Understanding Baseball's Unique Words and Phrases
From April through October, it’s baseball season! But if you don’t understand the announcers’ lingo, watching the game on television or listening to it on the radio can be confusing. Luckily, whether you’re new to the game or an “old pro,” baseball is a language we can all speak fluently!
What Did He Say?
When the Ace on the hill threw the ball, he heard the Bronx Cheer as a response to the Chin Music he gave the batter. On the next pitch, the batter expected another brushback but instead, because the southpaw wound up and jammed him with a yakker, the swinger hit a Baltimore chop off the dish that looked more like a Texas-Leaguer.
Pretty basic stuff, right? No?
Baseball announcers take for granted that the audience can follow their line of chatter, and for most enthusiasts, we can do just that . . . at least, most of the time. But the peppered slang of baseball play-by-play announcing is an ever-changing language. Here are (only) some of the true basics of baseball jargon.
"A" Is for Announcer
- Ace: The best starting pitcher on the team, at least, on paper. This could be the guy with the lowest earned run average or highest strikeout percentage. But an Ace who’s having a poor season may find himself demoted to the bullpen. It’s all about where you are at the moment; that’s the nature of the game.
- Air Mail: When a fielder throws a ball wildly over the head of his intended target.
- Alley: Also called “the gap,” this refers to the area between two outfielders—neither of whom could get to the ball. The alley/gap could be in right center or left center of the outfield, depending on where the ball lands.
- Around the Horn: No, we’re not referring to that sports network talk show or even a dangerous naval voyage around Cape Horn. In baseball, this phrase refers to a double play where the ball is hit to the third baseman, thrown to second base for the first out and then to first base for the second out.
- Aspirin: Not the medicinal pill—"aspirin" refers to a fastball moving so fast and accurately that the chance of a batter making contact with the ball is minimal . . . the ball looks as small as an aspirin tablet.
- At the Letters: The pitch, as it crosses the plate, reaches the height of the letters on the batter’s uniform jersey. The announcers may say a pitch is “chest high,” “at the letters,” or “letter high.”
"B" Is for Baseball
- Backdoor: Usually a breaking pitch (like a slider or curve) that, because it looked as if it would completely miss the plate, floats laterally through a portion of the strike zone’s outside edge. Announcers particularly like to dramatize this pitch when it strikes the hitter out, ends the inning, ends the game and dashes all hopes for a playoff berth.
- Bag: First, second or third base. Or, if used as a verb, the outfielder “bagged” the ball. The bases are also called sacks.
- Baltimore Chop: This happens when the batter hits the ball so hard that it deflects off, or just in front of, home plate and then bounces over an infielder's head. The ball is still in play, giving the batter an opportunity to cross first base before the defensive throw can be made. This phrase comes from the 1890 Baltimore Orioles who, legend has it, kept their playing ground extremely hard (cement under the dirt) in front of home plate.
- Bandbox: A term used for small Major League Baseball parks, although these are usually minor league parks, now. The smaller, more intimate "bandbox" ballparks (with their required field dimensions) have varying fence heights and foul line locations that are enticing to some hitters.
- Bang Bang Play: This phrase often comes from excited announcers when a fielder arrives at the bag with ball in hand, just before the runner. Or the other way around; the runner beats the throw (or tag) “by an eyelash.” Anything spectacular makes it a “bang bang play.”
- Banjo Hitter: Bloop singles and beating out bunts are the tools of the trade for hitters who have little power for anything else (also called Punch and Judy hitters).
- Baseball: Slang terms for the little round ball include—but certainly are not limited to—pearl, pea, cowhide, horsehide, and pill.
- Base Hits: Announcers come up with a bevy of words to describe a base hit (or hitting the ball so that it results in a hit), including poke, pop, scratch hit, bleeder, seeing-eye ball, seed, spank, bloop, Texas-Leaguer, blooper, flare, bingle, three-bagger (triple), two-bagger (double), yank, zinger, solid cut, duck snort, fluke hit, and hammer. Loaded bases are “juiced.”
