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There are all kinds of fashion statements made in the game of baseball these days. The unbuttoned jersey, the flat bill hat, the eye black covering half of a player’s face are just a few that fans may notice in any given baseball game. One of the more interesting ones that may cause fans to do a double take is the catchers who paint their fingernails.
So, why do Catchers paint their fingernails? As it turns out, this fashion statement actually has nothing to do with fashion. It is purely practical. Catchers paint their fingernails to help the pitchers see their signs. This can be especially helpful during night games and for pitchers who struggle to see at a distance.
Fingernail painting among catchers is a small detail of a very important aspect of the game. It is part of a subtle yet imperative exchange between two of the game’s most essential players.
Most baseball people will agree that the game starts on the mound. No one can play until the pitcher throws the ball. He is in complete control of the pace of the game.
While there is some truth to this, I would argue that the game actually starts behind the plate with the catcher. The pitcher may start the play by throwing the ball across the plate, but what happens before that? The catcher gives the pitcher the sign to tell him what pitch to throw.
The sign is given when the pitcher is on the rubber and the catcher is in the squat position. The catcher will use his throwing hand to give a sign in the form of the number of fingers he flashes. One finger typically signals a fastball, and two fingers usually signals a curveball. The numbers used to represent each pitch call is completely up to the pitcher and catcher.
The mound is 60 feet 6 inches away from home plate, and some pitchers have difficulty seeing the catcher’s fingers (especially at night) from that far away. This requires some catchers to get creative, and one of the most popular ways to ensure that pitchers can see the signs at night is for the catchers to paint their fingernails a bright color.
While it is funny to imagine catchers sitting in a nail salon for their weekly manicure, it is rather simple for them to brighten up their nails for the pitcher. The first few players who pioneered this strategy used actual nail polish, which was a huge commitment on their part. Once more started doing it, some of the leaders in baseball gear and equipment decided to make it much easier, and more temporary, for catchers to brighten up their signs.
When Did it Start?
It is difficult to trace this practice back to a particular date in baseball history, but Russell Martin’s use of the bright colored fingernails in 2011 made headlines as fans began to notice. In this article from Newsday, Martin says that at first he used Wite-Out on his nails, but washing it off after games got messy. That is when he decided to just go all out and use actual nail polish for his pitchers.
In this particular article, Martin cites his use of a bright orange color on his nails because it “pops”. While his unique custom may have been one of the first to be publicized, Newsday reports that Jorge Posada, a former Yankee catcher, frequently painted his nails as well.
Before fingernail painting, catchers would use small pieces of easily accessible white athletic tape around the tips of their finger. This certainly helped pitchers, but it made catchers’ lives more difficult when it came to throwing as the tape got in the way of their grip on the ball.
Now, catchers typically use the fingernail stickers for their hard-of-seeing pitchers, but it is quite possible that there are some still some out there who prefer the nail polish or even athletic tape method.
Regardless of the method, the end goal for all three is simple: make the pitcher’s life easier and prevent cross-ups.
Alternative – Body Signs
Even before painting the fingernails was introduced into the game, many pitchers still had issues seeing the catcher’s signs. That is why some catchers give signs by touching different parts of their body similar to what third base coaches do when giving signs to the hitter. This allows those pitchers who may have a hard time seeing the catcher’s smaller fingers from the 60 feet 6 inch distance at night (or even during the day for some) the opportunity to simply follow the catcher’s hand.
The downfall of this strategy is that the opponents can see the signs the catcher is giving. That is why the catcher must give more than one sign and make sure the pitcher is on the same page to know which touch (first, second, third, etc.) signals the pitch to be thrown. The more complex the signs are, the less likely the opponent is to steal them, but this also opens up more opportunities for the pitcher and catcher to get crossed up.
A cross-up is when the catcher thinks a certain pitch is coming and the pitcher throws a different one. This is dangerous for both the catcher and the umpire, especially when the catcher is expecting a breaking ball and the pitcher throws a fastball. Watch this video to see how dangerous a cross-up can be and why it is so important for the pitcher and catcher to be on the same page.
Alternative – Wristbands
Something that has gotten more popular at the college baseball level is using the wristband number system (see Amazon) to send in play calls. With this system, the coach shouts a 3-digit number, and each player on the bases and at the plate checks their wristband for the play. This limits the opportunity for players to miss signs. Coincidentally, the leading brand for this type of system is called NeverMissASign.
This system is popular among pitching coaches as they can easily relay signs to their catcher who then can relay it to the pitcher. Some schools have even eliminated the catcher as the middleman in this exchange and have just given the pitcher a wristband to check the pitch call coming from the dugout. This is designed to help speed up the game and limit cross ups between the pitcher and catcher.
While it is mostly successful in accomplishing both of its goals, the idea of pitchers taking signs straight from the dugout makes baseball purists cringe. The signals between a pitcher and catcher are a sacred part of the game for many, and giving it up for a more convenient, dummy-proof system makes them feel like sellouts.
Only time will tell if this trend catches momentum and makes its way into more levels of baseball.
Frequently Asked Questions
When is the catcher allowed to give signs?
The pitcher is not allowed to take signs from the catcher until his foot is on the rubber and the umpire puts the ball in play. Taking the signs from the catcher before getting on the rubber is considered a balk and will result in a ball or a free base for a runner.
Why do catchers sometimes give more than one sign?
Catchers typically give more than one sign with a runner on second base to decrease the chances of the runner stealing the signs and relaying them to the hitter. The pitcher and the catcher must have an understanding of which sign is “hot”. For example, if the second sign is “hot”, and the catcher gives a sign sequence of “2, 1, 4, 1, 2”, the pitcher will throw a fastball since “1” was the second sign given.
Are any other players allowed to wear fingernail paint?
There is no rule against it for any other position player, but there is no real reason for anyone else on the diamond to wear it. Pitchers would not be allowed to wear fingernail paint as the color on the fingernails could inhibit the hitter’s ability to see the ball. This is the same reason they are not allowed to wear wristbands or white gloves.
Will the MLB ever start using the wristband system?
It is hard to say that it will never happen, but it is unlikely to happen anytime soon. As far as pitch signals go, it is highly unlikely because catchers call their own game in the big leagues. They don’t receive signs from the dugout. As far as offensive signs go, there aren’t as many signs given in pro ball as college and lower levels of baseball; therefore, there is not a need for it at the time. Crazier things have happened though.
The next time you see a baseball team sitting down for a post game meal at a restaurant, it will be easy for you to spot the catcher. Not only will he probably have the dirtiest uniform on the team, but there is a good chance that he will be sporting bright colored fingernails. It’s not because he just likes the color, it’s because he wants to prevent being crossed up by his pitcher who has trouble seeing the signs.