Umpire Signs and Signals

Jon T Anderson


 The base umpire touches the brim of his hat with one finger pointed up then gives the plate umpire a thumbs up signal. The plate umpire responds with a similar, unobtrusive thumb motion. You look at the field and realize it is an infield fly situation. The initial hat touch also relayed the fact that one is out, the thumb signaled the infield fly situation. This signal may not the one your crew uses but it is an effective form of communication around the diamond.

Umpires have developed a unique set of signs and signals to convey the game situation, the count, even anticipated on field rotations to each other. Their discreet, and sometimes not so discreet, motions do not distract the fan, who rarely sees them take place. Instead they insure that every umpire on the field is focused on the task at hand, that the count is consistent and everyone knows what might occur on the next play.


READ - PAUSE - REACT. Remember in each of these calls timing is everything. Selling the call is a matter of the game situation and each umpire will respond differently. There is nothing wrong with putting a little extra on the gesture and voice, if fact it is an important part of the game. In time each umpire develops their own personal sense of rhythm and timing, style and flair.


One Instructional Technique : A quick word on a method for starting of the "safe" and "out" call by initially raising or going into motion with both arms. It is handy particularly when teaching novice umpires. The sequence becomes: "hands-on-knees-set, pause, read, raise both arms to chest/shoulder height close to the body, now react, CALL, return to set" or "standing set, pause, read, move both arms, now react, CALL, return to set." This forces that extra second so quickly glossed over by the new umpire. I like to think of it putting both arms into motion at the same time, a ready-to-call or relaxed prep position. As an umpire progresses slow and proper timing is ingrained into the call and so this technique becomes molded in your personal style. Personally, whenever I find myself rushing a call I resort back to this basic series of motions.


Why initially learn to raise or move both arms upwards together? In addition to timing, if anything should happen the novice umpire can easily signal the other call. If "safe" and "out" essentially begin with the same gesture you insert an extra measure of call safety and will avoid the double call. Veteran umpires have developed this margin of safety into their timing.


Other umpires suggest other systems. Bruce Somers noted, "As I was reading through your section on Signs and Signals, you describe the technique for making the "safe" call or "out" call for the base umpire. You suggest being set, pausing, raising both arms, then reacting. I can see someone getting into trouble on occasion if they raise both arms all the time. For the routine call on the bases I would suggest: Come set, pause, read the play, stand upright, make the call. On the safe call, extend both arms straight out in front of your body, parallel to the ground, spread them fully open, return them to the front position and then reassume your set position. On the out call, place the left hand on your belt buckle and raise your right hand and pound out the call."


Different instructors and regional systems will dictate how you approach your calls. Regardless of the system you are taught or elect to use the umpire must practice to make all calls consistent, clear and appropriate. Consistency is the aim. Concentration the objective. Communication is the key.


Finally, a reminder: as the field umpire all calls start from a "set" position, usually hands-on-knees or standing with your hands at your side. Most important: Never be caught moving on a call. For the field umpire all calls should return to a set position, either standing or hands-on-knees.. This brings the body into balance, allowing you to pivot smoothly to follow the developing play or to stand and move smartly to your proper field position.


In no way is this a perfect or complete list. Every crew has added at least one sign or signal to its personal list. Any tool which increases communication around the diamond is welcomed.



Essential Signs for the Players and Fans

My first instructor made it clear: the plate umpire's right hand signals play, strike, out, fair ball - "the ball's alive", and on the rarest of occasions "infield fly" and hopefully even rarer, an ejection. The left hand does everything else including awarding bases, controlling the pitcher and holding the indicator and the mask. Remembers that simple instruction and almost everyone, coach, player and fan, will be crystal clear about your intentions.


Along with strike and ball, this is the one call the plate umpire will make most often during a game. Pointing at the pitcher (or the plate) with the right hand and calling "play." The call is essential for the batter and catcher. The gesture is essential for the pitcher, defense and offense.. In every case in the rule book (Section 5.00) it is clear that the play signal is a verbal signal: "....the umpire shall call "Play"."

Erick Barkhuis, an umpire from the Netherlands, points out that "this signal/call is very important for your partner(s) too! They must know the exact moment the ball becomes alive. If they don't, they will not be able to respond correctly in situations where the pitcher makes a pickoff attempt or drops the ball while standing on the rubber. These are just a few examples." Perhaps more important than the ballplayer knowing is your partner(s) knowing the ball is alive.



