PitchCom – Aimed at foiling MLB’s would-be board stealers – (usually) wins over the skeptics

Texas Rangers closer Joe Barlow was initially skeptical of PitchCom.

The electronic device, used to send signals from catcher to pitcher to curb plate stealing, is brand new to Major League Baseball this season, and Barlow wondered what could go wrong. The PitchCom’s speaker made his hat less comfortable. Catchers feared that hitters might eavesdrop on the signals in their helmets. There was concern among players about radio link issues, or what would happen if the noise from the crowd drowned out the audio. But for Barlow, the device’s potential soon outweighed his initial concerns.

“This is bigger than I would expect,” 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 got hit and asked if you ran out of stuff or if you tip your pitches or if they steal your plates. Now if you get hit you know it’s all on you.”

For over a century, signs have been passed on to pitchers – from Cy Young to Max Scherzer – through a sequence of finger movements through the catcher. But for the 2022 season, MLB digitized the experience by offering backstops a remote on their wrists and pitching a loudspeaker in their hat that vocalizes the signals, possibly an extra layer of protection against tick theft. Board stealing has long been a part of the game’s culture, but it has been a hot-button issue in recent years due to teams misusing technology to gain an unfair advantage – most infamously, the Houston Astros and their infamous trash can scandal. †

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

“We all love it,” said Yankees reliever Michael King. “We really want the catchers to give us signs faster. We think about it, like after he throws the ball back to me, I’d rather know right away. It gives you time to think about the pitch and throw it with conviction I come to the knowledge that I have no doubt that the catcher thinks differently than I do.”

That advantage extends beyond pitchers and catchers. Each team can use three extra earpieces, which are divided by most teams among a combination of second baseman, shortstop, third baseman and midfielder. Rangers utility man Brad Miller said he tried reading the catcher’s signs to prepare for play, but using PitchCom helps him quickly anticipate where a ball might be hit.

“You used to be able to miss the signals if you weren’t alert all the time,” Miller said. “It’s much easier to be on every field like, ‘Hey Aaron Judge is up there, you know if it’s a fastball it probably goes one way and if it’s a curveball it’s this other way goes.’ It’s a softer focus. We also made the comment among the outfielders and the pitchers: if you don’t use it, I just can’t believe it. What are you doing?”

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

“Maybe one day I’ll use it. I’m not going to rule it out,” Graveman said. “I still believe that if you’re able to change plates and be really creative you can do it the old way. For me that’s what I’m trying to do. I think it will evolve and be a little bit cleaner and I think it’s already done that When I used it in spring training it was a little slow for me When I step on the rubber I want to get where I want to go I haven’t gone back and tried since .”

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

“Baseball is baseball, man,” Manoah said. “Some things are good to be technologically over, but I’m not here to make the game faster. I’m here to win matches. I’m not going to sit here and get confused about a PitchCom or hitters getting out of the game. box every two seconds because the tempo is too fast.”

Graveman’s and Manoah’s views represent the minority among the players ESPN spoke to about PitchCom, but the technology has room for improvement. Blue Jays catcher Zack Collins said the device may have some trouble switching between pitchers of different arsenals.

“There aren’t many kinks, but it would be great to adjust the knobs to the guy on the hill so we can work a little faster,” Collins said. “The buttons have fastball, slider, curveball, change-up, knuckleball and splitter, and most people don’t throw a knuckleball.”

And while players are largely satisfied with how PitchCom functions, Miller believes the voices on the machine could use some spice. The Rangers’ PitchCom uses the voice of a front office member and the Philadelphia Phillies use the voice of catcher JT Realmuto, Miller suggested a little more variety.

“We really need some guests,” Miller said. “We just had George W. Bush come over. He has to do PitchCom voices like a celebrity GPS. The Dodgers should get Denzel Washington. That’s the next step.’

ESPN’s Jesse Rogers contributed to this story

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