When playing baseball, one of the catcher’s most important jobs is to give hand signals as the pitcher throws so that the pitcher knows which ball to throw. There are a variety of ways that this can be done, but the most common catcher signals generally involve flashing numbers with fingers and tapping body parts.
Silent communication between the catcher and pitcher is necessary; being on the same page is a key to success during a baseball game for the pitcher and the catcher. The relief pitcher also needs to be very familiar with the catcher/pitcher signs, because they need to be able to step into the game at any time and not miss a beat.
The catcher has a unique advantage compared to other players because they can see the entire field, and the catcher communicates with his or her pitcher to give directions.
Most common types of pitches in baseball
To understand the different pitching signals that a catcher can give to a pitcher, it’s important to understand the different types of pitches that a pitcher can throw. Here are some of the most common types:
The fastball is the most basic pitch. A professional baseball pitcher will typically throw a fastball that’s at least 90 miles per hour, but many professional pitchers can throw a fastball over one hundred miles per hour.
- There are several different types of fastballs, including the two seam fastball, the four seam fastball, and the split finger fastball.
These are some of the hardest pitches for the batter to hit. This is because the ball seems to curve up towards the batter’s head or body and then curve back down into the strike box.
Even when the pitcher does not throw the ball in a wide, dramatic arc, curveballs are almost impossible for the batter on the opposing team to hit correctly. It’s too hard for them to predict where the curve ball will pass through the strike zone.
The slider is an example of what’s called a breaking pitch. This is when the pitcher turns the palm of their throwing hand towards themselves as they throw the ball.
The slider is similar in some ways to a fastball but it’s thrown somewhat slower, and the ball slides sideways through the air.
The changeup is similar to a sinker in a lot of ways. This is a pitch where the batter thinks that the pitcher is throwing another fastball, but instead the next pitch is much slower and catches the batter off guard.
The pitcher does this by minimizing finger contact on the ball and pressing the ball deeply into the palm of their hand. Great pitchers can throw extremely fast fastballs and extremely slow changeups.
This difference in speed catches batters on the hitting team off guard and makes it difficult for them to swing accurately.
A baseball pitcher can create differences in movement and speed depending on the way that they hold and throw the ball, as well as how they spin it when they throw it. To throw a sinker the pitcher throws the ball with the palm away from themselves, causing the motion of the pitch to become unpredictable.
This makes it hard to hit the ball accurately, and it’s more likely that the batter will miss. Even if the batter does succeed in hitting the ball, it’s likely to be a ground ball and an easy out, rather than a home run or line drive deep into the outfield.
The screwball is one of the hardest pitches for batters to hit because of its corkscrew motion. As the pitcher releases their arm, they twist their wrist like a corkscrew, sending the ball spiraling through the air.
This unpredictable motion can confuse and disorient the batter.
The cutter is another example of a breaking pitch, and it is similar to the fastball in a lot of ways. The main difference between a cutter and a fastball pitch type is that the cutter is a breaking pitch; it is also thrown just slightly slower than a fastball.
How catchers signal different types of pitches
There are a variety of pitches that a pitcher can throw, and different situations call for different types of pitches. The catcher’s job is to use pitch signals to recommend the type of pitch they believe the pitcher should throw, as well as the pitch location.
There are a number of different ways to make these catcher signals, but some of the most common ways to signal the pitcher include:
- Fastball – This is the most basic type of pitch and it is usually called with the most basic signals that a catcher can give: one finger. Most catchers will give this signal by pointing one finger down, but they can also signal this pitch by pointing their index finger straight up.
- Curveball – The curveball is often signaled by having the catcher flash two fingers at the pitcher. Of course, this depends on the exact relationship between the pitcher and the catcher, because some pitchers will throw different pitches when they receive two finger hand signals.
However, using two fingers commonly represents a curveball.
- Slider – Just like with the pitches described above, the catcher can use any signal to call for a slider, and the three fingered signal can represent any type of pitch the catcher and pitcher want.
Usually, however, when the catcher shows the pitcher three fingers, they are calling for a slider pitch.
- Changeup – The changeup is a pitch that is often signaled with four fingers.
These are the simplest catcher signals to give the pitcher and they are typically assigned to the fastball, curveball, slider, and changeup, because these are the most common pitches for the pitcher to throw.