Always signaled with the right hand, each umpire develops a personalized system for signaling the strike. Some do the traditional clenched fist, some indicate the strike out to the side with an open hand.. Some umpires face forward, some turn. Some call strike then signal, others do both simultaneously. One essential element is not to turn away from the action particularly in a two man system. In a two or three man system, by not facing forward, an umpire might even miss a play at the plate while going through their actions.

Should you say "Strike," signal "Strike" or both? 

Philip Gawthrop from Anne Arundel County, Maryland wrote to add this comment : "Generally, on a swinging strike, as the plate umpire, I NEVER VERBALIZE my call but rather indicate to the players and fans with a raised right arm (in my case, with a clenched fist). The exception to the NOT VERBALIZING is on a third strike; the plate umpire again raises his right arm and says "Strike Three" firmly but does not "sell the call." If the catcher has dropped or trapped the pitch, you still go through with a firm "Strike Three" keeping eye-contact with the batter/catcher."




Never signaled. Alright, maybe a touch of body english but no hand gestures. The general preference is that the verbal signal "ball" loud enough that both dugouts can hear it. Calling "ball" allows you to maintain the rhythm of your calls. Never indicate why a pitch was a ball, for example: "High, Ball One"

Ball Four 

Ball four is the one ball count that an umpire should announce aloud. You should NEVER point to first base even with the left hand. Just say "BALL FOUR". If the umpire points to first after the pitch and the defense thinks it's strike 3 and starts to leave the field chaos abounds. Even if you use the left hand, the players may not take note of which hand it was and be confused. Professional umpires never point to first.

Why ball four? It is an important count, but even more important is that you may arrive at a point where you will have to "sell" the walk. Having adopted a vocal call you are now in a position to act with authority should you need to.



Raising both hands into the air and calling in a loud voice "TIME." All umpires on the field will immediately signal the time call. Sometimes the call must be made several times in order to shut things down. Once time is called every effort must be made by all umpires to stop the action taking place. It is preferred that umpires maintain the time signal with at least the right arm until play is prepared to resume.

The Count 

Balls are signaled using the left hand. Strikes are signaled using the right hand. A full count is always signaled as "three balls, two strikes" and never signaled using clenched fists. The count is relayed back to the pitcher after every pitch and a verbal report is made usually after the second or third pitch and from that point on. The count is always read aloud as "two balls, two strikes" and not "two and two" or "twenty-two" or other similar variation.




Both left and right arms are raised together, to shoulder level, in front of the umpire and then a sweeping motion is performed out, parallel to the ground, palms down. The verbal call of "safe" may be made. To complete the call you may elect to return to the set position. To sell a safe call you might consider doing it two or three times in rapid succession. It is not always necessary to even make the sign or call. If the play is obvious do nothing.



The clenched right fist and a short hammered motion seem to be favored by most umpires. Again, personal style is acceptable as long as it does not distract you from seeing any further plays taking place. It is advisable to wait a second or two before making this call. Watch that the ball does not come loose and check that the fielder is really in possession of the ball. The call can be made with only a gesture or can be sold with a loud call of "Out!" Signal every out.

Never say "Strike Three - You're Out!" 

Umpires are encouraged not to make this call a part of their repertoire. Why? In some leagues the third strike does not have to be caught while in others it must be caught. Often the plate umpire is in the worst situation to call the trapped ball, for example: a breaking ball in the dirt for the swinging third strike. An umpire should only call "Strike Three." If you have a situation where you know the batter now erroneously becomes a runner you can follow this by the call "The Batter Is Out!"

Dropped Third Strike 

Where this call is made the base umpire is often in a better position to relay the possession or trapping of the ball to the plate umpire. Signaling, not calling, a small discreet "out" means the ball was caught. Pointing to the ground with your right hand can mean the ball was trapped or not caught.

Out on the force! 

This is a simple out call but the concentration is on the base. Raise both hands together, just like you are going to call "safe". Point towards, or focus on, the base then signal the out with the right hand, the left hand usually moves up to your chest. Complete the sign by saying "...he's out" or "out at first" etc. if required

Out on the tag! 

