MLB’s PitchCom system draws mixed reactions
Baseball and technology have always made for cautious partners.
For a five-year period in the 1930s, as radio became more popular, all three New York teams — the Yankees, Giants, and Dodgers — banned live play-by-play of their games because they feared the new medium would reduce attendance. When the Chicago Cubs added lights to Wrigley Field in 1988, allowing them to move away from generations of games played exclusively during the day, fans were up in arms. When electronic calls of balls and strikes were mentioned, it was the umpires’ turn to complain.
Other sports may change, but baseball, by and large, has made a business of staying the same.
With the establishment of limited instant replay in 2008 and the expansion of replay in 2014, the game temporarily entered the digital age. But adding cameras in every ballpark and video monitors in every clubhouse opened the door to an unintended consequence: electronic cheating.
The 2017 Houston Astros unabashedly stepped through that door, developing an elaborate sign-stealing system that helped them win the World Series. Two years later, when that arrangement was revealed to the public, it led to firings, suspensions and, ultimately, the permanent tarnishing of the championship.
Nothing in baseball spurs action faster than a scandal — after all, baseball created the commissioner’s office to deal with the 1919 Black Sox scandal. This season, Major League Baseball took a big step in moving away from the stigma of sign stealing with the introduction of PitchCom, a device controlled by the catcher that allows him to silently communicate with the pitcher about what pitch is coming — information that is simultaneously shared with three other players on the field through earpieces on the bands of their caps.
The idea is simple enough: If baseball could eliminate old-fashioned pitch-calling, where the catcher signals the pitcher with his fingers, it would be harder for other teams to steal those signals. There have been some hiccups, devices not working, or pitchers not being able to hear, but so far this season, everyone in baseball agrees that PitchCom, like it or not, is working.
Minnesota Twins shortstop Carlos Correa, who served as the unofficial and unapologetic spokesman for the 2017 Astros, went so far as to say the tool would foil his old team’s systematic cheating.
“I think so,” Correa said. “Because now there are no signs.”
Not all pitchers are on board yet.
Max Scherzer, the New York Mets’ ace and baseball’s highest-paid player this season, sampled Pitchcom for the first time in a game against the Yankees late last month and emerged with conflicting thoughts.
“It works,” he said. “Does this help? Yes. But I think it should be illegal.
Scherzer went on to suggest that the game would lose something by eliminating stealing.
“That’s part of baseball, trying to crack somebody’s signs,” Scherzer said. “Does it have its intended purpose of cleaning up the game a bit?” He said about PitchCom. “Yes. But I think it takes a part of the game.
Scherzer’s comments drew mixed reactions from his peers. Seattle reliever Paul Sewald called him “a little naive” and “a little hypocritical.” Minnesota starter Sonny Gray said he agreed with Scherzer in theory, “but my objection is when you’re doing sign-sequences when the runner is on second base, you have teams that have it on video and break it down as a play. Goes on.”
Continuing his skepticism, Sewald said of Scherzer: “I have a pretty good feeling he’s on a team or two that steals signs.”
True or not, Sewald’s suggestion represents what many in the game commonly believe: Multiple managers say there are clubs that employ a dozen or more staff members to study video and swipe signs. Because this was done in secret, a leaguewide paranoia developed, even the innocent were now presumed guilty.
“I think we’re all aware of that,” Colorado manager Bud Black said. “We know there are front offices that have more manpower than others.”
The belief that sign stealing is rampant has led to widespread use of Pitchcom, perhaps faster than many imagined. And that’s welcome news to Major League Baseball’s top executives.
“It’s optional, and probably the best evidence is that all 30 clubs are using it now,” said Morgan Sword, MLB’s executive vice president for baseball operations. “This eliminates a significant problem for the game with sign stealing. But, secondly, it actually speeds up the game quite a bit. Without the need to run through multiple sets of signs with runners on base, the speed is improved.
So the question becomes, what was lost to achieve those gains?
Although code-breaking is as old as the sport itself, the intrusion of technology into a rural game that has languished for more than a century has caused a severe culture clash. Sign stealing is always accepted by players, as long as someone on the field does it. But hackles are immediately raised when technology is used as an aid in real time – and the unwritten (and now written) rules of the game are broken.
Drawing clear lines is important in an era where computer programs are so sophisticated that algorithms can reveal whether a pitcher is about to throw a fastball or a slider simply by the way his glove is held.
“When you’re using people who don’t play the game to take advantage, I, at least personally, have a problem with that,” San Diego manager Bob Melvin said.
Most agree that there is a fine line between technology that improves an existing product and, ultimately, changes its integrity. Getting them to agree on exactly where that line is drawn is another matter.
“I wish there was no video technology or anything,” Yankees second baseman DJ LeMahieu said.
Sword says Pitchcom is an example of technology’s ability to “produce a version of baseball that looks like it did a couple of decades ago” because it “neutralizes the latest threat.”
“I think that’s the way the world is going,” Black said. “And we are part of the world.”
And more technology is coming. An on-deck pitch clock being tested in the minor leagues, according to Sword, is “very promising” in achieving its intended goal: shortening games. It’s expected to be implemented in the majors soon, and pitchers will be required to deliver the pitch within a set time limit — in Class AAA, 14 seconds with no one on base and 19 seconds with runners on. is on board.
Generally speaking, pitchers are less enthusiastic about pitch clocks than PitchCom.
“Ninety percent of baseball is the expectation that something really cool is going to happen, and you have flashes of really cool stuff,” Colorado Rockies closer Daniel Bard said. “But you don’t know when they’re going to come, you don’t know what pitch it’s going to be on. Especially in the ninth inning, with everybody on the edge of their seats, do you want to rush through that? There are many good things in life that you don’t want to rush. enjoy yourself Enjoy yourself. To me, the end of a ballgame.
The most radical change, however, may be the automated strike zone – robot umpires in layman’s terms. Commissioner Rob Manfred said earlier this summer that he hopes to have such a system in place by 2024. Automated calls are distasteful to umpires, who feel they violate their judgment, and to catchers, who specialize in pitch framing — the art of receiving a pitch and making it look like it’s in the strike zone, even when it’s not.
“I don’t think that should happen,” said Yankees catcher Jose Trevino, perhaps the game’s best pitch-framer. “A lot of guys who have gone through this game and a lot of guys from the past have made a living catching, being a good game-color, being a good defensive catcher.”
With so-called robot umpires, Trevino said, a skill that many catchers have worked hard to master becomes useless.
“You’re going to get back out there and call the game,” he said, adding that it could affect the financial earning power of some catchers.
But that argument is for another day. PitchCom is this year’s new toy and beyond the obvious, it smooths things out in unexpected areas. It can be programmed into any language, so it breaks down barriers between pitchers and catchers. And, as the bard said: “My eyes are not good. I can squint at the signs, but it makes it easier to put the sign right in my ear.”
Opinions will always vary, but one thing everyone agrees on is that the onslaught of technology will continue.
“It goes on,” Correa said. “Pretty soon, we’ll be playing robots at shortstop.”
James Wagner And Gary Phillips Contribution report.