Baseball and technology have always made wary partners.
For a five-year period in the 1930s, as radio became more popular, all three New York teams – the Yankees, Giants and Dodgers – banned live playback of their games because they feared that the new medium does not reduce attendance. When the Chicago Cubs added lights to Wrigley Field in 1988, allowing them to move away from generations of games played exclusively during the day, fans were angry. When electronic calls for balls and strikes were offered, it was the referees’ turn to complain.
Other sports may change, but baseball as a whole has strived to stay the same.
With the installation of a limited instant replay in 2008 and with the expansion of replay in 2014, the game has tentatively entered the digital age. But the addition of cameras in every ballpark and video monitors in every clubhouse has opened the door to an unintended consequence: electronic cheating.
The 2017 Houston Astros boldly walked through that door, developing an elaborate backboard-stealing system that helped them win a World Series. Two years later, when this system was revealed to the public, it resulted in dismissals, suspensions and ultimately the permanent tarnishing of a championship.
Nothing spurs 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 made a big step forward in distancing itself from the task of sign-stealing with the introduction of PitchCom, a catcher-controlled device that allows him to communicate wordlessly with the pitcher on the pitch ahead – information that is simultaneously shared with up to three other players on the field through headphones in the bands of their caps.
The idea is quite simple: if baseball can eliminate old-fashioned pitching calls, in which the catcher sends signs to the pitcher with their fingers, it will be harder for other teams to steal those signs. There have been a few hiccups, with devices not working or pitchers not being able to hear, but so far this season everyone in baseball seems to agree that PitchCom, like it or not, works.
Carlos Correa, a Minnesota Twins shortstop who was long the unofficial and shameless spokesperson for those 2017 Astros, went so far as to say the tool would have foiled his former team’s systemic cheating.
“I think so,” Correa said. “Because there are no more signs now.”
However, not all launchers are on board.
Max Scherzer, the New York Mets ace and baseball’s highest-paid player this season, first sampled PitchCom late last month during a game against the Yankees and emerged 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 panel theft.
“It’s part of baseball, trying to break someone’s signs,” Scherzer said. “Does he have the desired intention of cleaning up the game a bit?” he said of PitchCom. “Yes. But I also feel like it takes away some of the game.”
Scherzer’s comments drew a mixed reaction from his peers. Seattle reliever Paul Sewald called them “a little naive” and “a little hypocritical.” Minnesota starter Sonny Gray said he agrees with Scherzer in theory, “but my rebuttal would be that when you do wave sequences when a runner is at second base, you have teams that l have on video and break it down as the game continues.”
Continuing his skepticism, Sewald said of Scherzer, “I have a really good feeling he was on a sign-stealing team or two.”
Whether true or not, Sewald’s suggestion was representative of what many generally think in the game: several managers say there are clubs that use a dozen or more staff members to study video and scan the signs. Because this is done in secrecy, there is also a league-wide paranoia that has grown, even the innocent are now presumed guilty.
“I think we’re all aware of that,” Colorado manager Bud Black said. “We are aware that there are front offices that have more staff than others.”
The belief that sign theft is rampant has led to widespread use of PitchCom, perhaps faster than many imagined. And that’s good news for the top executives of Major League Baseball.
“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. “This eliminates a significant problem for the game when it comes to panel theft. But, second, it actually sped up the game a bit. Without needing to run through multiple sets of panels with runners on base, the pacing improved.
So the question becomes, what is lost to achieve these gains?
While code-breaking is as old as the sport itself, the intrusion of technology into what for over a century had been a languid pastoral game has precipitated intense culture shock. Sign stealing has always been accepted by those who play, as long as it is committed by someone on the field. But the hacks are immediately lifted – and the unwritten (and now written) rules of the game are broken – when technology is used as a real-time aid.
Drawing clear lines is important in an age when computer programs are so sophisticated that algorithms can tell if a pitcher is about to throw a fastball or a slider simply by the way he holds his glove.
“It’s when you use people who aren’t playing the game to gain 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 the current product and ultimately changing its integrity. Getting them to agree on exactly where that line is drawn is another matter.
“I wish there was no video technology or anything,” Yankees second baseman DJ LeMahieu said.
Sword says PitchCom was an example of technology’s ability to “produce a version of baseball that feels more like it did decades ago” as it “neutralizes a recent threat.”
“I think that’s just the way the world is going,” Black said. “And we are part of the world.”
And more technology is coming. On the deck is a pitch clock that is being tested in the minor leagues which Sword says has shown “tremendous promise” in achieving its goal of making games shorter. It is expected to be implemented in the majors soon, and pitchers will have to deliver a pitch within a set amount of time – in class AAA, a pitch must be thrown within 14 seconds when no one is on base and within 19 seconds when a runner is on board.
Generally speaking, pitchers are less enthusiastic about pitch clocks than they are about PitchCom.
“Ninety percent of baseball is the anticipation that something really cool is about to happen, and you have flashes of really cool things happening,” said Daniel Bard, the closest of the Colorado Rockies. “But you don’t know when they’re about to come, you don’t know what ground it’s on. Especially in the ninth inning of a tight game, with everyone on the edge of their seat, do you want to rush? There are many good things in life that you don’t want to rush. You appreciate. You savor. For me, we are the end of a ball game.
Perhaps the most drastic change, however, is the automated strike zone – robot umpires, in common parlance. Commissioner Rob Manfred said earlier this summer he hoped to have such a system in place by 2024. The robocalls are anathema to umpires, who feel it impinges on their judgement, and to catchers who specialize in pitch framing – the art of receiving a pitch and displaying it as if it is in the strike zone, even though it is not.
“I don’t think that should happen,” said Yankees catcher Jose Trevino, perhaps the game’s best pitching coach. “There’s a lot of guys who have come through this game and a lot of guys from the past who have made a living catching, being a good point guard, being a good defensive receiver.”
With so-called robot umpires, Trevino said, a skill so many receivers have worked so hard to master will become useless.
“You’re just going to be out there blocking and pitching and calling the play,” he said, adding that it could affect some receivers’ financial earning power.
But that argument is for another day. PitchCom is this year’s newest toy, and beyond the obvious, it sweetens things up in unexpected areas. It can be programmed for any language, so it bridges the barriers between pitchers and catchers. And, as Bard said, “My eyes aren’t big. I can look at the signs, but it just makes it easier to put the sign right in my ear.
Opinions will always vary, but the one thing everyone agrees on is that the technological invasion will continue.
“It’s going to continue,” Correa said. “Very soon we will have robots playing shortstop.”
Jacques Wagner and Gary Phillips contributed report.