- Basket Catch: Typically, it’s a basket catch when the outfielder (or infielder) snags a fly ball (or popup) with his glove at shoulder- or waist-high level. Often, the fielder goes for a basket catch when the ball is hit over his normal stance or if he has to reach for it. New York (turned San Francisco) Giants' Willie Mays (arguably) made the most famous over-the-shoulder basket catch in the 1954 World Series.
- Blowser: A closer pitcher who seems to have more blown saves than actual saves.
- Bottom Dropped Out of It: A pitcher’s sinker ball that drops suddenly.
- Bronx Cheer. The crowd doesn’t like what’s happening on the field and the “boo” (made by sticking your tongue between the lips and blowing a bubbling sound) is loud and unanimous . . . against the home team. Why “Bronx?” Hey, New York can be a rough place.
- Brushback: This pitch, sometimes made by accident but often on purpose as a warning to the hitter, moves in closely enough to brush the batter away from crowding the plate. (The pitch doesn’t—or shouldn't—hit the batter).
- Bush: This phrase stems from “bush leagues,” an early term used to describe anything from sandlot, semi-professional teams and Double-A baseball or lower. The comment refers to a player who engages in a “bush play” or “bush behavior” that is amateurish, immature or inappropriate. Even the most experienced professionals have been known to pull a “bush” move, every now and then.
"C" Is for Cracker Jack
- Can of Corn: When an outfielder makes an easy-peasy catch. Some baseball historians attribute this phrase to a 19th-century grocery store owner who would take a long stick to poke at a canned item placed on a high shelf; the can would fall into his apron. Or it could be that corn was an easy thing to stock and sell. Like many baseball phrases, their absolute origins and stories depend on who you ask.
- Caught Looking: The batter is out on a called third strike.
- Cellar: A team that’s in last place in their division.
- Cheese: A hot fastball that has “something on it.” That’s some good cheese. A fastball thrown high in the strike zone is “high cheese.”
- Chin Music: A pitch that comes in high and inside. The idea of this brushback pitch is to brush back the batter. (Jim “Mudcat” Grant didn’t originate the phrase but the pitcher-turned-broadcaster used it a lot in his TV days with the Cleveland Indians and Oakland Athletics). Related to this is the term high and tight, where the pitch actually does cross the strike zone and float up and in on the hitter. In this case, the pitch may be unintentional.
- Circus Catch: When an outfielder gets all twisted up but still makes a great acrobatic catch.
- Closer: The relief pitcher who finishes the game. Almost always, baseball has used relief pitchers, sometimes called long men, short men, firemen, short relievers, stoppers, etc. Although managers would use relief pitchers during late innings, it was, perhaps, around the late 1980s or early 1990s when the term and idea of closer came into place.
- During the late innings, a team—usually winning the game at that point—would bring in relief pitchers if the opposite team was rallying to score runs. If the reliever gets out of the inning without giving up any—or too many—runs, then that ballclub’s closer comes in (usually at the start of the 9th inning and especially when leading by three runs or fewer).
- The closer is there to “close the door” and will usually be credited for a save. Only on occasion would a closer come in when his team is behind. Baseball clubs hire pitchers for the sole role of closer.
- Comebacker: When the batter hits the ball directly back to the pitcher.
- Crackerjack: No, it’s not the tasty treat, although you can always find Cracker Jack at the ballpark. In this case, crackerjack means a player (or ballclub) that has a lot of power and skill.
- Cutter, or Cut Fastball: A fastball that has a late break.
- Cycle: A batter hits for the cycle when he gets a single, double, triple and home run in one game. Often, it seems that the triple is the hit that seals the deal.
"D" Is for Diamond
- Dance: When a well-thrown knuckleball, curve or other breaking pitch moves as the pitcher always hopes. When you hear a play-by-play announcer say “look at that knuckleball dance,” you know it was a sweet pitch.
- Dead Arm: A hard-throwing, dominant pitcher who isn’t pitching as well as usual may be said to have a “dead arm.” Yeah, lose a couple and you’re labeled for life (baseball is a cruel game).
- Dead Ball: Action is stopped when a play is interfered with by a fan, player, piece of equipment, etc.
- Dead Pull Hitter: The batter usually hits the ball to the same side of the field from where he stands at the plate. For example, a right-handed batter (who bats on the left side of the plate) will send the ball to left field. Seems right, you think?
