MLB Baseball Qs: Stealing signs

Quite often, when a runner reaches second base, the television announcer will comment that the pitcher and catcher will use a different set of signs so the runner can’t learn the signals. OK, now I’m curious how this would work.

Let’s say the runner does learn some signs. What good does that do? The only time an opposing player would be in a position to intercept the signs is when they’re on second. Even if the runner saw the sign, and knew what pitch was coming, could he really pass it to the batter in some predetermined way without anyone else noticing? How would they do that? Would it be cheating? Would the runner and or batter be thrown out if caught? If the team at bat knew some signs, would they watch the television broadcast in the dugout for an edge?

In other words, what’s the straight dope on all this stealing signs business?

Stealing signs isn’t against the rules, so there is no penalty if you get caught. Assuming the runner was able to pick up the signs, he could easily relay this to the hitter with non-verbal signals, like touching the bill of his cap for a fastball.

In reality, many if not most major league hitters don’t want this information. They want to read the pitcher on their own, and you can look mighty foolish if the opponent figures it out and you make a fastball swing on a changeup.

Most sign stealing is done to get the info the third base coach is giving regarding steals, bunts, pitchouts, etc.

They do change signals with a runner on base, mainly because the ones they use with the bases empty are so basic - one finger for a fastball, two for a curve, etc.

There was a great interview on Fresh Air a couple weeks ago that addresses the sign stealing tactics. The whole interview was lots of fun and informative. That guy is really into baseball.
Listen here

A runner on 2nd could relay the signs to the hitter quite easily by arm position; arms hanging between legs for fastballs, one or both arms up (out to the side) for off-speed. Similarly open hands/closed hands.

And I will agree Lamar Mundane; the advantage this gives the hitter is quite minimal unless it is consistently correct. Nothing makes a batter look more foolish than sitting dead red on a 95 mph heater and receiving a 75 mph curve instead. After a couple of those sort of swings, most guys would rather play it straight than risk being fooled so badly again.

It would be incredibly difficult for a runner at second base, given the fact that he’s not going to be there very many times, to decipher a catcher’s sign pattern. Major league catchers generally always run a pattern of signs, with one sign being the “Flag” that indicates the next sign is actually the real pitch to be called. So if 1-Fastball 2-Curveball 3-Slider 4-Changeup 5-Flag, a catcher will show 2-2-5-3-4-1 when he wants a slider; the flag says “the next sign is the real one, everything else is bullshit.” Coach signals (touch the bill, rub the arm, touch the bill, wipe the chest, etc.) usually work essentially the same way.

The idea that the catcher and pitcher change their signs is probably fanciful on the part of the announcer in terms of pitch selection - in all likelihood what they ARE talking about is the placement of the catcher. Without a runner on second the catched can move inside or outside without the batter knowing; however, a runner on second can easily signal to the batter of the catcher is setting up way outside or some such thing. So the catcher and pitcher will get together on where the catcher will set up and where the pitch might actually be, to cross up the runner.

That said, it’s possible some players WILL change sign patterns because there seems to be a growing paranoia about sign stealing. You’ll also notice pitchers and catchers holding their gloves over their mouths so you can’t read their lips - despite the fact that there is no reason to believe that anyone in the major leagues today, or for that matter in the entire history of the major leagues that I am aware of, has EVER successfully divined the other team’s plans by reading lips. It’s ridiculous, and yet it’s a practice that’s spreading like wildfire.

This is generally true in college ball as well, though the indicator for pitches (at least when I played) would change thru the game, and you’d hear about it in the dugout if the catcher thought an opposing player was picking up the pitch sign. The middle infielders often had to know which pitch was on for certain defensive alignments.

This is absolutely true, which is why you’ll often see the catcher move during the wind/stretch; even if the man on 2nd could signal, the batter is concentrating on the pitcher.

WIll Clark admitted years later to being able to read the lips of a mound conversation between Don Zimmer and Greg Maddux in the opening game of the 1989 NLCS. He said he thought he saw Maddux say “fastball in” while he stood in the batter’s box. Sure enough, that was the next pitch, and Clark deposited it in the bleachers for a grand slam.