MLB PitchCom System Draws Mixed Reactions

MLB PitchCom System Draws Mixed Reactions

Baseball and technology have always made for wary partners.

For five years in the 1930s, as radio became more popular, the three teams in New York – the Yankees, Giants and Dodgers – banned the playing of their games live because of fear them that the new medium would reduce attendance. 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 up in arms. When electronic ball calls and strikes were suggested, it was the umpires’ turn to complain.

Other sports may change, but baseball, for the most part, has made a business of staying the same.

With the installation of instant limited replay in 2008, and the expansion of replay in 2014, the game temporarily entered the Digital Age. But putting cameras in every ballpark and video monitors in every clubhouse opened the door to an unintended consequence: electronic cheating.

The 2017 Houston Astros went brazenly through that door, developing an elaborate system of stealing signs that helped them win the World Series. Two years later, when that system was revealed to the public, it resulted in firing, suspension and, ultimately, the permanent destruction of a champion.

Nothing sparks action in baseball faster than a scandal — the commissioner’s office was created, after all, as baseball dealt with the Black Sox scandal of 1919. This season, Major League Baseball took a big step forward and break away from the stigma of signal stealing with the introduction of PitchCom, a device controlled by a catcher that allows him to communicate wordlessly with the pitch about the upcoming pitch – that information. shared at the same time with as many as three other players on the field through earpieces in the bands of their caps.

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

Carlos Correa, a shortstop for the Minnesota Twins who has long served as the unofficial, and unapologetic, spokesman for those 2017 Astros, went so far as to say that the tool would have destroyed his old team’s systemic cheating.

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

But not everyone is on board.

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

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

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

“It’s part of baseball, trying to crack someone’s signs,” Scherzer said. “Does he intend to clean up the game a bit?” he said of PitchCom. “Yes. But I also feel it takes a part of the game.”

Scherzer’s comments drew a mixed reaction from his teammates. Seattle reliever 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 is when you’re doing signal sequences when there’s a runner on second base, you have teams that have it on video and break down as a game. forward.”

Continuing his skepticism, Sewald said of Scherzer: “I have a very good feeling that he’s on one or two teams that have stolen signs.”

Whether it’s 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 team members to study video and swipe signals. Because it’s done in secrecy, league-wide paranoia has also set in, and even the innocent are now considered 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 perception that token theft is rampant has led to widespread use of PitchCom, perhaps faster than many imagined. And that’s welcome news to Major League Baseball 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 significant token-stealing issue for the game. But, secondly, it really sped the game up a bit. Without having to go through multiple sets of signals with runners on base, the speed is improved.”

So the question becomes, what is lost to achieve those gains?

Although code-breaking is as old as the sport itself, the intrusion of technology has turned what had been a pastoral game for over a century into an intense cultural event. The people who play to steal have always accepted, as long as someone does it on the field. But hackles are immediately raised – and the unwritten (and now written) rules of the game are broken – when technology is used as an aid in real time.

Drawing clear lines is important in an era where computer programs are so sophisticated that algorithms can show whether a pitcher is about to throw a fastball or a slider just by where he’s holding his glove.

“It’s when you’re using people who aren’t playing the game to get an advantage, for me, at least personally, I have a problem with that,” San Diego Manager Bob Melvin said.

Most agree that there is a fine line between technology improving an existing product and, ultimately, changing its integrity. Asking them to agree on exactly where that line sits is a different 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 more like a few years ago” because it “neutralizes a recent threat.”

“I think it’s just the way the world is going,” Black said. “And we are part of the world.”

And more technology is coming. On deck is a pitch clock being tested in the minor leagues that, according to Sword, has been “very positive” in achieving its intended goal: shortening games. It is expected to be implemented in the majors soon, and pitchers will have to deliver a pitch within a certain amount of time – at Class AAA, a pitch must be thrown within 14 seconds with no one on base and within of 19 seconds when a runner is on board.

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

“Ninety percent of baseball is the expectation that something really cool is about to happen, and there are flashes of really cool things happening,” said Daniel Bard, the closer of the Colorado Rockies. “But you don’t know when they’re going to come, you don’t know what field it’s happening at. Especially in the ninth inning of a close game, with everyone on the edge of their seats, you want to rush through that? There are many good things in life that you don’t want to go through. You enjoy it. Taste you. To me, one is the end of a ball game.”

Perhaps the most radical change, however, is the Automated Strike Zone – robot umpires, in concert. Commissioner Rob Manfred said earlier this summer that he hoped to have such a system in place 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 finding parking. and show it as if it were in the strike zone, even if it wasn’t.

“I don’t think that should happen,” said Yankees catcher Jose Trevino, perhaps the best sandwich in the game. “There are a lot of guys who have gone through this game and a lot of guys from the past who have made a living out of catching, being a good game-hero, being a good defensive catcher.”

With the so-called robot umpires, Trevino said, a skill that so many catchers have worked so hard to master will be useless.

“You’re going to be back there blocking and throwing and calling 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’s smoothing things out in unexpected areas. It can be programmed for any language, so it eliminates barriers between pitchers and catchers. And, as Bard said: “My eyes are not great. I can watch the signals, but it makes it easier to get the signal right in my ear.”

Opinions will always change, but the one thing everyone agrees on is that the technological invasion will continue.

“It’s going to keep going,” Correa said. “Pretty soon, we’ll have robots playing shortstop.”

James Wagner and Gary Phillips reporting helped.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.