- Deal: There are a couple of ways announcers use this word; “He sets and deals" (the pitcher is throwing to the batter), and "the player was dealt (traded) to another team.” The term deliver also means to pitch the ball.
- Deep in the Count: Pitchers are deep when the count is at three-balls and two-strikes against a batter. The more pitches a batter makes the hurler toss, the more opportunities to get on base.
- Deuce: A curveball. If you’re watching the game on TV, you might see the catcher flash two fingers that (he thinks) only the pitcher can see. “Here comes the deuce.”
- Dig it Out: A low-thrown ball that a fielder has to scoop up to make the play.
- Doctoring the Ball: A pitcher may be accused of “putting something on it” when a pitch has an unusual spin. That could mean he is adding saliva, petroleum jelly, or a number of other substances, or, he could be scuffing up the ball in some way. But announcers often say a pitcher is putting something on it when the hurler is on top of his game that day (similar to putting a little “English” on the ball).
- Double-Clutch: Most likely an involuntary reaction, a fielder pumps his arm twice before throwing to his teammate to get the batter out. This defensive hesitation may allow the offense to advance an extra base.
- Drilled: The batter is hit by a pitch; the pitcher drilled him.
- Ducks on the Pond: The bases are loaded or there are at least two in scoring position.
- Dying Quail: A fly ball that drops in front of outfielders and becomes a base hit for the batter. Also called a gork, chinker, blooper, bleeder, bloop single and any number of silly, made-up words.
"E" Is for Excellence
- Earnie: Another term for “earned run.”
- Excuse-Me Swing: The batter tries to hold up his swing but the umpire counts it as a full rotation.
- Expand the Strike Zone: This happens when a pitcher gets ahead in the count; he can waste a pitch by trying to “paint the corners” of the plate. The idea is that the hitter may be more likely to swing at a bad pitch.
"F" Is for Flash
- Fastball/Fastball Pitcher: A good fastball pitcher brings on the heat, or fires up the heater. The hurler could be a “ground ball” pitcher who gets batters to hit more balls on the ground than in the air.
- Fat Pitch: The pitch comes down the pipe exactly where the batter wants it.
- Find a Hole: Where the batter drives a hit between the infielders.
- Flashing the Leather: A term used for infielders who make difficult defensive plays look easy peasy.
- Flutterball: Typical of a knuckleball, when a pitch merely “floats” over the plate.
- Four-Fingered Salute: An intentional walk. This is not the same as a Free Pass (which is when a pitcher doesn’t mean to walk the batter but it occurs anyway).
- Frozen Rope: A strong throw to the outfield or a sharply hit line drive.
- Fungo: Infield catch and fielding practice.
"G" Is for Groove
- Get On Your Horse: This is a term for outfielders who run hard and at full speed to track down a well-hit fly ball. This author can still hear her daddy calling out “Manning, get on your horse!” (Rick Manning, Cleveland Indians; 1976).
- Get Good Wood: A batter who hits the ball hard on the meat of the bat has gotten "good wood."
- Goose Egg: A big fat zero on the scoreboard.
- Grandstand Play (or, Grandstanding): Individual players who deliberately show off for the fans, scouts, and photographers are grandstanders. Also known as hot-dogging and showboating.
- Ground Ball With Eyes: When a ground ball sneaks through two infielders, it finds the only spot where a fielder (or two) cannot get to it.
"H" Is for Highlights
- Hang: This term has several meanings, but mainly it’s when a pitcher tosses a breaking ball (such as a curve ball) doesn’t break or curve and just “hangs” over the plate. Hitters love those!
- Headhunter: A pitcher may be called this if he throws too many balls that come close to a batter’s head.
- Hole in the Glove: Announcers say this about players who often drop fly balls or have grounders roll under the glove.
- Home Plate: Slang terms include dish, platter, stop and such.
