Baseball Has a Language All Its Own

J. Conrad Guest@ ISeptember 5, 2011

Valverde gets the save on the road against the Indians
Valverde gets the save on the road against the IndiansJason Miller/Getty Images

Sure, football has its own language. On defense we have the maximum blitz and the prevent; on offense, the screen pass, the button hook and the bomb. All self-explanatory. 

Baseball, too, has terminology that needs little explanation for the uninitiated: a “gapper” is a ball hit into the gaps between the outfielders, usually for extra bases. 

There are the “sac fly” and the “sac bunt,” where the hitter sacrifices himself to advance or score a runner. As a baseball strategy, these don’t count against his batting average.

There is also the squeeze bunt or suicide bunt, which, when it works to perfection is a thing of beauty; but when it doesn’t, the runner is dead, even if his death isn’t his owning doing but instead a failure on the part of the batter to do his job. 

The double and triple are sometimes known as a two-bagger and three-bagger respectively; but calling a single a one-bagger betrays one as a novice fan. 

The true fan knows the homerun as “playing long ball.” 

Billy Martin brought into fashion what once was known as “small ball”—advancing the runner one base at a time using the steal and the sacrifice. Small ball in today’s era is a lost art. Still, if you want to appear more than a novice, a mention of small ball to your buddies will be a bonding moment. 

ERA translates to a pitcher’s earned run average—how many runs he gives up without taking into account misplays that allow a runner to reach base or errant throws, like a wild pitch. A “passed ball” is an error charged to the catcher when he allows a ball to get past him that enables a runner to advance a base. 

RBI translates to runs batted in. Tigers color man Rod Allen often refers to RBIs as “rib eyes” and, occasionally, simply “steaks.” 

Multiple runs batted in have always been known as RBIs. But a few years ago it was brought to the attention of the baseball fraternity that this was incorrect grammar. A movement was made to change the terminology to RsBI or simply RBI. 

Imagine saying Miguel Cabrera has 90 RsBI on the season. 

Fortunately the movement was short-lived. 

Speaking of RBIs, a man once told Ken Singleton he should “walk with the Lord,” to which Singleton replied, “I’d rather walk with the bases loaded. 

Now, a walk is not considered a plate appearance for a hitter; hence his final stats for the day might show that he went one for three when in actuality he had four trips to the dish (plate).

Yet a hitter who walks with the bases full (loaded) is awarded an RBI for what is considered a non-plate appearance. 

I guess the gurus of baseball felt the need to award the run somehow and since they couldn’t award it to the pitcher’s stats, they figured, what the heck, let’s give it to the hitter and hope no one notices. 

But baseball uses the language of signs, too. 

The catcher looks to the dugout to get the sign, which he relays to his pitcher, to throw over to first base to keep the runner close. 

And of course there are the signs the catcher relays to the pitcher for which pitch to throw. 

Pitch signs used to be simple: one finger, fastball; two fingers, curve; three fingers, slider; four fingers, changeup. 

Now the signal for a fastball is followed by two more fingers or four to indicate a two-seam or a four-seam fastball, and a third finger to indicate inside or outside. 

Of course with a runner at second base, who can steal the signs and relay them to the hitter, the catcher goes through a whole series of signs that, hopefully, the pitcher can decipher and the runner can’t.

A pitcher who crosses up his catcher by throwing a fastball when he is expecting something off speed almost always results in a visit to the mound by the catcher to make certain they’re on the same page going forward. 

With a runner on first base the hitter looks to the third base coach to tell him what to do—sac bunt (see above) or hit and run. 

Hughie Jennings, who managed Cobb back in the day and who used to call out “Eeee-yaaah” to keep his players on their toes, told Cobb that when he paused between “Eeee” and “yaaah,” that was the sign to hit and run. 

As an aside, Cobb once played with a second baseman known as Herman “Germany” Schaefer. Schaefer toured the Vaudeville circuit during the off-season, performing a soft-shoe and poetry reciting act. He once stole second base and promptly stole his way back to first just to see if it could be done. 

Today the third base coach uses an entire series of signs to “talk” to the hitter: a touch of the nose, a tap of a shoulder, a brush of the tummy, a grab of the crotch; one of those gestures means something to the hitter.

The intentional walk, or pass, is used most often with first base open and a runner at second base. It fills the empty base and brings into play the double play even as it opens the possibility of the three-run homerun—also known as the manager’s best friend.

The semi-intentional pass is employed when a pitcher wants to pitch around a hitter—a hitter who is hot or hits well against him—preferring to face the next hitter, who he thinks he has an easier chance to get out. Simply, he doesn’t give the hitter something good to hit in the hope he’ll swing at something outside the strike zone and hit into an out. 

As a boy my dad claimed the intentional pass rule stipulated the catcher must not leave the catcher’s box until after the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand. I’ve never been able to find that rule in the rule book; but it makes sense. The intentional walk is not, or should not, be a given. If it was, why go through the motion of throwing four balls outside the strike zone? Just send the hitter down to first base. 

Why should it matter? 

Well, playing catch with someone is easy. One throws the ball at him. Force a pitcher to throw where his battery mate isn’t standing and to a place to which the catcher must move, leaves him open to throwing the ball away. 

Finally, the hit and run is employed by the offense to stay out of the double play. The manager, from the dugout, relays a sign to the third base coach who in turn relays the sign to the hitter and runner. It sets the runner into motion with the pitcher’s delivery. The hitter’s job is to protect the runner by swinging and hitting the ball, thereby negating the double play or force at second base. 

But hit and run is really a misnomer since it’s the runner who is set into motion before the ball even leaves the pitcher’s hand. 

So why isn’t it called the run and hit? 

I have no idea. 

Hopefully this article will serve as somewhat of an education to those who find the game confusing. 

Then again, it may serve only to confuse them more.


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