Baseball’s Sign Language
At the game, you may notice a home plate umpire does a variety of hand signals and vocal cues. The signals and cues are necessary so that players and umpires, across the field of play, know what’s happening at the plate. This helps them know how to set up for the next play.
Home plate is a great distance from the field of play. These cues tell the players and field crew what is happening so they are ready for which scenarios are most likely to happen next, especially from the base runners.
Field umpires also use signals, many of which mirror the ones used behind the plate.
Play Ball – The first signal of any game will generally be when the batter and umpire are set in position. With their hand turned sideways, thumb on top, the umpire will point the index finger on their right hand directly at the pitcher, arm at shoulder level, and yell play ball.
This indicates to the players and the other umpires that the ball is now live. Throughout the game the umpire will return to this gesture often following a dead ball, but will not always use the vocal cue.
Ball – When a ball is thrown, a hand signal is never given. You may hear an umpire say ball occasionally but this is merely to help them stay engaged in a rhythm of calling plays. The call is not required but most will call ball four, especially when the team in the right field dugout is up, to help the field know whether the batter is walking or out.
Strike – Strikes have both a vocal and a hand signal. This is the most personalized of all the umpire calls. You will either hear the ump say strike, most often delivered as two syllables St-Rike, or you will see them put their right hand out from their side, at hip level and punch the air or point. Some umpires do a combination, calling swinging strikes differently than a caught looking strike. Others use their body much more actively.
When the third strike is made, if the batter swings and misses, you are more likely to see a show on the call, with physical and verbal cues. If the final strike is caught, the umpire is inclined to hold their position both verbalizing the strike and giving the traditional clinched fist in the air at a 45 degree angle from the body to indicate the out and ensure the field of play is clear on the call.
Count – During the at bat, the umpire will occasionally hold up the count between pitches. The left hand represents balls and the right, strikes. Generally, you read the signals like you’d read a book, left to right.
The count always begins with the index finger. So, if the their left hand has the index finger up and the right the index and middle fingers then the count is 1 and 2 or 1 ball and 2 strikes. When there are three balls however, the rules change. The balls are then counted pinky first so that the ump makes the “OK” sign with their index finger and thumb. This just, visually, is easier for the fielders to recognize the difference between two and three balls.
Out Made – The out signal is a closed fist in the air from the elbow at 45 degrees. This is used both during an at bat by the plate umpires but in the field of play as well to indicated the status of a base runner or a fairly caught ball in the air for the out.
Outs in Inning – To indicate the number of outs in an inning the umpire will hold up either a fist, a one or a two with their right hand in front of their chest, palm facing in. With two outs and a runner on base, they will then tap it to their left wrist.
Safe – When a player is safe on a base in a tight situation, the umpire will bring both arms out from the middle, sometimes crossing them over, and swing out to the sides. The arms will extend parallel to the ground with their palms facing down. Some umpires will make the motion a few times while others will hold the first swing at shoulder level. They may also elect to vocalize the call.
Fair Ball – The right hand is pointed at the field in fair territory. No verbal cue is given.
Foul – With both hands in the air the umpire will yell foul. You will see some umpires also point into the foul territory after giving the signal.
Time – Occasionally, after the umpire has already taken position to indicate action is live, but before the ball is put in play, a player or coach will ask for a time. The umpire themselves actually might see a need for one as well, for example, maybe there is a ball from the bullpen that enters the field of play.
In any instance where a time is needed, an umpire will stand up with both hands straight out in front of them and yell Time! This tells everyone on the field that the ball should not be made active and they are free to relax.
The field umpires will repeat the signal as well to ensure the field of play remains inactive.
Once the activity is ready to begin again, you will see the umpire get back into position and then point at the pitcher to indicate “play ball” once again.
Dead Ball – It is important that an umpire indicate when the activity on the field is no longer live. This protects all people on the field of play from errant ball activity. They do this by calling, verbally, dead ball as well as giving the same hands raised above the head signal, used for time and foul.
Catch – When a ball is caught in the field of play for the out, the umpire makes the same fist at 45 degree angle sign used to indicate a strike, but no verbal call is given.
Run Scored – Often an umpire will point at home plate each time a player safely crosses but it is not required.
Run Not Scored - A verbal cue, “Runner does not score” as well as an X gesture are combined to clearly indicate no score. The X forms in front of the body and then moves up, sweeping the arms into the time position to, once again, indicate the play is over.
Called Strike – The umpire will both point at the batter with their left hand while signaling the strike with their right. Often a verbal strike call will accompany.
Check Swing – When a batter begins to swing at a ball and stops themselves, a catcher will often ask the umpire for a decision as to whether there was a swing. That is because a batter can pull back on a swing until the bat breaks the plane of forward motion. This is generally indicated with the position of the bat head. The home plate umpire does not have the best vantage point in this instance and so the catcher is asking them to check with either the third or first base umpire (depending on if the batter is left or right handed).
If the batter did not swing then the umpire will make a safe motion. If they did, then the base umpire will usually say, “Yes he did” and the BASE umpire signals strike.
Awarding Bases – When an umpire needs to show a runner which base they are allowed to take, for example in the case of a balk, any time a ball goes out of the field of play or if the runner is hit by the ball on the path, the umpire will point at the runner with their left hand and then verbally say, “You second” or “You Third” depending on which base they are being given.
Home Run – Signaled by circling the right index finger overhead.
Safe. Off the bag – When the play pulls the fielder off the bag and the out is not made, the runner is called safe by the umpire by using the arms across the middle of the body then straight out to the sides followed by a second hand gesture. They align both arms together, left on top, and make a sweeping motion.
Foul Tip – When a batted ball goes directly to the catcher, that is a foul tip. The signal is two-part. The umpires left arm will be extended in front of their body, palm down, to shoulder level and the fingers on their right hand will be brushed over the closed fist two or three times. The signal is then completed with a strike signal with the right hand.
Because the ball is live the umpire will never verbally indicate the foul tip because the word foul indicates a dead ball and, on a foul tip, the swing is dead but the ball is still live.
Infield Fly – This is complicated to explain so we’ll go over the play another time but you know it’s happening when the umpire points into the air with their right hand.
Ground Rule Double – When the ball hits the ground before bouncing over the outfield fence and out of play, this is generally called a ground rule double. This means that the ball could not be played and, if it had stayed live, they would likely have landed on 2nd safely, so it is assumed that the batter is safe on 2nd but they are not allowed to run to try for any additional bases. The ruling is signaled with the right index and middle finger being held up together overhead.
Balk – Rarely called and complicated to explain, we’ll go over the balk in a future article. What you need to know for now is that it’s basically like calling a false start on the pitcher. When they happen the umpire will point at a pitcher at shoulder height and verbally indicate the balk.
Player Interference – When player interference occurs the umpire will point at the player and verbally indicated interference however, the ball remains live.
Obstruction – When a defensive player obstructs the runner’s base path the umpire will point at them and say “Obstruction”. This makes the ball dead and the runner is automatically awarded the base.
Fan Interference – When an umpire makes a cross above their head, holding their left wrist with their right hand, palms facing out, that means a fan has touched the live ball and the ball is then called dead, the play has ended.
Ejections – When a player or coach is ejected from a game the umpire signal is small. It is usually a finger point to their chest sometimes followed by the verbal indication they have been ejected. Ejections are very rare and umpires do everything they can to keep the field of play calm and orderly in these situations.
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