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College Baseball Showing Signs of a Revolution

By Ben Kohen / The Wall Street Journal / WSJ.com — June 22, 2012

College baseball coaches have one of the most outlandish job requirements in sports: They must be extraordinarily familiar with their own faces. It is by touching their ears, noses and chins at a dizzying speed that they covertly communicate to the catcher whether the next pitch should be a fastball, curveball or changeup.

These signs, which are also used in the big leagues, are some of baseball's oldest and most charmingly analog quirks. But over the last five years, college baseball has become the incubator for a new approach that has some of the sport's many traditionalists fired up.

Hundreds of teams at all levels of college baseball, including five of the last six College World Series champions, have ditched body signals altogether in favor of a system in which the coach flashes or yells a series of numbers. The catcher decodes the sequence by looking at a chart tucked into a wristband—the kind football quarterbacks have worn since 1965—and then relays the information to the pitcher the way he always has.

Coaches say this scheme isn't just faster and more efficient. It's also pick-proof: Wannabe spies in the other dugout can't steal these signs. The method allows for many combinations that can mean many different pitches, and after the coach calls a string of numbers and the catcher deciphers the code on his grid, that sequence won't be used again for the rest of the game and maybe even the rest of the season. By printing out new cheat sheets as often as every game, teams aren't even vulnerable if an old copy falls into enemy hands.

"When I see teams charting us, I just think, 'Holy smokes, really?'" said Oregon State assistant coach Pat Bailey, whose Beavers won national titles in 2006 and 2007 with this tactic. "It's just a waste of time."

Arkansas pitching coach Dave Jorn, whose team is still alive in this year's CWS, said he arrived at the same conclusion three years ago. When the Razorbacks spot another coach using the numbers-based system, he said, they immediately stop playing detective. "You don't even pay attention," he said.

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Catcher wristbands help coaches South Carolina one of the teams that use wristbands in game
NCAA.com - Associated Press — June 21, 2012

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No Stealing Signs In This Numbers Game
By Tim Keown / ESPN.com: The Magazine — March 3, 2009

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Top Baseball Innovations
Unique Products Should Be Closely Looked At By Baseball Coaches
Collegiate Baseball Newspaper — Friday, Jan. 25, 2008

Two years ago, Arkansas-Little Rock University Head Coach Jim Lawler brought to our attention a new system to call pitches by coaches in the dugout which involved the use of quarterback wrist bands for catchers (with a special coded grid placed under the plastic) and a master sheet for a coach in the dugout.

He explained that the genesis of the system took place in the Fall of 2004 when Head Coach Boomer Walker and Pitching Coach David Carter of Southern Idaho devised an ingenious plan that would scuttle any hope an opponent had for picking off signs.
With signs becoming overly complex for catchers to follow, they thought that utilizing a code system similar to football would work more efficiently.

The coach would have a master sheet with multiple 3-digit numbers corresponding to certain pitches (fastball, curve, change up, etc. or defensive calls.) The coach in the dugout calling the pitches or defensive plays would yell out (or flash with their hand) a certain 3 digit set of numbers as the catcher received the code. Then the catcher would look at his quarterback wrist band and glance at the first tow digits across the top of the grid and go down to than intersecting point with the third digit. A code would be there to signify which pitch or defensive play to signal in to the pitcher or infielders. At the time, the master chart and quarterback wrist band inserts were done by hand with no way of regenerating the sings so different 3-digit numbers came up. As time has rolled on, different coaches across the nation have utilized their computer skills in Microsoft Excel spread sheets to make up master sheets which synchronize
with the wrist band inserts so that with the pressing of a key on the computer, a brand new set of numbers come up.

Now a company called Own The Zone Sports has turned this system into something special that all coaches on all levels should seriously look at.

The software, which only works on PC's that utilize Microsoft Excel, 256 MB Ram, and 512 MB available hard drive space, allows coaches to utilize 3 digit signs for pitching, defense and offensive plays.

The beauty of this system is that it allows coaches to custom design their pitches, defensive and offensive plays.

If you want to make a set of custom signs for every pitcher on your staff, you can easily do it. Even more impressive is that you can tell the program how you want home plate to be split up as the pitcher throws to 1-6 zones.

You are also asked to tell the program the percentage of certain pitches or plays before it generates the master sheet and wrist band grids for all offensive and defensive players.

If coaches use both offensive and defensive signs with this system, you don't need two wristbands. You simply laminate the offensive and defensive player cards back-to-back for the players to flip their cards over each half inning.

The brains behind this operation are former Western Oregon University baseball players Liam Woodard and Bryce Gardinier."Bryce is a computer software guy for his day job. One day back in 2006, I wondered out loud if he could write a computer program that could do everything we wanted. He gave it a whirl and came up with the general concept. We worked with Dan Hubbs and David Esquer at University of California and the coaches at Oregon State University, among others. We slowly refined it to where it is today."

Woodard said that the current product is the fourth version and is extremely refined. You can even change the colors on the charts and grids to match your school colors (or help separate the signs for your players).

"The flexibility it provides is what coaches like. Everybody can customize it to fit their program. Not everybody calls a delayed steal the same (thing) or and early break to take second. As far as pitch calling, it gives you great flexibility as well. You can even customize it to a specific pitcher or pitchers. The cool thing about it is that you can take some ownership in it and make your own system with the software." It is impossible to steal the signs and easy for offensive or defensive players to get the play right. Missed sings are now a thing of the past.


