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Imagine Clayton Kershaw on the mound in Game 7 of the World Series, peering in at his catcher at a big moment. And his catcher flashes … no sign at all.
That day could be coming very soon.
Major League Baseball is stepping up its experimentation with an electronic communication channel for pitchers and catchers. After trying out the PitchCom system at Low-A West in the second half of last season, big league clubs are tinkering with the technology during spring training.
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If the development is met with widespread acclaim, the system could be used in the majors this year. But the current plan is to work it in at the Double-A level this summer.
“Very much in favor. I think it speeds the game up,” said Tony La Russa, the 77-year-old Hall of Fame manager of the Chicago White Sox. “Wondering, hoping they make it official. But our experience has been a good one.”
With the PitchCom system, the catcher wears a wristband with nine buttons for calling the pitch and location. There is a receiver in the pitcher’s cap and another one in the catcher’s helmet. Multiple languages are available for the encrypted channel.
No need for traditional signs – forget the wiggling fingers.
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New York Yankees manager Aaron Boone even tried a little experiment with the experiment. An hour before Saturday’s game against Atlanta, he told starting pitcher Luis Severino they would try the system with catcher Kyle Higashioka.
“We sprung it on Sevie at 12:15 before he was going out. He was game for it, but we sprung it on him, no hiccups. No problems, and that’s our first game doing it, so that’s a good thing. Hopefully , it’s something that we can get better at doing, “Boone said.
Severino seemed fine, too, pitching four innings of one-hit ball.
As far as using it someday in the regular season, “I want to keep flushing that out the best we can. But my first impression of it, I feel like we’re on to something. I thought it was really good,” Boone said.
Baltimore Orioles pitcher Bruce Zimmermann concurred.
“It was not as awkward as I thought it was going to be, and actually I think it’s really nice because you can speed up the game at your own will,” Zimmermann said.
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“I do not think it will be too much of a learning curve for a lot of the guys. I was initially against it until I actually used it,” he said.
Orioles catcher Anthony Bemboom also offered a positive report, with a few concerns.
“It’s just a little bit bulky on your wristband. It did not happen the other day, but the ball could hit the wristband on a block. It could bounce one way or the other,” he said.
“There was a couple of times when I hit it on my shin guard giving regular signs with no one on. … It said ‘knuckleball’ and he’s throwing a fastball, but other than that, everything was fine.”
The PitchCom system is one of several potential changes MLB is exploring this year. There will be bigger bases, pitch clocks and limits on pickoff attempts for every full-season affiliate in the minors. Defensive shifts have been banned for each Class A level and Double-A.
College baseball is already using an electronic system for calling pitches. With Game Day Signals, the calls are relayed from the dugout to a receiver on the pitcher’s wrist.
“Shaving time off the college game is, I would think, a good thing for everyone, especially the consumer, and especially when it’s 25 degrees on a Friday night in Nashville,” Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said.
MLB also wants to speed up play. The average time of a nine-inning game during the 2021 regular season was a record 3 hours, 10 minutes, 7 seconds, up from 3:07:46 for the pandemic-shortened 2020 season and 3:05:35 in 2019.
When players are on base, especially at second, the game can bog down as pitchers and catchers switch up signs in an effort to shield the calls from their opponent. With an electronic channel, that would no longer be an issue.
“I like it. It’s nice. … It gives the hitters zero chance of knowing what’s coming,” White Sox right-hander Dylan Cease said.
The system also could eliminate sign-stealing altogether, a major perk for MLB after the Houston Astros’ 2017 championship was tainted by a sign-stealing scandal.
MLB’s investigation found Houston used a video feed from a center-field camera to see and decode the opposing catcher’s signs during home games. Players banged on a trash can to signal to batters what was coming, believing it would improve the batter’s odds of getting a hit.
Cease said sign stealing has been a concern for him for the past couple of years, especially with a runner on second.
With PitchCom, “it’s basically I only have to worry about what I’m doing in terms of if I’m giving away anything with tipping, as opposed to ‘Are they breaking the code?’ like it’s war, “Cease said.
Any chance of using the system in the majors this year could be hurt by the abbreviated spring training after the 99-day lockout. Teams do not have as much time to try it out as they normally would.
Chicago Cubs manager David Ross, a former big league catcher, said he is not sure it will speed up the pace of the game.
“I think next spring training we got a chance to work on it a little bit more and see what you do when you shake off,” he said. “How often do you use it? Do you use it with nobody on? Do you use it with a guy on first or just with a guy on second?
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“Making sure everybody’s comfortable and in rhythm and feel like that’s a norm for them is important to me.”