The technique of sending catcher/pitcher signs takes practice to perfect. Pro catchers usually hold all of their middle knuckles out, only flashing the tips of their fingers for a split second.
How catchers signal different locations for pitches
In addition to signaling what type of pitch they want the pitcher to throw, the catcher also needs to tell the pitcher where they want them to throw the ball. There are two primary ways that catchers do this.
The first way is not a very discreet signal location because the catcher signals by tilting his or her head (or hand) towards the side of the plate that they want the pitcher to throw to. The problem with this is that the batter’s teammates can see what the pitcher is doing and may give some sort of signal of their own to the batter.
A more advanced method that catchers use to signal their desired pitch location to the pitcher is by calling signs, or using more finger signals. They will typically assign a number for an inside pitch (close to the batter) and a different number for an outside pitch (away from the batter).
When using the number method, the pitcher and catcher have to be on the same page and the pitcher has to pay even closer attention to the catcher’s signs than normal, because the catcher will flash two numbers in quick succession.
Alternative signs and signals
Sometimes flashing fingers does not work. There are a variety of reasons for this and they mostly come down to the pitcher’s vision being obscured by weather or bad lighting at night games.
In these cases there are two signs that pitchers often use; it is most common for the catcher to signal the pitcher by tapping different parts of their body and helmet. For example, tapping their mask could mean a fastball, tapping their left leg could mean a curveball, and rubbing their chest could mean a changeup.
Glove signals are another type of catcher/pitcher sign that can be used for silent communication on the field. The catcher holds their glove in different positions to indicate the type of throw they recommend.
The problem with using body signals for giving signs is that the pitching signs are not just more visible to the pitcher, they are also more visible to runners on the other team. If the signals are more visible, it’s easier for the other team to figure the signals out.
This can result in sign stealing, an illegal practice wherein the opposing team figures out the pitches the catcher is calling and indicates this to their batter.
What happens with a runner on second base?
When the batting team gets a runner on second base, and sometimes even third base, that base runner has a clear view of the catcher and any signals that they give the pitcher. This is a problem, because the second or third base runner can figure out those signals and possibly signal the batter.
To solve this problem, the catcher won’t use the first sign, but instead will start changing signs and give the pitcher several random and bogus signals meant to throw the runner off. The catcher signs will be given in a special sequence consisting of at least two signs and only the pitcher will know which one is the real signal for a certain pitch.
Other important signals
There are a few other signals that it is important to be aware of in regards to calling pitches. Sometimes a catcher will see that a base runner is trying to steal a base.
A “pitch out” is when the catcher makes the pitcher pitch high and outside the strike zone. This lets the catcher easily grab the ball, jump out of the squatting position, and throw the ball to the next base, after which the baseman can tag out the base runner trying to steal that base, resulting in a pitch out.
Sometimes the catcher doesn’t do this; instead the catcher signs that the base runner is trying to steal a base, and the pitcher takes care of the problem themselves. This requires the pitcher to step off the thin strip of rubber on the mound, often called the pitching rubber, and throw the ball to the middle infielders covering the base the runner is supposed to be on.
Another common trick is the “shake off.” Pitchers can refuse signs that the catcher gives them by shaking their head if they do not agree with the specific pitches the catcher is giving them.
Sometimes though, the catcher tells the pitcher to shake their head regardless. This confuses the batter and makes them think that the catcher and pitcher disagree.
Why do some catchers wear nail polish?
Many catchers choose to paint their nails or wear brightly colored or white tape around their fingers so that their signal hand is more visible to the pitcher.
Secrecy of catcher signals is vital and the best way for a catcher to keep the secret is to keep their hand between their legs when they are already in the basic form of squatting. This makes it hard for anyone except for the pitcher to see what they are doing.
As discussed earlier, the catcher can also display many signals to confuse any players from the opposing team who may be watching. The pitcher and catcher may have decided that the second sign is the official pitch type, but the catcher may display 2 or 3 signs after that to ensure the opposing team stays in the dark.
What if the batting team figures out the catcher’s signals?
Secrecy is important when giving signals, and it’s a problem if the batting team figures out the catcher’s signals. The solution to this problem is to call a timeout so the catcher, pitcher, and coaches can talk to each other about changing the signals up.