimes before it is hit, and a quick enough start to get him there.
"I'm not the fastest guy on this team by any means," said Clint Barmes, who has played shortstop in the major leagues for parts of 11 seasons. "I always believed that I felt like I had a pretty good first step and kind of anticipate the pitch, and the type of hitter that's at the plate and the pitcher that's on the mound."
Barmes and Hurdle agreed that shortstops, like catchers, need to separate -- to forget their performance at the plate while on defense.
"Obviously my glove is what's kept me around and kept me at this level," Barmes said. "One thing that's allowed me to stick has been knowing that when I go out there at my position, it's key that I'm ready for every pitch."
In addition to fielding hard-hit balls on an uneven playing surface, shortstops relay signs to the second and third basemen, relay throws from the outfield, turn double plays and cover second on steal attempts. They have no time to replay the strikeout in their previous at-bat.
"You're the captain of the infield," Milwaukee Brewers shortstop Jean Segura said. "You need to be alert to everything."
"To field a groundball must be considered a generous act and an act of comprehension. One moves not against the ball but with it." -- Rodriguez
Before a player can create hops and read grounders off the bat, he needs the basic physical tools that convince a high school coach to run him out between second and third base in the first place. Amateur shortstops often play there because they are the best athletes on the field. As they grow, though, their size can become a liability.
"Bigger players tend to have longer actions," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. "That's where a guy outgrows the position."
San Francisco Giants catcher and 2012 National League MVP Buster Posey played shortstop at Florida State before moving behind the plate. Pirates catcher Russell Martin used to play shortstop, as did Pedro Alvarez before he reached Vanderbilt.
"They thought I was going to be too big for the position, so I wasn't going to be able to move, keep my range, keep my lateral movements and whatnot," said the 6-foot-3 Jordy Mercer, whom the Pirates drafted in the third round in 2008.
Some of today's most promising shortstop prospects face this question, including 6-foot-4 Carlos Correa, the Houston Astros' No. 1 overall pick in 2012 and No. 1 prospect according to Baseball America. Some evaluators were concerned that the Boston Red Sox's top prospect, 6-foot-3 Xander Bogaerts, would not remain there. The Baltimore Orioles moved 6-foot-2 Manny Machado, drafted as a shortstop third overall in 2010, to third base in the majors. That move may be temporary; they have a good shortstop in J.J. Hardy and his contract is up after next season.
There are exceptions, notably the 6-foot-4 Cal Ripken and the 6-foot-3 Derek Jeter.
"Cal Ripken was incredibly reliable, positioned himself incredibly well and, as a result, was able to overcome his length," Huntington said.
When scouts evaluate an amateur shortstop, they start with his athleticism. They look for his range and first step.
"You're looking for an athlete that has good feet, good hands, arm strength, arm accuracy and then also the intangibles to be the leader of the infield," Huntington said.
"The shortstop is a source of stillness at the center of the defense. He projects this stillness and his teammates respond." -- Rodriguez
When making financial commitments to ballplayers, front offices prioritize players who excel at defensive positions up the middle of the field -- catchers, middle infielders and center fielders.
In 2012, the average major league salary was $3,213,479, according to the MLB Players Association. The 30 players who have seen the most time at shortstop for their teams this year have an average salary of $3,999,930 in terms of the average annual value of their contract. Including the contracts of Jeter, Rafael Furcal, Hanley Ramirez and Jose Reyes, would-be starters who are hurt, the average salary of a shortstop increases to $5,710,798. Reyes leads the way with an average annual value of $17,666,666. At the other end of the spectrum, 12 players are making close to the major league minimum of $490,000.
The next group of talented young shortstops started to arrive in the past few seasons. Defensive maestro Andrelton Simmons starts for the Atlanta Braves. An injury to Texas Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler finally made room on the roster for Jurickson Profar, the top prospect in the game, though Elvis Andrus will keep Profar from playing short for the time being. Segura has been one of the best players in baseball this season.
The expensive contracts agreed to between teams and up-the-middle defenders, and the trades made to acquire them, reflect their importance. Chicago Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro signed a seven-year, $60 million deal last summer. The Rangers extended Andrus for eight years and $120 million beginning in 2015, leaving them with the uncommon problem of having too many talented shortstops on the roster. Extensions given to Posey, Matt Kemp, Andrew McCutchen and Adam Jones further illustrate the point.
"I think as our game has continued to evolve, the recognition of the value of defense has gotten back to where it arguably should have been," Huntington said. "When it was about homers and about humbling your opponents into submission, defense wasn't that important. It was all about creating runs. I think now the pendulum has swung back."
Teams pay the price in players as well as dollars. To acquire Segura, the Brewers had to trade former Cy Young winner Zack Greinke to the Los Angeles Angels. The Arizona Diamondbacks parted with No. 2 pitching prospect Trevor Bauer in a three-way deal with the Cleveland Indians and the Cincinnati Reds in order to get shortstop prospect Didi Gregorius.
"The shortstop has worked so hard for so long that he no longer thinks. Nor does he act. ... He only reacts..."
This year, J.P. Crawford and Tim Anderson headline the available shortstops in the draft. Crawford, a California high schooler, and Anderson, a junior college shortstop in Mississippi, are both projected to go in the first round. Florida high school shortstop Oscar Mercado and Stephen F. Austin shortstop Hunter Dozier could go off the board in the next few rounds.
The Pirates own the ninth and 14th selections in the first round, so they will have a shot at Crawford and Anderson. In baseball, though, teams do not draft based on need. Even the draftees closest to the majors are at least a year away at the time of their selection.
Because of the history of the position, shortstop carries a cachet. To play it is to conquer a challenge, like Jeter and Ripken and Smith did.
"I think it's one of the best positions ever," Segura said. "Not many guys can play shortstop and do it well."
"For me," Hurdle said, "catchers and shortstops [are] the guys that you would look to first for maybe some managerial stock."
Bill Brink: email@example.com and on Twitter @BrinkPG.