Michigan baseball coach Erik Bakich considers himself a traditionalist. He’d enjoy sending in signs from the dugout to third base coach Nick Schnabel, who’d relay them to Wolverines hitters and base runners.
That would be the same system ballclubs have employed for generations, and there are some definite advantages. Sending out a number of decoy signs keeps opponents on their toes. It forces batters and runners to check in with their coaches frequently. Teammates on the bench or in the on-deck circle can watch the signs and anticipate the action.
But Bakich ditched that system years ago. Instead, his Wolverines, who beat Texas Tech Friday and advanced to a matchup with Vanderbilt in Monday’s College World Series finals, wear bands like those used by quarterbacks around their forearms or on their belt buckles, with numerical codes that correspond to a particular command. Bakich or a base coach hollers out three digits and players check the bands for instructions.
“This is where normal conversation or normal reminders or anything we may want to communicate, instead of having to take a timeout and say something, I can just give three numbers as a way to do it,” Bakich said in a phone interview. “It just allows the communication between the dugout and the player, the coach and the player, whatever it may be; it allows it to enhance.”
And there are some definite advantages to using the numerical system instead of giving signs.
Players don’t have to memorize signs, and Division I teams can sometimes have dozens of them. There are often multiple signs for base stealing and bunting. Teams can order a hit-and-run, in which a base runner steals and the batter tries to hit the ball into the gap he vacated, which requires multiple signs. Coaches frequently have several “wipe-off” signs, signals whose sole purpose is to tell runners and hitters to do nothing at all.
And if players don’t have to memorize signs, they can’t forget them, especially if they’re wearing an instruction manual. They’re also less likely to miss a sign, when in the volley of decoy signals coaches give, players don’t spot a legitimate one, or they forget to look at their coach between pitches.
But Bakich has included more than just plays on the instructional cards. Some of the three-digit codes correspond to less specific advice including, “Be a dude,” and “Have fun.” The goal, he said, is to keep players engaged with coaches and to use those numbers to help them relax, get over a bad play or missed call and enjoy the experience.
Cliff Godwin, the coach at East Carolina and Bakich’s college teammate at ECU, sold the Michigan coach on the bands a few years ago. For coaches it may take the fun out of sign-giving — some coaches rehearse both real and dummy signals into a mirror before games — but it makes life easier on players.
“The players, it eliminates any confusion, any missed signs, any frustration, because it’s just three numbers,” Bakich said, “and they look down at their card and they see exactly what the play is.”