Baseball and technology have always made for wary partners.
In the 1930s, as radio became more popular, all three New York teams — the Yankees, Giants, and Dodgers — banned live play-by-play of their games for a five-year period over fears the new medium would reduce visitor numbers. In 1988, when the Chicago Cubs outfitted Wrigley Field with lights that allowed them to step away from generations of games played exclusively during the day, fans were in an uproar. When electronic balls and strikes were suggested, it was the referees turn to complain.
Other sports may change, but baseball, by and large, has made it its mission to stay the same.
With the installation of Limited Instant Replay in 2008 and the expansion of Replay in 2014, the game tentatively entered the digital age. But the addition of cameras in every stadium and video monitors in every clubhouse opened the door to an unintended consequence: electronic fraud.
The 2017 Houston Astros brazenly stepped through that door and devised an elaborate sign-stealing system that helped them win a World Series. When this system was unveiled to the public two years later, it resulted in layoffs, suspensions and ultimately the permanent damage of a championship.
Nothing spurs action in baseball like scandal—after all, the commissioner’s office was created as baseball dealt with the 1919 Black Sox scandal. This season, Major League Baseball took a giant leap forward to distance itself from the mark-stealing stain with the introduction of PitchCom, a device controlled by a catcher that allows him to wordlessly communicate with the pitcher about what pitch comes – information is shared simultaneously with up to three other players on the field via earphones in the ties of their hats.
The idea is simple enough: if baseball can eliminate old-fashioned pitch calling, where the catcher shows signs to the pitcher with his fingers, it will make it harder for other teams to steal those signs. There have been a few hiccups with equipment not working or pitchers unable to hear, but so far this season everyone in baseball seems to agree that PitchCom, like it or not, works.
Carlos Correa, a shortstop for the Minnesota Twins who has long served as the unofficial and unequivocal spokesman for these 2017 Astros, went so far as to say the tool would have thwarted his old team’s systematic cheating.
“I think so,” Correa said. “Because there are no signs now.”
But not all pitchers are on board.
New York Mets ace Max Scherzer and this season’s highest-paid baseball player tried PitchCom for the first time in a game against the Yankees late last month and came out 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 character stealing.
“It’s part of baseball to crack someone’s signs,” Scherzer said. “Is it the intended intent that it cleans up the game a bit?” he said via PitchCom. “Yes. But I also feel like it takes away part of the game.”
Scherzer’s comments drew mixed reactions from his peers. Paul Sewald, a Seattle aid worker, 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 if you do draw sequences when a runner is at second base, you have teams that have it on video and break it down as the game goes.” further.”
Sewald remained skeptical, saying of Scherzer, “I have a very good feeling he’s been on a sign-stealing team or two.”
True or not, Sewald’s suggestion was representative of what many players commonly believe: several managers say there are clubs that employ a dozen or more staff to study videos and wipe signs. Because this is happening in secret, a league-wide paranoia has also developed, with even the innocent now being found 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 was rampant has led to widespread use of PitchCom, perhaps faster than many thought. And that’s welcome news for Major League Baseball’s top 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. “It eliminates a significant problem for the game with token stealing. But second, it actually sped up the game a bit. Without the need to cycle through multiple character sets with runners on base, the pace has improved.”
So the question is, what is lost to make those gains?
While code-breaking is as old as sport itself, the intrusion of technology into what was a sluggish, pastoral game for more than a century has sparked an intense culture clash. Sign stealing was always accepted by players as long as it was committed by someone on the field. But immediately the hairs on the back of the neck are raised – and the unwritten (and now written) rules of the game are broken – when technology is used as a real-time tool.
Drawing clean 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 based on the way he holds his glove.
“If you take advantage of people who don’t play the game to gain an advantage, at least personally I have a problem with that,” said Bob Melvin, San Diego manager.
Most agree that there is a fine line between enhancing the current product with technology and ultimately changing its integrity. Getting them to agree on exactly where that line is drawn is another matter.
“I wish there wasn’t video or something like that,” said DJ LeMahieu, Yankees second baseman.
Sword says that PitchCom exemplified the technology’s ability to “produce a version of baseball that looks more like it did a couple of decades ago” because it “neutralizes a current threat.”
“I guess that’s the way the world works,” Black said. “And we are part of the world.”
And there’s more technology to come. On deck is a pitch clock that is being tested in the minor leagues and, according to Sword, showed “extremely promising” in achieving its intended goal: shortening games. It is expected to be introduced in the majors soon, and pitchers must deliver a pitch within a set time – for Class AAA, a pitch must be thrown within 14 seconds when nobody is on base and within 19 seconds , if a runner is on board.
In general, pitchers are less enthusiastic about Pitch Clocks than they are about PitchCom.
“Ninety percent of baseball is the expectation that something really cool is going to happen, and you have flashes of really cool things happening,” said Colorado Rockies closer Daniel Bard. “But you don’t know when they’re coming, you don’t know what pitch it’s happening on. Just in the ninth inning of a close game with everyone on the edge of their seat, do you want to rush through that? There are many good things in life that you don’t want to rush. They enjoy. They enjoy. For me, one is the end of a ball game.”
However, the most radical change could be the Automated Strike Zone – robot referee, colloquially. Commissioner Rob Manfred said earlier this summer he hoped to have such a system in place by 2024. Automated calls are anathema to umpires who feel it violates their judgment and catchers who specialize in pitch framing — the art of receiving a pitch and displaying it as if it’s in the strike zone would be, even if this were not the case.
“I don’t think that should happen,” said Yankees catcher Jose Trevino, perhaps the game’s best pitch framer. “There’s a lot of guys who’ve been through this game and a lot of guys from the past who made a living being a good game caller, being a good defensive catcher.”
With the so-called robot referees, Trevino said, a skill so many catchers have worked so hard to master becomes useless.
“You’re just going to be back there blocking and throwing and calling the game,” he said, adding that it could hurt some catchers’ financial earning power.
But that argument is for another day. PitchCom is this year’s new toy and, beyond the obvious, it smoothes things out in unexpected areas. It can be programmed for any language, bridging the gap between pitchers and catchers. And as Bard said, “My eyes aren’t great. I can stare at the signs, but it just makes it easier to put the sign right in my ear.”
Opinions will always differ, but everyone agrees that the tech invasion will continue.
“It will continue,” said Correa. “Pretty soon we’re going to have robots playing shortstop.”
Jacob Wagner and Gary Phillips contributed reporting.