Baseball and technology have always been cautious 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 play-by-play of their games because they feared the new medium would reduce attendance. When the Chicago Cubs added lights to Wrigley Field in 1988, moving away from generations of games played exclusively during the day, fans were up in arms. When electronic balls and strikes were suggested, it was the umpires’ turn to complain.
Other sports may change, but baseball has largely made a business of staying the same.
With the installation of limited instant replay in 2008, and with the replay expansion in 2014, the game tentatively entered the digital age. But adding cameras in every ballpark and video monitors in every clubhouse opened the door to an unintended consequence: electronic cheating.
The 2017 Houston Astros brazenly walked through that door, developing an elaborate sign-stealing system that helped them win a World Series. Two years later, when this system was revealed to the public, it resulted in firings, suspensions and, ultimately, the permanent forfeiture of a championship.
Nothing spurs action in baseball faster than a scandal — after all, the commissioner’s office was created when baseball dealt with the Black Sox scandal of 1919. This season, Major League Baseball took a giant leap forward in distancing itself from the taint of sign theft with the introduction of PitchCom, a device controlled by a catcher that allows him to communicate wordlessly with the pitcher about what pitch is coming – information that is simultaneously shared with as many as three other players on the field through earphones in the bands of the cap.
The idea is simple enough: If baseball can eliminate the old-fashioned pitch-call, where the catcher flashes signs to the pitcher with his 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 has long served as the unofficial, and unapologetic, spokesperson for these Astros in 2017, went so far as to say the tool would have prevented his old team’s systemic cheating.
“I think so,” Correa said. “Because there are no signs now.”
Still, not all pitchers are on board.
Max Scherzer, the ace of the New York Mets and baseball’s highest-paid player this season, sampled PitchCom for the first time late last month in a game against the Yankees and emerged with conflicting thoughts.
“It works,” he said. “Does that 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 sign stealing.
“That’s part of baseball, trying to break somebody’s sign,” Scherzer said. “Does it have its intended purpose that it cleans up the game a bit?” he said of PitchCom. “Yes. But I also feel like it takes away part of the game.”
Scherzer’s comments elicited 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 agreed with Scherzer in theory, “but my rebuttal would be when you do sign sequences when a runner is on second base, you have teams that have it on video and break it down as the game goes on.”
Sewald continued his skepticism, saying of Scherzer, “I have a very good feeling he’s been on a team or two stealing signs.”
Whether true or not, Sewald’s suggestion was representative of what many in the game generally believe: Several managers say there are clubs that employ a dozen or more employees to study video and swipe signs. Because it is done in secret, a league-wide paranoia has also developed, with even the innocent 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 manpower than others.”
The belief that license plate theft is widespread has led to widespread use of PitchCom, perhaps sooner than many had imagined. And it’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 of sign theft. But secondly, it has actually sped up the game a bit. Without the need to run through multiple sets of signs with runners on base, the pace has improved.”
So the question becomes, what is lost to achieve these gains?
Although codebreaking is as old as the sport itself, the intrusion of technology into what for more than a century had been a dull, pastoral game has sparked an intense culture clash. Sign theft has always been accepted by those who play, as long as it is committed by someone on the field. But hackles are immediately raised—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 where computer programs are so sophisticated that algorithms can tell whether 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 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 technology that improves the current product and, ultimately, altering its integrity. Getting them to agree on exactly where that line goes 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 technology’s ability to “produce a version of baseball that looks more like it did a couple of decades ago” because it “neutralizes a recent threat.”
“I think that’s just the way the world goes,” Black said. “And we are part of the world.”
And more technology is coming. On deck is a pitch clock being tested in the minor leagues that, according to Sword, has shown “extreme promise” in achieving its intended goal: shortening games. It is expected to be implemented in the majors soon, and pitchers must deliver a pitch within a set time period – 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 aboard.
In general, 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 glimpses of really cool things happening,” Colorado Rockies closer Daniel Bard said. “But you don’t know when they’re about to come, you don’t know on which track it’s going to happen. Especially in the ninth inning of a close game, with everyone on the edge of their seats, do you want to rush through it? There are many good things in life that you don’t want to rush through. You enjoy. You enjoy. To me, one is the end of a ballgame.”
The most radical change, however, may be the Automated Strike Zone – robot referees, in common parlance. Commissioner Rob Manfred said earlier this summer that he hoped to have such a system in place by 2024. Automated calls are anathema to umpires, who feel it impairs their judgment, and to catchers who specialize in pitch-framing — the art of receiving a pitch. and show it as if it were in the strike zone, even though it wasn’t.
“I don’t think it should happen,” said Yankees catcher Jose Trevino, perhaps the game’s best pitch framer. “There’s a lot of guys that have gone through this game and a lot of guys from the past that have made a living catching, being a good play caller, being a good defensive catcher.”
With the so-called robot umpires, Trevino said, a skill so many catchers have worked so hard to master will become useless.
“You’re just going to be back there blocking and throwing and calling the game,” he said, adding that could 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 smooths things out in unexpected areas. It can be programmed for any language, so it bridges the gap between pitcher and catcher. And, as the Bard said: “My eyes are not large. I can stare at the signs, but it just makes it easier to just put the sign right in my ear.
Opinions will always differ, but the one thing everyone agrees on is that the technological invasion will continue.
“It will continue,” Correa said. “Pretty soon we’ll have robots playing shortstop.”
James Wagner and Gary Phillips contributed reporting.