I Saw the Sign
Softball and baseball have a variety of coaching personnel. Each has their job off the field and on. A pitching coach during practice may turn into the first or third base coach during a game. The skipper, or head coach, generally remains in the dugout come game time but may still be leading the offense. No matter where they stand during a team’s at bat, if you notice they’re wiping their brow a little too often for the temperature outside, you just might be reading their signs.
Each coach has their own personal style when it comes to signs. Generally, whatever ‘dance’ they chose, the reality is only two, at most three, of the movements they make are really instructions to the players. The rest is just a distraction so the other team can’t figure out their plan.
Coaches give two sets of offensive signs. Designed to tell both the batter and the runner what to do on the play, signs indicate either a strategy on the base path or at the plate. Often times, it is some combination of the two.
There are four base signs designed to let players know what the coach wants to have happen.
This is the movement that tells the batter there is a sign coming. As soon as a coach does this particular motion, the batter knows the very next movement the coach makes is the sign as to what s/he’s expected to do at the plate.
For example: Let’s say a coach’s indicator is the brim of their cap and their belt is the sign for a bunt. If a coach touches their arm then their belt, there is no sign given. If a coach touches the brim of their cap and then their leg, there is no sign given. If a coach touches the brim of their cap and immediately follows with a hand on their belt, they’ve just given the sign to bunt.
If a coach is mid-sign and makes a mistake in their movement, they enlist the take off or wipe away. This tells the batter to ignore the previous direction until they, once again, see the indicator.
This move is also used when the coach wants the batter to ignore the instruction that was given before the last pitch.
The release is a movement that indicates to the hitter and runners it’s okay to stop paying attention to the coach. They’ve completed the strategic direction. This is done for two reasons. (1) To ensure a mistake can be corrected and (2) to allow the ‘dance’ to continue long enough that the other team cannot read your plan.
At the plate a batter can hang in there, fouling off several pitches in a row. Rather than giving the same sign over and over, risking the opposition picking it up, a coach will give a repeat sign. This tells everyone that they are to repeat the plan of the previous sign.
The video mentioned the three basic signs every team, including youth players, generally use: bunt, steal and hit/run.
A team with faster runners on base will use the bunt to draw the defense in, out of their normal positions covering the bags, and allow for base runners to advance safely. The play is called with either no or one out on the board. The defensive strategic logic of baseball dictates that you throw to first for the guaranteed out in this instance, rather than trying to throw the ball into the field of play and risking an overthrow.
The result? Faster runners on the path, and playing the risk safe at first, racks up one out for the defense but at the cost of putting runners in scoring position or possibly even letting a runner cross home plate.
When the coach puts on the steal sign s/he’s letting the batter know to swing at whatever comes across the plate. By swinging the time it will take for the catcher to receive and throw the ball is slightly inhibited by their attention to the batter as a moving element in the game.
The batter’s body plays a blocker roll on the throw as well. If, for example, the runner is heading from 2nd to 3rd, with a batter swinging, their back is naturally to the catcher as they complete their swing. That means their body is helping to shield the play for a millisecond longer until they see the catcher looking to release and duck out of the way. If they didn’t swing, they would have no valid reason to be ‘in the line of the throw’ and could be called for interference.
Hit and Run
The hit and run is a team effort at taking advantage of the defensive positioning. When there is a runner on first, the shortstop and 2nd baseman will cover the path but not the base before the ball is hit.
The hit and run signal means that, as soon as the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand, the runner takes off. This forces the players on the field to move into positions to be ready for a run down on the base path rather than into their normal fielding positions.
The job of the batter in this case is to then put the ball in play in the gaps created between the fielders because of their shift in positions. When all the parts move as expected, the result is often multiple bases for the runners and a hit for the batter.
With a runner on third a coach may call for the batter to lay down the bunt and for the runner to go. There are two times the runner can leave the bag, on the throw and on contact. In the safety squeeze, the runner takes off the second the bunted ball makes safe contact with the ground. By waiting on the bag, it nearly ensures the ball will be picked up and thrown to first before anyone sees the player coming from third.
This is basically the coaches way of letting the batter know either swing at what you like or put your back into it. When the swing away sign is given, the coach is telling the batter the bunt is off the table.
Hitters aren’t the only people reading signs. Some are meant only for the runners. Here a coach goes over some of the most common circumstances where a runner will be signaled to try to steal or move on contact. Some of the latter signals we’ve discussed before in base running.
When the coach instructs the batter to bunt as a sacrifice s/he’s telling them to take the out. The ball is deliberately bunted in a direction or area that allows the base runner to advance while sacrificing the batter. This generally will mean in the direction of first base and close to the pitcher. When correctly executed, the batter’s average is rewarded for their sacrifice.
When a runner at third takes off for home during the pitcher’s windup and the batter attempts to bunt. This may seem illogical, leaving the ball so close to the plate, but the point is it is so unexpected, as the saying goes, ‘it just might work!’ One way to know if the defensive side is already thinking one step ahead is to watch the first pitch. If they pitch outside, chances are they’ll be looking for the squeeze.
We’ll leave you today with a video from Israel baseball that goes over some standard signs for coaching third base. The instruction encompasses both hitting and running signs to give you an overall feel for the process.