Point at the runner with the left hand, signal the out with the right hand. Complete the sign by saying "out" plus "on the tag" if you want to sell it a touch. (Remember you are the umpire, not the color commentator.)

Safe, he missed the tag! 

A "selling it" call that occurs when a runner slides under or around the tag or the tag is high. You can save some grief by indicating a loud "safe" and following it with a tapping motion where the tag was. Everyone will know you saw the tag and most will assume the runner had the bag before it.

Fair Ball 

The right hand points into the field in fair territory. There is no call "Fair" anything ever made. 


Foul Ball 

The same signal as "Time" but the call becomes "Foul." Umpires often add a point into foul territory with one hand after giving the time signal.


Dead Ball 

The same signal as "Time" but the call becomes "Dead Ball" or is simply left at "Time." The base umpire needs to pay specific attention to a ball hitting the batter in the batter's box. The base umpire will immediately call "Time" or "Dead Ball" if the plate umpire did not see the infraction. Never say "foul" in this situation.

See above . . .

No Pitch 

The same signal as "Time" but the call becomes "No Pitch." If you are the plate umpire, step away from the plate. You will use this call most often in a softball game. It is used to indicate a leading off violation in some leagues. The call is a clear "No Pitch" and the "Runner is Out!" with a point and Out signal..

See above . . .


The Run Counts 

Here there are two schools of thought. Often you will see an umpires point at the plate each time a run crosses the plate legally. Scorers often key on this gesture (as well as catchers!) This can be important on the "time-play" or a "third-out" situation.

Bob Bainter, a professional umpire noted, "As far as the point on the run scoring, I think it is a matter of personal preference. Umpire Development wants no signal from us whether it is obvious or not. It is not our job to let anyone know, because what if the defense wants to appeal and throws the ball away, allowing another runner to advance or even score? That is a situation could put the offensive team in a tizzy. It has happened before."


The Run Does Not Count! 

Signal and announce when the runner does not score so that the scorer and coaches maintain accurate records. The signal, done by the plate umpire, begins by forming an 'X' with the arms in front of the body then sweeping the arms out to the "time" position. The gesture is repeated and the call "The runner does not score!" is made.



Advanced Signs for the Players and Fans


Called Strike 

First point at the batter with your left hand then signal the strike with your right. It is good practice to verbalize something like "He went - strike." One very effective call is the pointed "Haaaw ... strike!"


The "Check-Swing" or Appealed Strike 

The plate umpire does not have to be asked for help, he can simply request it himself. Experienced catchers will immediately ask you to get help from the base umpire after a check swing which you called a ball although in younger leagues with the coach and three players yelling you often say to the catcher, "Do you want to ask if that was a swing or not?" . Check with your league to see where the request can come from. In some leagues the request to appeal can come from anywhere on the field, even the manager. A request should never be refused. With your left arm gesture clearly to the base umpire and ask "Did he swing?" or "Did he go?" If the answer is yes the base umpire signals - "Strike." If the answer is no - a safe sign.

The Foul Tip 

A two part signal. Extend you left arm up, in front of your body, palm down, to at least shoulder level. Brush the fingers of the right hand over the back of the left hand two or three times. The signal is completed by signaling the strike with the right hand. Because the ball is alive and runners can advance never say "Foul Tip." Announcing "foul" anything could stop the action.

Infield Fly Called 

All umpires point into the air with their right hand. On some crews every umpire on the field echoes the infield fly call, on others only the gesture is echoed. This should be dealt with in the pre-game conference.

Home Run or Ground Rule Double 

First, the ball is dead. Make sure any unnecessary action is killed, particularly if the ball has rebounded back into the field. The signal for a home run is circling the right arm and index finger overhead. The ground rule double is awarded by signaling "two bases" with two fingers held up usually on the left hand.

Awarding Bases 

Using the left hand point clearly at the runner and state "You second base" or "You third base", "You home" whatever the case may be. The runner is protected all the way to the base but not one inch beyond it.

That's a Balk! 

Balks must be called with reference to the action. Remember, if the pitcher completes the delivery of the ball, or throws to a base, you are in a delayed balk situation. The sequence of arriving at that signal is: point at the pitcher, arm at shoulder height, and say "That's a balk" .... now if the pitcher hesitates in his delivery call "Time" .... and award the bases "Runner, second base." etc. Pointing at the pitcher will allow sufficient time to determine a delayed balk call situation.

