MLB’s PitchCom System Draws Mixed Reactions

Baseball and technology have always been wary of partners.

During 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 from their games because they feared the new medium would slow the rise. Reduce. When the Chicago Cubs added lights to Wrigley Field in 1988, allowing them to walk away from generations of games played exclusively during the day, fans were confused. When electronic calls of balls and strikes were proposed, it was the turn of the umpires to complain.

Other sports may change, but baseball has generally made it a point to stay the same.

With the installation of limited instant replay in 2008 and with the expansion of replay in 2014, the game cautiously stepped into the digital age. But adding cameras in every stadium and video monitors in every clubhouse opened the door to an unintended consequence: electronic deception.

The 2017 Houston Astros boldly stepped through that door and developed a comprehensive plate-stealing system that allowed them to win a World Series. Two years later, when that system was revealed to the public, it resulted in layoffs, suspensions and, ultimately, the permanent slam on a championship.

Nothing sparks action in baseball faster than a scandal—after all, the commissioner’s office was established when baseball was dealing with the 1919 Black Sox scandal. This season, Major League Baseball took a giant leap forward by distancing itself from the taint of board theft with the introduction of PitchCom, a device controlled by a catcher that allows him to communicate wordlessly with the pitcher about what field is coming up – information shared simultaneously with as many as three other players on the field via earbuds in the tires of their caps.

The idea is simple enough: If baseball can eliminate the old-fashioned pitch-calling, where the catcher flashes marks at the pitcher with his fingers, it will be harder for other teams to steal those marks. There have been a few hiccups, with devices not working, or pitchers unable to hear, but so far this season everyone in baseball seems to agree that whether you like it or not, PitchCom works.

Carlos Correa, a shortstop for the Minnesota Twins who has long served as the unofficial and unabashed spokesperson for those 2017 Astros, went so far as to say the tool would have thwarted his old team’s systemic deception.

“I think so,” Correa said. “Because there are no signs now.”

Still, not all pitchers are on board.

Max Scherzer, the New York Mets ace and baseball’s highest paid player this season, first sampled PitchCom in a game against the Yankees late last month and came forward with conflicting thoughts.

“It works,” he said. “Does it help? Yes. But I also think it should be illegal.”

Scherzer even went so far as to suggest that the game would lose something by eliminating board stealing.

“It’s part of baseball, trying to crack someone’s characters,” Scherzer said. “Does it have the desired intention of cleaning up the game a bit?” he said about PitchCom. “Yes. But I also feel like it takes some of the game away.”

Scherzer’s comments provoked mixed reactions from his colleagues. Seattle illuminator Paul Sewald called them “a little naive” and “a little hypocritical.” Minnesota starter Sonny Gray said he agreed with Scherzer in theory, “but my rebuttal would be when you do strings when a runner is on second base, you have teams that have it on video and split it up like the game continues.”

Continuing his skepticism, Sewald said of Scherzer: “I have a very good feeling that he has been on one or two teams that steal plates.”

True or not, Sewald’s suggestion was representative of what many in the game generally believe: Multiple managers say there are clubs that use a dozen or more staff members to study video and swipe boards. Because it is done in secret, there has also been a paranoia throughout the competition, with even the innocent now being presumed guilty.

“I think we’re all aware of that,” Colorado manager Bud Black said. “We are aware that there are front offices that have more manpower than others.”

The belief that sign stealing is widespread has led to widespread use of PitchCom, perhaps sooner than many thought. And that’s good news for 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. “It eliminates a major problem for the game in stealing boards. But second, it actually sped up the game a bit. Without the need to go through multiple sets of boards with runners on base, the pace has improved.”

So the question becomes, what is lost to gain that gain?

While code-breaking is as old as the sport itself, the intrusion of technology into what was a languid, pastoral game for more than a century has sparked an intense cultural clash. Stealing boards is always accepted by those who play, as long as it is committed by someone on the field. But hackles are immediately thrown up – and the unwritten (and now written) rules of the game are broken – when technology is used as a tool in real time.

Drawing clear lines is important in an age when computer programs are so advanced that algorithms can reveal whether a pitcher is about to throw a fastball or a slider simply by the way he holds his glove.

“It’s when you use people who don’t play the game to gain an advantage, for me, at least personally, I have a problem with that,” said San Diego manager Bob Melvin.

Most agree that there is a fine line between technology improving the current product and, ultimately, changing its integrity. Agreeing on where exactly that line is drawn is another matter.

“I wish there wasn’t video technology or anything like that,” said Yankees second baseman DJ LeMahieu.

Sword says PitchCom exemplifies technology’s ability to “produce a version of baseball that looks more like it did a few decades ago” because it “neutralizes a recent threat.”

“I think it’s just the way the world goes,” Black said. “And we’re part of the world.”

And more technology is coming. On deck is a pitch clock that is being tested in the minor leagues and that Sword says is “extremely promising” in achieving its intended goal: shortening games. It is expected to be implemented in the majors soon, and pitchers will be required to deliver a pitch within a specified time – in Class AAA, a pitch must be thrown within 14 seconds if no one is on bases and within 19 seconds if a runner is on board .

In general, pitchers are less enthusiastic about pitch clocks than they are about PitchCom.

“Ninety percent of baseball is expecting something really cool to happen, and you have flashes of really cool stuff happening,” said Daniel Bard, the Colorado Rockies poet. “But you don’t know when they’re coming, you don’t know on which field it’s happening. Especially in the ninth inning of a close game, with everyone on the edge of their seats, do you want to run through that? There are many good things in life that you don’t want to run through. You enjoy. You taste. For me, one is the end of a ball game.”

Perhaps the most radical change is the Automated Strike Zone – robot referees, in common parlance. Commissioner Rob Manfred said earlier this summer that he hoped to have such a system by 2024. Automated calls are anathema to umpires, who feel it violates their judgment, and to catchers who specialize in pitch framing – the art of receiving a pitch and displaying it as if it were in the attack zone, even when it wasn’t. case.

“I don’t think that should happen,” said Yankees catcher Jose Trevino, arguably the game’s best pitch framer. “There are a lot of guys who have been through this game and a lot of guys from the past who have made a living from catching, being a good game caller and being a good defensive catcher.”

With the so-called robot referees, Trevino said, a skill that so many catchers have worked so hard on will become useless.

“You’re just there to block and throw and yell,” 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, aside from the obvious, it smoothes things out in unexpected areas. It can be programmed for any language, so it bridges barriers between pitchers and catchers. And, as Bard said, ‘My eyes aren’t great. I can stare at the signs, but it just makes it easier to just put the sign in my ear.”

Opinions will always differ, but what everyone agrees on is that the tech invasion will continue.

“It will continue,” Correa said. “Pretty soon we’ll have robots play short stop.”

James Wagner and Gary Phillips reporting contributed.

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