- Home Run Lingo: There are a number of words and phrases for this one; here are a few: dial long distance, dinger, four-bagger, big fly, bomb, wallop, going yard (yard job), go/went deep, blast, dong, upper decker, moon shot, round tripper, granny (grand slam), tape measure blast, tater, Ruthian blast (after Yankees’ slugger Babe Ruth), four-base knock, jack, “hit it where the grass doesn’t grow,” salami or grand salami (grand slam), etc. A player who hits a lot of homers may be called a Fence Buster. The pitcher who serves up the home run has thrown a gopher ball. Longtime Cleveland Indians radio announcer Tom Hamilton loves the double-shots, or “back-to-back jacks!”
- Hot Corner: Announcers could just say third base, but where’s the fun in that?
"I" Is for Innings
- Inherited Runner: The relief pitcher “inherits” the opposing team’s runners on base. But if the reliever allows these runners to score, the runs are charged to the previous pitcher who let them get on base in the first place.
- Insurance Run: As the game moves into later innings, if the leading team is ahead by only one or two runs, they’ll want some insurance against the possibility of the opposing team scoring.
- In the Books: Game over, it’s done; time to record the outcome for all posterity.
- In the Hole: The batter who follows the on-deck hitter is “in the hole.”
"J" Is for Jacks and "K" Is for Strikeouts. Huh?
- Jam: This has several meanings. Bases can be jammed (loaded); pitchers get into a jam when they are pitching to a batter with runners in scoring position; a batter is jammed when a pitch comes inside so that he cannot swing.
- Juiced: Another term with several meanings. Bases are “juiced” when they’re loaded; players may be “juiced” if they are taking steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs; baseballs that move unexpectedly may be “juiced” or “doctored.”
- Junk/Junkball Pitcher: A pitcher who throws weak fastballs, knuckleballs, breaking balls and other pitches that are hard to hit.
- K: The letter used to describe a strikeout on a scorecard or scoreboard. The forward K indicates a swinging third strike; a backward K means that the batter struck out on an umpire-called third strike. The K's hard sound in the word “strike” gives it a knockout punch.
- Keep the Hitter Honest: A pitcher will vary his pitches by location and speed in order to keep the batter guessing.
- Knee-Buckler: Curveballs and other breaking pitches that break hard and fool the hitter.
"L" Is for Lively
- Lace: Hitting a ball hard. An announcer might say the batter “laced it to right field.”
- Launch Pad: A term for ballparks that yield a lot of home runs.
- Leaning: Baserunners who get picked off may be “leaning” or are “caught leaning” because they are shifting their weight toward the next bag.
- Lights Out: A pitcher whose stuff is so good that once he takes the mound, everyone else can turn out the lights and go home.
- Lumber: Another term for a player’s strong bat that leads to hits and runs.
"M" Is for the Magic
- Make-up Call: It does happen, especially on pitches, that plate umpires occasionally make bad calls. So, in an attempt at fairness, these "men in blue" may give the benefit of the doubt (to the pitcher or hitter) on a future pitch. Of course, you would never get an umpire to admit that such a thing as a make-up call actually exists.
- Manufacturing Runs: Teams that play “small ball” often “manufacture runs” by bunting, advancing runners, good baserunning, stealing bases, capitalizing on defensive mistakes, etc. Good fundamentals lead to a few more points from the “run factory.”
- Meat of the Order: This term refers to the middle of the batting order; 4th, 5th, and 6th hitters.
- Money Player: A hitter (or pitcher) that can get the job done in that “do or die” moment. “Money Pitch” is a phrase used when a pitcher’s lights-out pitch is why he makes the big bucks.
"N" Is for Nail Biter
- Nibble: Pitchers aim for the corners of home plate and “nibble” at the edges.
- Nightcap: The second game of a doubleheader, if they still exist anymore. Basic doubleheaders are separated by 20 minutes between games. Major League Baseball has become rather fond of “day-night” doubleheaders where teams can charge fans twice for attending two games in one day.
- No Room at the Inn: Announcers say this when bases are loaded and the pitcher is throwing balls, not strikes.
- Non-Roster-Invitee (NRI): Players who are invited to spring training but not on a team roster may be young prospects or long-timers whose contracts were not renewed by a previous team. NRIs have a chance to prove themselves by putting on a good show at spring training.
"O" and "P" Are Out at the Plate
- On the Ropes: When a pitcher loses command and is tiring, he’ll soon be hitting the showers.
