“Signing” On (and Off)

Baseball coaches who run an aggressive offense– squeeze, hit and run, and double steal– obviously have need of a sign system that will enable them to communicate with the players and adapt to changing situations and personnel quickly and efficiently.A good sign system will include all or most of the following:“Indicators” that alert the players that a “live” sign may be on its way.

“Wipe-offs” that negate every live sign that has been flashed to that point.

“Activators” that tell the player to proceed with the designated play (a green light).

“Decoys” — meaningless signs, at least in the context of the sequence in which they appear.

Perhaps the most common way of flashing a sign is through touching a particular part of the body or uniform, e.g., an ear or the bill of the cap.

Coaches from youth to semi-pro ball often use a simple system in which the first letter of the object touched matches the first letter of the corresponding sign. For example, a touch of the hat will call for the “hit & run”, a touch of the belt for “bunt”, and a touch of the sleeve for “steal.”

Another popular sign system emphasizes the number of touches or taps rather than the location of the touch. For example, 1 tap will call for a take, 2 taps for a bunt, 3 taps for a hit & run, and 4 taps for a steal.

The coach will flash an indicator to have the players start counting and another indicator to signal them to stop. The number of relevant taps in between specifies the play.

Still other methods of transmitting signs involve the coach’s position in the coach’s box (front, middle, or rear), the number of times he claps his hands, the number of fingers he holds up, whistling, and calling out colors, names, or numbers.

Regardless of how the coach delivers the signs, his system must be easy to comprehend and remember.
Tips on Making Signs Easy to Recall Under Game Conditions

  1. Use a single indicator immediately followed by the live sign. Even with a wipe-off included, a player must interpret a maximum of three signs per sequence.
  2. The first or second sign flashed is live (with no indicator). An activator and/or a wipe-off can be added to confuse the opponents.
  3. The last sign flashed is live (with no indicator). This is effective since players tend to look away once they’ve seen the live sign, but before the coach is finished flashing decoys. Some coaches “release” the players’ attention by concluding every sequence with a simple gesture, like clapping the hands.
  4. The only sign flashed twice in a set of signs is live.
  5. Designate either hand as the “hot” hand. The first sign flashed with that hand is live.

Logical Patterns. If the signs consist of taps to specific locations on your body or uniform, arrange the locations in a logical order. For example, begin with a closed fist as the first sign in a set and ascend up the arm with taps to the wrist, elbow, shoulder, and chest. Another option is to divide the chest into quadrants and arrange the signs in a box pattern.Memory Devices. When numbers represent the plays, it will be helpful to train the players to memorize the plays in sequential order. A mnemonic can turn the plays into a memorable phrase.

For example, the players can remember Take, Bunt, Hit & run, Steal as “Thomas Baker High School!” When you flash the number “3”, the players can run through the mnemonic phrase and notice that the third word is High, which means Hit & run”.

You can use any kind of memory device that will help the players recall signs when the pressure is on and the game is on the line.

Groups of Two. In systems that incorporate multiple variations of the basic plays, you may split the live signs into two groups whenever possible, e.g., running plays (straight steal, delayed steal, early break) vs. bunting plays (straight bunt, slash, squeeze).

Likewise, the body or uniform can be divided into two sections– left side / right side, upper body / lower body, skin / cloth, or school colors, e.g., blue / gray.

Signs consisting of numbers, as well as innings, automatically fall into two groups– odd vs. even.

Systems based on “two’s” break down into bite-size pieces that will improve the players’ retention and provide a ready-made way to accomplish the other important goals of a flashing system– to catch the opposition off guard and prevent them from decoding the signs.
Suggestions for Camouflaging Live Signs

Change or Rotate Periodically. Change the indicator before every game, each time you face the same opponent, or during a game based on the inning or count.

The “Hot Spot” system uses a floating indicator that changes with every sequence of flashes. The first spot touched becomes the indicator for that sequence. You can flash the live sign anytime after returning to the hot spot.

The other option is to hold the indicator constant and rotate the live signs. When using the “first (second) sign” method, make the first sign live in odd innings and the second sign live in even innings. When using two distinct groups of signs or two halves of the body, alternate between the two.

For example, in odd-numbered innings put the hitting/bunting signs on the left arm and running signs on the right arm. In even-numbered innings, simply switch sides.

The use of uniform colors can make a system difficult for the defense to crack, especially if you use home and away jerseys and change the signs according to the location of the colors on your body.

When using the “four quadrants of the chest” in your sign system, you may rotate the quadrants periodically. A mnemonic device can again help the players memorize the signs. In using the “Thomas Baker High School” mnemonic, for example, the player need only know which quadrant is the Take (Thomas) sign in any particular inning to figure out which quadrants represent Bunt, Hit & run, andSteal.

Divert the Defense’s Attention. You may have two people flashing signs– a decoy whose signs are visible and obvious, and a play caller whose signs are much less visible and simpler, e.g., arms crossed or hands in the back pockets.

This technique works great when all signs emanate from the bench and the two flashers are clearly visible to the players.

Another way to divert the attention of potential sign stealers is by using the sign not given as the live sign. The opponents may be so focused on what you are touching that they won’t notice what you’re not touching. In short, you may flash all but that one sign in your sequence– which will make it the play. For added deception, add an activator and wipe-off.

The most important rule when devising a system is to keep it simple. A very basic set of signs can be highly effective with just one or two wrinkles thrown in.
Simple Ways to Frustrate the Opponents

  1. Give the same meaning to two different signs. Have two bunt or two steal signs. You can also have a sign that means “repeat the same play called on the previous pitch.”
  2. Use an “activator only” in pre-arranged situations. If you want particular plays executed in certain game situations or when certain personnel are at bat or on the bases, discuss this strategy ahead of time. You can then flash decoy signs and just an activator to set the play in motion.
  3. At the very beginning of an at-bat, flash a play you want executed on a specific count, e.g., suicide squeeze on 2-0. When that count arrives and the defense sees you standing motionless, it won’t expect anything.
  4. Flash a sign when the defense is not watching. For example, to the next batter while he’s still in the on deck circle. Use simple, “one syllable” gestures immediately after a play and before the defense settles into their positions for the next pitch.
  5. Before an inning or game, issue a “green light” for players to steal, swing away, or bunt at their own discretion. Then flash only a “red light” sign if you want them to hold their position.

Final Points About Maintaining an Effective SystemFlash live signs, but omit the indicator or activator so that the live signs appear to be meaningless.

Intersperse a series of live signs with a few decoy signs. For example, if “steal” consists of four taps to the face, touch the face twice, and then tap the leg and chest before completing the final two taps to the face.

Practice in front of a mirror to develop a smooth delivery.

Flash decoy signs with as much emphasis as live ones, and live signs with as much casualness as decoys.

Also, spend five minutes every day reviewing signs and running through scenarios with the players.

Use signs during inter-squad games and offensive drills to mimic game conditions.

Since players are more likely to understand and remember a system they help create, encourage them to participate in designing the system.

(Author’s note: We’d like to express our gratitude to all the high school and college coaches who contributed to this article and whose names are not disclosed to protect the secrecy of their flashing systems.)


Brian Priebe was the Head Freshman Baseball Coach at Monte Vista High School in San Diego. He has written several articles on coaching baseball; this one was originally published in the January 1997 issue of Coach & Athletic Director Magazine.

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