On Saturday evening against the Minnesota Twins, Danny Duffy came out of the Royals bullpen with two outs in the seventh inning.
Starter Ian Kennedy had finished up his night, and Duffy was called on to get the last out. There were runners on first and third at the time.
The Royals were up 7-0, so when Eduardo Escobar, the runner on first, took off for second, the Royals ignored him.
But catcher Salvador Perez immediately paid a visit to the pitcher's mound.
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The first time a pitcher gets a runner on second base, don’t be surprised if you see the catcher go out to the mound. A runner on second can see the catcher’s signs, so the catcher has to use a more complex sign system.
The mound visit is to confirm which sign system the pitcher and catcher are using that night.
A simple system might be "second sign, shake, first."
That means the second sign in the sequence of signs is the real sign, but if the pitcher shakes that pitch off, the first sign in the next sequence is the real sign.
Sign sequences can get ridiculously complicated. In our book “Throwback,” former catcher Jason Kendall talked about pitchers who wanted to use systems like "outs, plus one." In that system if there are no outs, it’s the first sign; if there’s one out, it’s the second sign; and if there are two outs, it’s the third sign.
Or how about "second sign after previous pitch"? Say the previous pitch was a fastball; if the catcher flashes one finger, it’s the second sign after that.
If keeping it all straight seems complicated, now imagine the catcher speaks only English and the pitcher is Latin or Japanese or Korean. Now you can throw in a bit of a language barrier as well.
But it’s got to be done. Smart runners will steal the signs and relay them to the man at the plate.
The hitter wants to know if the pitch is a fastball or something off-speed, so if the runner steals a sign he can signal that by putting hands on hips for fastball, hands on knees for off-speed. Or one hand on the right hip for fastball, a hand on the left for off speed — the variations are endless.
If there’s a runner on second and an at-bat goes on for a while, the runner has more chances to decode the sign system and pass that information along to the hitter. And if the runner at second is a catcher, he’s going to decode the sign system quicker.
TV screens right outside the dugout can help speed up the process. The centerfield view gives viewers an excellent look at the signs, and the backup catcher might be sent down to take a look. It won’t take too many pitches before the other team has figured out the sign sequence.
That’s why we sometimes see a catcher make a spinning gesture with his finger; he’s telling the pitcher he thinks the other team has the signs and they need to switch things up.
If they’ve already agreed to a second set of signs in case the first gets stolen, the spinning gesture tells the pitcher to go to that second set. If they don’t already have another set of signs in mind, well, it’s time for another mound visit.
OK, that’s how they do it; now here’s why.
Big-league pitchers throw hard — I mean like way hard. If you ever get a chance to stand in the box and watch a 95-mph pitch go by (I have, and it did), you’ll be stunned at how hard those guys throw even if you’ve seen it on TV thousands of times.
That being the case, catchers have to know what pitch is coming if they’re going to have any chance of getting their mitt in the right position when the pitch arrives.
Get crossed up on a pitch and the catcher might wind up on the DL: Kendall tore ligaments in his thumb when he called for a slider down and away, got crossed up and the pitcher threw a sinker down and in.
This all comes up because in Friday night’s game against the Twins, Wade Davis threw Perez a 94-mph fastball. And unfortunately, that wasn’t the pitch Perez was expecting.
The Royals catcher turned his mitt palm up, expecting the ball to break down, but the ball stayed straight and Perez took it off the left wrist. Davis crossed up Perez; but in this case it was the catcher’s fault. Perez said he’s the one who got the sign sequence wrong.
After that Friday night game, KC manager Ned Yost talked about cross-ups and said it’s always better to think a fastball is coming and get a breaking pitch instead; the catcher is ready for the faster pitch and has time to react to a slower one.
But if the catcher thinks he’s getting a curve and gets a fastball instead, Yost (a former big-league catcher) said it feels like the ball explodes on you. It gets there much faster than you think it will.
So why the mound visits? Why not go over the sign systems in the clubhouse before the game ever starts?
Catcher Drew Butera says he doesn’t ask what sign system a pitcher will use with a runner on second because he doesn’t want to so much as put the idea of base-runners into his teammate's head.
It’s kind of like asking the pitcher how he’s going to react when someone hits a home run. Better to wait until that runner's on second to decide what's to be done about it.
If you’re thinking that’s sure a lot of information about a simple mound visit, you’re right.
But now you know what’s going on when a catcher goes out to the mound with a runner on second.