- One Game Wonder: This term refers to a player who is brought in for only one game and then demoted to the bench or minor league farm team.
- Paint: Pitchers "paint" the corners of the plate to stay within the strike zone. A true artist may be called a Rembrandt.
- Pickle: Players caught in a rundown.
- Pitchers’ Lingo: And there is a lot of it! Some popular phrases to describe pitchers, pitches or the act of pitching are: four-wide ones (usually for intentional walks); Uncle Charlie (curveball); whip (curveball); whitewash (a shutout); wild pitch (when the ball is completely out of control); yacker/yakker; bean ball (hitting the batter—either intentionally or unintentionally); bender (curveball); deal; deliver; deuce (curveball); drill; hurler; Tabasco (a pitch with a little something extra to make it hot) and so much more.
- Plunked: Hit by a pitch.
- Power Alleys: Areas of the outfield where hitters drive the ball—usually left-center and right-center—when the defenders are not there. Baseball stadium dimensions and their locations vary from park to park.
- Pull the String: Pitchers who can fool a batter into swinging at a late-breaking pitch, resulting in a weakly-batted ball or strikeout. Imagine that the ball is attached to a string which the pitcher pulls away just as the batter takes his swing.
"Q" and "R," Give Us a Quick Rally!
- Quality: This could mean a quality start (when a pitcher gives six good innings and allows three runs or fewer), or a quality at-bat (the hitter works the count).
- Quiet: Pitchers who keep the offensive team from producing runs have “quieted the bats.” A quiet swing is when the hitter keeps his head and hands still when waiting for the pitch.
- Rabbit Ears: A player who hears the crowd's taunts and lets them get to him—resulting in more mistakes—is said to have "rabbit ears."
- Railroad: When runners come steaming into home plate and the catcher is in the way, trying to block the train from reaching the station.
- Rainbow: High-arching curveball.
- Runs Batted In: A couple of words to describe RBIs are "ribbie" and "ribeye."
"S" Is for Stamina
- Seamer: Fastballs are thrown in such a way that the spinning rotation may show two seams (2-seamer) or four seams (4-seamer). Batters try to see the seam rotation; it helps them judge the velocity of the pitch.
- Set the Table: A team’s ability to get runners on base before their power hitters get to the plate.
- Shade/shading: An outfielder moves slightly from his “normal” spot to snag a fly ball that he thinks will float to that position.
- Shelled: When a pitcher gives up a number of hits in an inning, he’s getting “shelled with enemy ammunition.”
- Shoestring Catch: Announcers love this phrase for when an outfielder (or infielder) catches the ball just before it hits the ground, or, “off his shoe tops.”
- Sitting on a Pitch: Batters do this when they are waiting for something they like.
- Slurve: A pitch that has the properties of both a curve and a slider.
- Snap Throw: The catcher, after the pitch, quickly fires to first or third base to pick off the runner.
- Spoil a Pitch: The pitcher throws a strike but the batter, in his fight to stay on top of the count, fouls the ball off.
"T" Is for Tea "U" Later
- Take the Pitch: Batters who don’t swing will merely “take the pitch,” especially when a coach gives the “take” sign.
- Take Something Off the Pitch: Announcers use this phrase in an attempt to explain why a pitch—usually a fastball—is moving slower than they think it should.
- Tea Party: When two or more players, manager or coaches join the pitcher for a conference on the mound.
- Tools of Ignorance: The catcher’s gear (mask, glove, chest protector and shin guards). If you asked an announcer where this phrase came from, they’d be ignorant of its origin. According to baseball historians, the phrase was coined by ballplayer Herold “Muddy” Ruel; a catcher with the Washington Senators in the 1920s. When a guy puts his body in front of a fastball thrown by baseball great Walter Johnson, for example, he can only hope that these catcher's tools will help protect him from serious injury. Ruel was the catcher on the day when New York Yankees pitcher Carl Mays threw the ball that struck and ultimately led to the death of Cleveland Indians hitter Ray Chapman (1920).
- Triple Crown: A hitter who, at season's end, led the league in home runs (HR), runs batted in (RBIs) and batting average. For a pitcher, the phrase refers to earned run average (ERA), strikeouts (K) and wins (W).
