The game within the game: Q&A with Jason Stein

In conversation with Duke Magazine staff writer Lucas Hubbard '14
August 11, 2017

Baseball coaches communicate with players by using complex series of gestures, touching shoulders, hats, belts, elbows, noses, ears, to signal intention without alerting the opposing team. Duke volunteer assistant coach Jason Stein serves as the team’s hitting coach and during games calls signals as the third-base coach. 

Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Q: How many signs do you have to keep track of when you’re coaching third base?

Stein: We have ten to fifteen different signs, just from an offensive standpoint. Some of the signs are hot signs, where all you have to do is touch something, and some of the signs are just a one- or two-word verbal signal. And then, some of the signs require multiple touches.

Q: How does a hot sign work?

Stein: You see one thing, and it’s on. So in our system, with a hot signal, there’s no need for an indicator or anything to close with. It’s almost like a verbal, but you’re doing it by hand sign or body language.

Q: Body language? Like your stance?

Stein: I’ve done that before where if my feet are this way, it’s on. If my feet are that way, it’s not on.

Q: With a verbal signal, is that something as simple as a particular phrase, or saying it in a particular manner?

Stein: It’s a particular phrase that is baseball-related but one that I never, ever use. It’s something that an opposing dugout would say, “Oh, that’s a baseball phrase. That sounds like a baseball phrase.” But I never say it. My players know it. So then when I say it, they know, boom, that’s a hot sign.

Q: How about defensive signals?

Stein: On the defensive side, we use a number system to call in a pitch to our catcher, then the catcher gives it to the pitcher. So our pitches come out of the dugout—Coach Maki [the pitching coach] relays those signs to our catcher, and it’s a number system. There’s no way you can pick these signs, because we’re using a three-digit number. So let’s say you want to throw a curveball. It might be four-three-one. So he holds up his fingers, four, three, one. That signifies a curveball for that day, or for that inning. And these numbers constantly switch, and we have every pitch on this number system.

Q: In situations where, say, there’s a runner on second base, do you talk to the catcher about switching up the signs?

Stein: Really, runners on any base. We have a “multiple” system from the catcher to the pitcher. He’s giving multiple signs to where it’s nearly impossible to pick those signs if you’re a runner on second base. The pitcher knows what sign it is, and there might be five or six prompts from the catcher that move pretty quickly, and it’s nearly impossible to pick. 

But some teams don’t use an intricate system, and you can pick it, if you’re at second base long enough. You can easily pick it.

Q: How would a baserunner know how to “pick” these signs?

Stein: You have to coach them and say, “Here are some simple systems that some teams may use, where they ‘chase two.’ ” So whatever comes after the finger two is the real sign. Or it could be number-of-outs-plus-one, whatever follows that. There are all types of systems that people use. And if you have an astute baserunner at second base, you can figure it out, sometimes.

Q: Have you had situations where you thought that a team might be stealing signs?

Stein: Yeah. You’ve got to be aware of that, and you’ve got to notice their body gestures to try to offset. Sometimes, if you have a freshman catcher back there, he throws down the same numbers, and he’s not really mixing it up, because the game has sped up on him. So we’ve got to educate our catcher. But we do this in fall practice, so it should not happen in the spring.

Q: What do you do if you suspect the other team has started to crack the code?

Stein: You could mix your indicator up after the third inning. You could mix your indicator after the third, sixth, and ninth inning. Or if I use the verbal signal too much during the game, then we can change it to another verbal that we have in our back pocket.  

Also, on Friday, I have one indicator. On Saturday, I have another indicator. On Sunday, there’s another indicator. So it switches every game.

Q: What percent of signs would you say you make that are real, that are active?

Stein: I’m going to say 10 to 20 percent might be real. I’m either taking a pitch or moving a runner, creating action. When nobody’s on base, there might be 2 percent of the time it’s real. But with a runner on base, you might have 10 to 20 percent.

Q: Do you ever have fun with the signs you give, just to loosen the team up?

Stein: I feel the only quirkiness that I have is that we want to be fast. Because I believe in controlling the pace of the game, and, because I’m already thinking two, three, four pitches ahead. Put pressure on the pitcher and the defense. 

And then, the last thing, I’ll give you my philosophy. Usually, when you’re playing well, coaches don’t get involved. So I tell my players, “Don’t get me involved. Swing the bat, steal the base, and score the runs.” You don’t get coaches involved offensively, because that’s the way the game is intended to be played. It’s not a coach’s game. With basketball or football, you’re constantly sending in signals, and those plays mean something. Baseball’s not like that. The ebb and flow is really a player’s game. They need to play it. As soon as you start getting coaches involved, that’s when some bad things can happen.