Baseball and technology have always made for cautious partners.
During a five-year period in the 1930s, when radio became more popular, all three New York teams—the Yankees, Giants, and Dodgers—banned live broadcasts 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 put an end to generations of daylight-only games, fans rose to their feet. When electronic ball calls and strikes were suggested, it was the umpires’ turn to complain.
Other sports may change, but baseball has generally built a business to stay the same.
With the introduction of limited instant replay in 2008 and the expansion of replay in 2014, the game arguably entered the digital age. But the addition of cameras in every lobby and video monitors in every club has opened the door to an unintended consequence: electronic cheating.
The 2017 Houston Astros brazenly broke through that door, developing a sophisticated system of stealing signs that helped them win the World Series. Two years later, when the system was revealed to the public, it resulted in dismissals, suspensions, and eventually the championship being permanently tarnished.
Nothing spurs action in baseball like a scandal — the commissioner’s office was created, after all, just as baseball was dealing with the 1919 Black Sox scandal. This season, Major League Baseball took a big leap away from the sign-stealing blemish by introducing PitchCom, a device controlled by the catcher that allows him to wordlessly communicate with the pitcher what pitch is coming. Simultaneously shared with three other players on the field through headphones in the bands of their hats.
The idea is simple enough: If baseball can eliminate the old-fashioned pitch call in which the catcher fingers the pitcher’s signs, it will be difficult for other teams to steal those signs. There have been a few hiccups where the devices don’t work or pitchers can’t listen, but so far this season, everyone in baseball agrees that PitchCom, like it or not, is working.
Carlos Correa, the Minnesota Twins spokesman who has long served as the official and unofficial spokesman for the 2017 Astros, went so far as to say the tool would prevent his old team from systematically cheating.
“I think so,” Correa said. “Because now there are no signs.”
Not all pitchers are on board, though.
Max Scherzer, the New York Mets’ ace and baseball’s highest-paid player this season, showed PitchCom for the first time in a game against the Yankees late last month and came away with mixed feelings.
“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 was losing something by eliminating sign stealing.
“That’s part of baseball, trying to break somebody’s signs,” Scherzer said. Does he have the desired intention of cleaning up the game a bit? he said at PitchCom. “Yes. But I also feel like it takes away from the game. “
Scherzer’s comments drew mixed reactions from his peers. Seattle contributor Paul Sewald called them “a little naive” and “a little hypocritical.” Minnesota shortstop Sonny Gray said he agrees with Scherzer in theory, “but my rebuttal would be when you do tag sequences with a runner on second base, you have teams that have that video and they’re breaking it down as a play.” continues.”
Continuing his skepticism, Sewald said of Scherzer: “I have a very good feeling he’s been on a team or two that steals signs.”
Whether true or not, Seewald’s suggestion represented what many in the game believe: Many managers say there are clubs that use a dozen or more staff members to study video and pass marks. Because this is done in secret, there is also a league-wide paranoia that has developed, even innocent people who are now presumed guilty.
“I think we all know about that,” Colorado manager Bud Black said. “We know there are front offices that have more manpower than others.”
The belief that token theft is rampant has led to widespread use of PitchCom, perhaps faster than many imagined. And that’s welcome news for 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 of baseball operations. “This eliminates a significant game issue of token theft. But secondly, it actually sped up the game quite a bit. Without having to run multiple marks, the pace was improved with the runners.
So the question is, what is missing in order to achieve these gains?
Although code-breaking is as old as the sport itself, the intrusion of technology into a tense, pastoral game more than a century old has led to an intense culture clash. Stealing signs has always been accepted by those playing as long as it is committed by someone on the field. But the unwritten (and now written) rules of the game are broken immediately when technology is used as an aid in real-time.
Drawing clear lines is important in an age where computer programs are so sophisticated that algorithms can tell whether a pitcher is going to throw a fastball or a slider just by holding the glove.
“It’s when you use people who don’t play 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 improving the technology of an existing product and ultimately changing its entirety. Their agreement on exactly where that line is drawn is another matter.
“I wish there wasn’t video technology or anything,” Yankees second baseman DJ LeMahieu said.
Sword says PitchCom was an example of how technology is able to “produce a version of baseball that looks more like it did a few decades ago” because it “neutralizes the recent threat.”
“I think it’s just the way the world is going,” Black said. “And we are part of the universe.”
And more technology is coming. On deck is a pitch clock being tested in the minor leagues, which Sword says is “extremely promising” in achieving its stated goal: shortening games. It is expected to be implemented soon in the majors, and pitchers will have to deliver the pitch within a specified time frame – in Class AAA, the pitch must be thrown in 14 seconds with no one on base and 19 seconds with a runner on board.
Generally speaking, pitchers are less enthusiastic about pitch clocks than they are about PitchCom.
“Ninety percent of baseball is waiting for something really cool to happen, and you have really cool things happen,” said Daniel Bard, Colorado Rockies closer. “But you don’t know when they’re going to come, you don’t know which field it’s going to be on.” Especially in the ninth inning of a close game when everyone is on the edge of their seats, do you feel like rushing? There are many good things in life that you don’t want to pass up. You enjoy it. you are delicious One for me is the end of the ball game.
However, the most radical change may be the automatic penalty area – robot referees, in common parlance. Commissioner Rob Manfred said earlier this summer that he hoped to have such a system in place by 2024. Automatic calls are anathema to umpires, who believe it impairs their judgment, and to catchers who specialize in pitch framing—the art of receiving pitches. and shows it as if it were in the strike zone, even if it wasn’t.
“I don’t think it should happen,” said Yankees catcher Jose Trevino, perhaps the game’s best pitcher. “There’s a lot of guys that have come through this game and a lot of guys from the past that made a living catching, were good players, were good defensive catchers.”
With so-called robot umpires, Trevino said, a skill that so many catchers have worked to master will become useless.
“You’re just going to go back out there and block and throw and call the play,” he said, adding that it can 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 fixes things in unexpected places. It can be programmed for any language, so it breaks down barriers between pitchers and catchers. And, as the bard said: “My eyes are not beautiful. I can look at the sign, but it just makes it easier to stick the sign right in my ear.”
Opinions will always differ, but one thing everyone agrees on is that the tech invasion will continue.
“It will continue,” Correa said. “Pretty soon, we’ll have robots playing shortstop.”
James Wagner and Gary Phillips Contributed to the report.