Can You Read The Signs?
By Tim Kurkjian / ESPN: The Magazine — August 12, 2004

Stealing signs. It is a baseball tradition as old as the game itself. It is an art that has been practiced, legally and illegally, for well over 100 years, and it goes on every night at every ballpark in America. It can win a game, can lose a game and might get you hit in the head.

Joe Nossek was the best at stealing signs, it was his only job for years as a coach for the White Sox until he was replaced before this season. By design, there is no place for a manager to hide in visiting dugout at the White Sox's U.S. Cellular Field. So, several visiting managers, including Tom Kelly, formerly of the Twins, and Johnny Oates, formerly of the Orioles, would have their coaches build human fortresses around them so Nossek couldn't see the signs that were being relayed to the base coaches, the catcher, etc.

More signs are sent today than at any time in baseball history, that's how intricate the game has become. Many pitchers are given a sign from the bench for a pitch-out, a pick-off throw and even a step-off. Third base coaches are relaying hundreds of signs a game, there's a technique to that, also. Brewers third base coach Rich Donnelly has practiced his signs in front of the mirror so not to be too obvious with his signals or his cadence. Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, more than once, had his trainer, Barry Weinberg, flashed the sign because no one would be watching him. "When he took out the tongue depressor,'' Donnelly said, "it was a steal.'' Former Padres third base coach Tim Flannery once practiced his signs on his 13-year-old son, thinking "if he can get 'em, so can our players.''

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Baseball's New Signs of the Times
By Patrick Schmiedt / Star-Tribune — Saturday, August 12, 2006

Matt Skundrick doesn't act like the typical third-base coach. Instead of alternating between touching his cap, chest, arms and legs, Skundrick spends most of his time coaching Salem, Ore., Post 9 either standing with his arms on his hips or shouting encouragement and instruction to his players.

If he is caught rubbing his arm, it's because he has an itch -- not because he's telling Salem's players what to do.

Instead, he does that with an occasional raise of his right hand, flashing a series of three numbers, always between zero and five.

Skundrick is just the middleman, though, in Liam Woodard's game.

Woodard, Salem's head coach, helped develop a system where instructions are passed by numbers rather than by signs. Before each play, Woodard passes a code on to Skundrick, who then passes the signal on to Salem's batters and runners. The runners then check game-specific wristbands to pick up the sign.

"To me, it's a no-brainer to use it, because it's pick-proof and kids don't miss signs," Woodard said. "I don't know why everyone doesn't use it."

However, Woodard is monetarily motivated in making that statement — he sells a version of the play-coding program.

The play coding started as a basic spreadsheet file, but evolved into a full interactive program that can be tailored to specific teams and players."I can completely customize it, so (for example) if I have a guy who throws a split-finger (pitch), I can put in a split-finger sign," Woodard said.

Woodard wanted a system of signaling plays that other teams couldn't steal. Such a system didn't exist in a form Woodard wanted, so he contacted Bryce Gardinier, a computer science guru who played baseball with Woodard at Western Oregon in 2001. Together, they developed the interactive system where coaches can change the numerical signs from game to game, a system Woodard calls "un-pickable."

"(In the) Pac-10, picking signs is big business," Woodard said. "They have guys on staff, (and) that's all they do." However, stealing Salem's signs would require more than just a keen eye -- it might require actual theft.

The codes change each game and players are given new sheets to put in their wristbands. The coach's sheet lists the possible offensive plays and defensive set-ups, and the wristbands players wear tell them what each three-digit code means.

"In Oregon, we play the same teams, maybe twice a week, so it gets real easy to pick off signs," said Josh McCartney, the right fielder in Salem's 19-2 victory over East Anchorage, Alaska, on Friday. Added teammate Scott Rowland, "We haven't had a sign picked all year." Ben Shivers clarified his teammate's statement: "Some teams tried to pick us this year, and they quit trying after the first game."

Woodard said the system has given Salem a mental edge, one that carried Post 9 to the Oregon state championship and brought them to Casper for the American Legion Northwest Regional tournament."For the most part, people who know what we're doing aren't going to try and pick our signs," Woodard said.


Sign Of The Times?
By Kris Henry / Mail Tribune — April 15, 2008

Coach Don Senestraro's Ashland baseball team is living up to preseason expectations as the Southern Sky Conference favorite, taking a 4-0 league and 11-2 overall record into today's doubleheader at Eagle Point.

But what is truly unique about the Grizzlies is their method of communication on the field.

Baseball purists are used to watching coaches make signals from the field or the dugout, often in mind-numbing fashion. A touch of the nose, then the belt, then the hat, over to the left ear and then the right ear, a sweeping motion across the chest and then down the right arm before finishing with a clap of the hands.

Any one of those motions could mean something, or nothing. The right combination of motions leads to a certain play by the batter, while a minor alteration means another. The same goes for signaling pitches to the catcher, who then has to provide different signs to his pitcher.

It's all meant to throw off opposing teams as to what you're trying to accomplish, but sometimes you can throw yourself off with missed signs.

The Grizzlies, however, have had no such issues since Senestraro adopted a numbers method from Western Oregon University two years ago.

"We haven't missed a sign in two years," says Senestraro. "Let me tell you, as a coach, that gets out a lot of the frustrations right there. It works really well for us."

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