- Twin Killing: A "twin" term used to describe a double play and/or winning both ends of a doubleheader.
- Ultimate Grand Slam: When a team is behind three runs in the bottom of the 9th inning and the batter hits a walk-off home run to take the lead and end the game.
- Utility Player: A bench player who can handle a number of positions and step in, where needed.
- Vulture: The reliever who becomes the pitcher of record that gets credit for late-inning wins.
"W" and "X" Hope for Great Weather, but "Y" Just Wants Some "Zs"
- Waste a Pitch: Pitchers who are ahead in the count may toss a ball outside of the strike zone just to see if the batter will chase it.
- Wheelhouse: The hitter’s favorite power zone.
- Wheels: Legs—the runner who moves fast can really make those wheels turn.
- Window Shopping: A batter is looking for something to hit but gets caught with strike three.
- X: Nothing, but you may see it on a scorecard.
- Yakker: Curve ball.
- Zip: A pitcher who has good stuff may have some zip on this fastball.
And, So, There You Have It ...
Well, that’s it from A to Z . . . but, no, not really because this list of baseball jargon is really just the tip of the iceberg; radio and television announcers love to make up words and phrases to define any number of players, elements, ballgames or basic situations. From Spring Training through the Fall Classic, baseball has a language all its own, and now you’re ready . . . Play Ball!
Questions & Answers
What is a "worm killer?"
"Worm Killer" is a term for a pitch that hits the ground before it crosses the plate. It might be an off-speed pitch or a breaking ball -- or maybe a curve that bends a bit too much. If the pitched ball hits the dirt, it could be killing the worms below. Of course, if there are actually worms crawling around underneath the dirt area of home plate or anywhere else on the field, they'd surely be squirming a lot and ready to hightail it out of there.Helpful 2
What does it mean when a baseball announcer says "pair of shoes?"
That would depend on the announcer because a lot of them make up phrases that no one understands -- if you heard this from your favorite announcer, it might be best to ask him directly. But because this is a new one for me, I looked up some of the colorful phrases used by known broadcasters.
The only one I found on "pair of shoes" was from Dennis Eckersley (former Major League pitcher and current Boston Red Sox broadcaster), who has his own vocabulary of colorful phrases -- including this one. And because Eck has been known to create phrases (supposedly, he came up with "walk-off home run"), it could be that "pair of shoes" means two strikes, or two sinking pitches (if the phrase is used for pitching), or, for baserunners, someone who can steal with ease. Maybe it's for what's left over at the plate when the batter strikes out. Only Eck knows for sure. I remember when Dennis Eckersley came up as a rookie with my Cleveland Indians (1975), and the drama that ensued with one of his teammates that ended up with him being traded to Boston (1978). In any case, no matter where you heard it, ask the source (or organization) directly; it would be interesting to know what they'd have to say.Helpful 18
What is a "Johnson" in baseball?
Because I've never heard this term by any announcer, I checked all my baseball resources and, sorry, nothing. However, I am reminded of one of my favorite baseball movies where the term "johnson" was used -- but not as a description for anything actually in the game. If you're getting this from a movie or TV show, you may want to review the context of the term. If it's from a particular baseball announcer, ask him directly because it isn't widely known, otherwise.Helpful 5
What does it mean when the announcer says "He's 0-for-3"?
A batter is "0 for 3" if he's had three official at-bats with no hits (singles, doubles, triples, or home runs). At-bat exceptions are: situations where the batter gets to first base by way of being walked by the pitcher; struck out with the catcher dropping the ball (or other type of inference by the catcher); hit by a pitch; sacrifice fly or sacrifice bunt -- these do not count as official at-bats. Also, a player who is up to bat but is replaced during his turn won't be credited for the at-bat; the credit goes to the pinch-hitter. And, a player who is up to bat will lose credit for the at-bat if his teammate on base gets caught stealing or thrown out to end the inning.Helpful 3
What does the term "pearls" mean in Baseball?
The term "pearl" often refers to a brand new white baseball, just out of the box. Or baseballs that have already been used -- a baseball is also called a "pill," "aspirin," "pea," and a number of other synonyms.Helpful 2
© 2016 Teri Silver