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PitchCom – aiming to outsmart would-be MLB sign thieves – wins (mostly) skeptics

Texas Rangers closest Joe Barlow was skeptical of PitchCom at first.

The electronic device, used to transmit pitch signals from catcher to pitcher in an effort to combat backboard theft, is brand new to Major League Baseball this season, and Barlow wondered what could go wrong. The PitchCom speaker made his hat less comfortable. Catchers were concerned that batters could hear signals in their helmets. Players worried about radio connectivity issues or what would happen when crowd noise drowned out the audio. But for Barlow, the potential of the device quickly exceeded his initial concerns.

“It’s bigger than I expected,” Barlow said of his first impression of the device. “But I was like, ‘Put it in my hat, I don’t care.’ In the past you used to get hit and wonder if your stuff wasn’t on or if you spilled your arguments or if they stole your signs, now if you get hit you know it’s all up to you.

For more than a century, signs have been transmitted to pitchers – from Cy Young to Max Scherzer – through a sequence of finger movements by the catcher. But for the 2022 season, MLB has digitized the experience by giving backstops a remote control on their wrists and pitchers a speaker in their hats that vocalize signals, a potential added layer of protection against backboard theft. Sign theft has long been a part of the culture of the game, but it’s been a burning issue in recent years due to teams’ misuse of technology to gain an unfair advantage – most notoriously, the Astros of Houston and their infamous trashcan scandal. .

Barlow’s conversion from PitchCom skeptic to fan mirrors the experience of many teams around baseball. Every pitcher for teams like the Rangers and New York Yankees now uses it, telling ESPN that their reasons range from competitive advantages to a faster pace of play to reduced anxiety on the mound.

“We all like it,” Yankees reliever Michael King said. “We actually want the receivers to give us signs faster. We think about it, like after he throws the ball back to me, I’d rather know straight away. It gives you time to think about the pitch and to throw it. with conviction. I come knowing that I have no doubt in my mind that the receiver thinks something different about me.

This advantage extends beyond pitchers and catchers. Each team may use three additional earbuds, distributed by most teams to a combination of second baseman, shortstop, third baseman, and center fielder. Rangers utility Brad Miller says he used to try to read receiver signs to prepare for plays, but using PitchCom helps him quickly anticipate where a ball might be hit.

“It used to be that if you weren’t alert all the time, you could miss the signs,” Miller said. “It’s a lot easier to be on every pitch like, ‘Hey, Aaron Judge is up there, you know if it’s a fastball it’s probably going one way and if it’s a curveball , it goes the other way.’ It’s a softer approach. We also made the comment among the defensemen and pitchers: if you don’t use it, I just can’t believe it. What are you doing?”

As enthusiastic as some teams and players have embraced the new technology, others have chosen to stick with tradition. While the rest of his Chicago White Sox teammates now use PitchCom, reliever Kendall Graveman remains a holdout.

“I may one day use it. I’m not going to rule it out,” Graveman said. “I still believe that if you’re able to change the signs and be really creative, you can do it the old-fashioned way. For me, that’s what I’m trying to do. I think it’s going to evolve and become a bit cleaner and I think it already is. When I was using it in spring training it was a bit slow for me. When I walk on rubber I want to get to what I want. I haven’t gone back and tried it since.”

Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Alek Manoah said he never plans to use PitchCom.

“Baseball is baseball, man,” Manoah said. “Some things are good for being tech, but I’m not here to make the game faster. I’m here to win games. I’m not going to sit here and be confused about a PitchCom or bring the batters out. out of the box every two seconds because the pace is too fast.”

Graveman and Manoah’s opinions represent the minority among players ESPN spoke to about PitchCom, but the technology can still be improved. Blue Jays catcher Zack Collins said the device could run into issues when switching pitchers with different arsenals.

“Not a lot of issues, but it would be nice to customize the buttons to the guy on the mound so we could work a little faster,” Collins said. “Buttons have fastball, slider, curveball, change-up, knuckleball, and splitter, and most people don’t throw a knuckleball.”

And while gamers are largely happy with how PitchCom works, Miller thinks the voices on the machine could use a little spice. The Rangers PitchCom uses the voice of a member of the front office and the Philadelphia Phillies uses the voice of receiver JT Realmuto, Miller suggested a little more variety.

“We really need guests,” Miller said. “We just ran George W. Bush the other day. He needs to do PitchCom voices, like a celebrity GPS. The Dodgers should have Denzel Washington. That’s the next step.”

ESPN’s Jesse Rogers contributed to this story


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