The Interference Call 

An immediate decision is needed: "dead ball" or "delayed dead ball." Point at the offensive player and make the call "That's Interference" followed by your decision on whether or not the ball is dead, announced with a loud gestured "Time" or (...nothing...) meaning a delayed dead ball. If the ball remains alive avoid any signal that looks or sounds like "Time" until the appropriate moment. If the ball is dead call "Time" immediately and shut down any remaining play on the field.

The Obstruction Call 

This call is like interference except the ball may remain alive. In all cases the call "That's Obstruction" is made while pointing at the defensive player making the obstruction. If a play is being made on the obstructed runner the ball is dead so immediately signal "Time." This is followed by an awarding of a base or bases either after play has stopped or even while play remains ongoing. Unless a play was being made on the obstructed runner the ball remains alive.

Any gesture which resembles "Time" being called can cause problems on a diamond. This is one reason why some umpiring organizations teach to initially extend the left hand horizontally with a clenched fist. The professional baseball umpires point at the fielder with one hand only.


Catch or No Catch 

When signaled the "catch" resembles the "out" signal. No verbal indication needs to be given. The "no-catch" signal resembles the "safe" signal except the call of "No Catch" is clearly given. Sometimes it will be necessary to repeat this sign several times. An addition to the "No Catch" is the juggling routine which indicates the fielder did not have possession. Juggle when the fielder is on the base for the force out but not in full possession of the ball.

Some crews give the safe signal and then point to the ground several times saying "on the ground, on the ground" when the ball is dropped. The terms "Catch" and "No Catch" could be mixed up over the crowd noise.


The verbal call needs only to be given on a trouble ball, for example: a ball caught diving or below the fielder's knees. Routine fly's can be signaled or not signaled depending on crew and local practice. If a ball is on the foul lines first signal whether the ball is fair or foul, then the catch or no-catch status if desired.



Signs for the Umpire Crew

The last thing a crew needs are a whole collection of "secret" or "private" signs. Keep any signs simple. Much beyond these few universal signs and the umpire's sign list is growing too long.

How many are out? 

There are two signs for making this request: 1) a cutting motion made across the throat or 2) tapping the right pant leg with a closed right fist. Responses 1) The number of outs are relayed by hold the appropriate number of fingers, pointing down, pressed against the right leg or 2) touching the brim of the hat with the appropriate number of fingers (or a clenched fist if no one is out.) A plate umpire often signals the number of outs by touching the side of the mask with a closed fist (0 out), one finger (1 out) or two fingers (2 out) extended.

What's the count? 

A quick tapping on the top of head or on the brim of the hat indicates confirmation of the count being requested. An alternative sign is placing the palms of both hands horizontally on the umpire's chest. Response is made by holding the number of balls in the left hand and the number of strikes in the right hand. These are held pressed against the shirt just above the belt. The responding umpire also calls the count aloud.

Possible Infield Fly Situation 

Some crews signal each other by first relaying the number of outs from the brim of their hats then signaling the infield fly. Another infield fly signal is done simply with the thumb pointing and moving upwards. A standard signal is to tap your left shoulder with your right palm indicating that the infield fly could be called. What is important is that play does not resume until all umpires are aware of the pending situation.

Watch out for a time play 

A sign flashed around many diamonds is a warning to be alert for a potential "two-out" time play situation. The plate umpire simply taps the back of his wrist where he would normally wear a watch. wrote this note: "I just finished 5 weeks at the Jim Evans Academy of Professional Umpiring and they gave this time play instruction: Indicate to partner with right arm extended toward him with two finger indicating two outs and then a sharp point to the plate. This indicates that there is a possible time play and I am staying at home plate for a possible time play.


I need help! 

As soon as a manager leaves the dugout good umpires will move towards the umpire being addressed. If the discussion goes beyond a few pleasant words they will move in very close. If that umpire places two hand on his waist, particularly if he pumps them another umpire will step in between the umpire and manager. This request for intervention allows the umpire to immediately walk away from the area. As the intervening umpire there is only one objective, calmly say to the coach "OK coach, let's get back to playing baseball, the discussion is over, lets get back to the game." Under no circumstances will the intervening umpire discuss the play or become involved in any rules discussion.


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