Like most sports, baseball requires instructions and guidance from the sidelines. In most sports, coaches shout instructions from the sideline, often involving calling a play or a certain alignment, or something of that sort. Baseball does the same thing but through the use of signs.
So, what are signs in baseball?
Signs are a non-verbal form of communication between coaches and players or between players. These signs are designed to give instructions to players on the field in a codified manner in an effort to make it more difficult for the other team to know what their team intends to do on a certain play.
Because of the many moving parts beyond just where the ball is at a certain time, at virtually any time when the ball isn’t being pitched or hit, or somewhere else in play, someone is giving a sign to someone else on or off the field.
More likely than not, there are multiple sets of signs being given simultaneously. If that sounds confusing, well that’s understandable.
What Are Signs Given for in Baseball?
If there is anything on a baseball field that can be planned somewhat in advance, then most likely, each team will have a sign for it. The list is honestly rather staggering, so we’ll attempt to nail down much of it.
Teams will use signs to adjust defensive alignments, call what pitch the pitcher throws, relay instructions to batters and baserunners, and call pickoff plays among other things. Umpires also use signs amongst themselves in terms of positioning and being aware of certain situations.
I once heard on a Major League Baseball (MLB) TV broadcast that Kansas City Royals coach Rusty Kuntz said that the Royals give over 1,000 different signs during a game, and that’s for a typical game only featuring about 300 pitches.
The signs you will most commonly see on TV are those given by the catcher to the pitcher. These are simple hand signals done between the catcher’s thighs so that the batter or coaches from the other team cannot see them, with the purpose to give the pitcher the next pitch to throw.
Sometimes, calling pitches is a two-step process, with coaches using their signs to call pitches from the dugout to the catcher, then having the catcher relay the signs on to the pitcher.
If you watch a game in person, the signs you will see more often are likely those given by the third base coach to the batter and/or baserunners. These signs are substantially more intricate due to how visible they are.
To make it much more difficult for the opposing team to de-code your signs (usually referred to as “stealing signs”), coaches usually employ a series of decoy or “dummy” signs that in reality mean nothing or have one actual sign hidden amidst several signs that are non-existent.
It is also common for a coach to have an indicator sign that serves as a confirmation for the sign.
These signs are used to call for runners to steal, hit-and-run plays, sacrifice bunts, or simply telling a hitter to take a pitch.
Keeping these signs a secret from the other team allows the offensive team to keep the element of surprise, instead of the other team knowing the play and using a pitchout to foil the play.
These signs are often given from the dugout to the third base coach, who then relays them on to the batter.
At lower levels where the manager (or head coach) frequently acts as their third base coach, this step is not needed since these signs will always come from the manager.
When a team is on defense, coaches will frequently give signals to the defense (or sometimes a single defender) for positioning purposes.
These signals don’t have to be discreet for the reason that defensive positioning is, well, obvious, so oftentimes, they involve yelling at the player (or players) in question and gesturing in the general direction that they want them to move.
In other words, as we said earlier, there are signs for a whole bunch of different things.
Why Are Signs Used in Baseball?
Naturally, a question one might have is why baseball players use signs in the first place. Well, there is no officially accepted reason, but there are situations where it makes sense to use signs.
Signs are used so a pitcher knows what pitch to throw to a hitter and the catcher knows what pitch is coming. Managers and coaches also use signs as a more efficient method to deliver instructions to hitters, making it more difficult for opposing teams to decipher what they plan to do.
There is no definitive answer as to when signs were first used in baseball, though their use predates the modern league.
Signs were known to have become frequently used by teams in the 1870s when the curveball became popular, becoming necessary for pitchers and catchers to be on the same page.
The first known instance of stealing signs came about in 1876, the very year that the National League was founded. Stealing signs is a whole different section of its own, so we’ll visit that in a moment, but what this proves is that signs were commonplace enough and deemed critical enough nearly 150 years ago that teams were willing to devise methods to intercept them.
So the question is – why use signs? Especially if other teams are trying to steal them.
Well, the first issue is efficiency. It is much quicker and simpler for a coach in the third-base coach’s box to give a runner on first base a sign to steal second than to call time, ask the runner to jog over, then whisper in his ear to steal second.
Of course, that would be rather obvious as well.
It wouldn’t make sense for a coach to yell to his hitters that a hit and run play is on because the other team could easily foil that attempt, and likewise, if a defensive team yelled out what pickoff play they were wanting to try, the runners would not be fooled.
And of course, if a catcher shouted out to his pitcher what pitch to throw, the hitter would know everything that’s coming.
By having signs, communication across the field becomes non-verbal, making signs more clandestine, and when combined with dummy sequences and indicators, teams can keep their cards close to their vest even with an opponent watching their every move.
Of course, because teams will watch their opponent’s every move, it’s not uncommon for the other team to have that “A ha!” moment where something clicks and they’re able to decode what a certain sign means…
What Is Sign Stealing in Baseball?
As we mentioned in the previous section, baseball signs have been around for nearly as long as the game itself. Of course, we’ve established the purpose of signs to deliver information to players in an efficient, coded manner.
The downside, though, is that these are also done in the open, leaving opposing teams free to attempt to decode the signs and steal them.
Stealing signs is when a team successfully obtains information about a team’s strategy by either discovering a pattern in a sign sequence given by a coach and decoding a certain sign or acquiring the catcher’s signals to the pitcher through different means, which oftentimes are done questionably.
Sign-stealing has a checkered part of baseball history. On one hand, there is nothing in the rule book that prevents teams from decoding the signals of other teams and using them to their benefit, but on the other hand, using technology to steal signs is strictly forbidden, with enforcement measures being beefed up in 2020.
Players and coaches often attempt to steal signs, while mixing up their signs, knowing that their opponents are looking to decipher their codes.
Former major league pitcher Orel Hershiser stressed the importance of preventing prevalent sign-stealing and that it is naïve and foolish to believe that teams aren’t trying to pick up signs.
In the traditional sense, teams will get creative to prevent sign-stealing with anecdotes including having trainers give signs because teams aren’t watching them, frequently changing signs to coincide with player movement, and some managers even having different sets of signs for specific players on their team.
There have also been several notable instances of teams using technology to steal signs, first by relaying signals from telescopes placed in outfield scoreboards or clubhouses to steal signs from the catcher, then evolving into using television feeds to do the same thing.
It was rampant use of the latter that resulted in the Houston Astros being disciplined by MLB for habitually (and illegally) using internal video feeds to steal signs, which they relayed to hitters from the dugout.
This scheme was in place throughout the Astros now-tainted 2017 World Series championship year.
Under modern technology, there are more and more ways to steal signs than to simply keep an eagle eye on the movements of players and coaches.
However, with so much at stake with every single morsel of information available, teams will continue to do whatever they can to steal as many signs as possible, while also doing their best to keep their signs secure.
With signs being such an integral part of baseball, you will continue to see them all the time if you pay attention to the field between pitches, knowing that an act that is silent and relatively simple will nonetheless weigh heavily on people in both dugouts.