The Chess Match of Stealing Signs

“C’mon Aq” is what I heard from the dugout as I stared down Nick Stocks of Florida State, a hard-throwing right-hander who would become a first round draft pick a few months later.  Why was it important for me to hear those words?  Because those words indicated that a fastball was coming.  “Hey 8” (which was my number) would have signaled something off speed.  Knowing a fastball was coming, I decided to focus away.  I didn’t hit the inside fastball well, and since Stocks threw in the low-mid 90s, I thought I’d have a better shot if it was away.  Sure enough, outside fastball…

While playing college baseball, one thing we did incredibly well was steal signs.  We had players, all game, peering in at opposing coaches, trying to de-code their sign system to the catcher.  They used scrap paper to take notes and eliminate different sequences.  We also studied opposing pitchers, looking for ‘tips’.  If they tilted their glove a certain way in their windup, it would be a certain pitch.  If they looked down after getting the sign, it could be a certain pitch.  Some pitchers may have been slower in the stretch when bring their hands together on off speed pitches.  While on the base paths, runners at first base would peer into the catcher, looking to see if the catcher left their signs exposed.  At second, runners would try to de-code the sequence of signs from the catcher to the pitcher.  At third base, we would again be trying to see if the catcher left their signs exposed.  As baserunners, stealing signs was equally important.  Knowing an off speed pitch was coming was an automatic green light for some runners; but also helped other runners prepare for a ball in the dirt.  We were constantly looking for an advantage.  And we were REALLY good at it.

The way signs are communicated to the hitter are just as important as getting the signs.  Many teams make the mistake of communicating signs to hitters that make it obvious that the team has stolen the signs (more on this later).  In college, each player had their own verbal cue as to what was a fastball and what was an off speed pitch.  Some players used first name fastball, last name off speed.  Some used nicknames.  Others had keywords like “drive it” for a fastball and “get one here” for off speed.  And the keywords came from one individual.  So, as hitters, we focused on his voice.  While he may have said “C’mon Aq” (fastball), others may have been saying “Hey 8.”  This would keep opposing teams on their toes.  And we changed our cues frequently, again, keeping the opposing team off the trail.  From the base paths, we used hand signals.  But, runners also used an indicator as to whether they had the signs.  So, it was important that the hitters paid close attention to the runners.  You don’t want runners yelling at hitters, drawing attention to themselves and possibly tipping off the other team that you have the signs.  We relied heavily on non-verbal communication.

There have been a few instances in Major League Baseball over the course of the past few seasons where a team gets caught stealing signs.  Most recently, it was the Red Sox getting caught using an Apple Watch to relay pitches.    As technology improves, I’m sure you’re going to find some innovative techniques for stealing signs.  And yes, sign stealing will ALWAYS be a part of the game.  To hit a 95 mile an hour fastball, a batter has 300 milliseconds to decide if they are going to swing.  So, you’re gonna need an advantage.  And if pitchers, catchers and coaches are tipping pitches, you can sure bet an opposing team is going to take them.

The best way to make sure your signs aren’t stolen is to be aware of whether you are giving away pitches.  Here are a few tips (no pun intended) that can help you minimize (b/c you won’t be able to completely eliminate it) the damage:

See if you can find ‘tells’ in your pitchers: Encourage your players, during an intersquad, to try and pick up pitchers’ tells.  Try to look for tendencies in your own pitchers during an intersquad before you step on the field against a real opponent.

Make sure your catchers aren’t telling the world their signs: Have runners, during practice, check if your catcher’s legs are too wide when giving signs to the pitcher.  Check from first and from third.  With no one on second, catchers generally throw down one sign.  If the runners on first and third can see these signs, opposing hitters will have a field day.

Have pitchers take signs from the catcher with the ball in their hand: If a pitcher takes signs with the ball in their glove, they can’t quick pick.  A great way to combat against a runner looking for signs from the catcher is to have the pitcher pick over to first just as the catcher is about to put a sign down.  When I saw a pitcher was taking signs with the ball in their glove, I would take one extra step on my lead just so I could increase the odds of me seeing a catcher’s signs.

Mix up sign patterns with runners on second: The catcher should vary their sign patterns with runners on second during the game.  One inning, use the pump system.  If a runners gets on second, then change it the next inning to trailing a ‘2’.  There’s no need to mix up the patterns if a runner doesn’t get on second.  But, keep the runners guessing.  No better way to do this than to mix things up inning by inning.

Let the catchers call the game: I don’t understand why Major League catchers don’t call their own games.  Even college catchers should call the game.  They should study hitters enough to know what to throw.  Talk to the pitching coach between innings and build a plan for the next inning.  If you don’t want opposing teams to steal your signs, let the catcher call the game and you won’t need to worry about it.

Keep your ears open: Listen for the verbal cues.  As mentioned earlier, we varied our cues by player.  But some teams don’t understand this and may say the same thing over and over for each hitter.  Have your bench players be focused on what is being said and when.  Also, opposing teams may not have the signs, but they may decide to tip a catcher’s location.  If a catcher moves inside to a right-handed hitter (with a right-handed pitcher on the mound), it can only be one pitch, fastball.  This happened to me when catching against Tennessee in the Regionals my senior year.  I realized that, when setting up inside, the bench would be VERY loud calling out the hitters first name and saying things like “turn on it”.  Instead of saying something to the Tennessee players, I decided to use it against them.  Setting up on the outside black, I called for a breaking ball down the middle.  Seeing that I moved to my left, the Tennessee players assumed I was moving inside.  This prompted them to tip the hitter to an inside fastball.  The hitter, expecting a fastball in, bailed on the pitch when he saw it coming at their shoulder.  The ball then dropped in for a perfect strike.

Once a hitter receives bad information, now they have doubt in their mind.  And once doubt enters their mind, they will likely stop listening to their teammates.  As soon as I adjusted where I called pitches, the Tennessee players stopped relaying location.  So, if you want to stop the opposing team from communicating pitches to hitters, take measures to prevent them from doing so.

Stealing signs will always be a part of the game.  Work with your players on both fronts.  Teach them what to look for to gain an advantage.  And teach them how to guard against the other team doing the same to you.  It’s a fun part of the game that keeps players on their toes and involved in the game.

What did I do with that outside fastball (if you’re still wondering)?  Well, I drove it over the right-centerfield fence for a home run.  Without knowing what pitch was coming, my odds of getting a hit were low.  But, knowing what was coming significantly increased those odds.  Knowing the pitch doesn’t guarantee a hit, it just gives you a better chance.