MLB’s PitchCom System Draws Mixed Reactions – The New York Times

MLB's PitchCom System Draws Mixed Reactions - The New York Times

Baseball and technology have always made for cautious partners.

During a five-year stretch 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, allowing them to walk away from generations of games played exclusively during the day, fans were up in arms. When electronic calls of balls and strikes were suggested, it was the umpires’ turn to complain.

Other sports may change, but baseball, by and large, has made a business of staying the same.

With the installation of limited instant replay in 2008, and with the expansion of replay in 2014, the game tentatively stepped into the Digital Age. But adding cameras in every stadium and video screens in every clubhouse opened the door to an unintended consequence: electronic cheating.

The 2017 Houston Astros casually walked through that door, developing a complex token theft system that helped them win a World Series. Two years later, when that system was revealed to the public, it worked shotssuspensions and, finally, the permanent staining of championship.

Nothing spurs action in baseball faster than a scandal — the commissioner’s office was created, after all, when baseball was dealing with the 1919 Black Sox scandal. This season, Major League Baseball took a big leap forward by distancing itself from the taint of stealing signs with the introduction of PitchComa device controlled by a catcher that allows him to verbally communicate with the pitcher what pitch is coming – information that is simultaneously shared with as many as three other players on the field through audio bits in the bands of their caps.

The idea is simple enough: If baseball can eliminate an old-fashioned pitch call, in which 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 shortstop for the Minnesota Twins who long served as the unofficial, and innocentspokesman for those 2017 Astros, went so far as to say that the tool would have prevented the systematic cheating of his old team.

“I think so,” Correa said. “Because there are no signs now.”

Not all pitchers are on board, though.

Max Scherzer, the ace of the New York Mets and the highest paid player in baseball this season, tried PitchCom for the first time at the end of last month in 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 be losing something by eliminating token stealing.

“It’s part of baseball, trying to crack somebody’s signs,” Scherzer said. “Does it have its intended intent, that it cleans up the game a little 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.”

Continuing his skepticism, Sewald said of Scherzer: “I have a very good feeling he’s on a team or two that steal signs.”

Whether true or not, Sewald’s suggestion was representative of what many in the game generally believe: Multiple managers say there are clubs that use a dozen or more staff members to study video and slide signs. Because it is done in secret, there is also league-wide paranoia that has 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 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 to Major League Baseball’s top executives.

“It’s optional, and probably the best evidence is that all 30 clubs now use it,” said Morgan Sword, MLB’s executive vice president for baseball operations. “It eliminates a major problem for the game in token stealing. But, secondly, it actually sped up the game a bit. Without the need to run through multiple sets of tokens with runners on base, the speed improved.”

So the question becomes, what is lost to achieve those gains?

While hacking is as old as sport itself, the intrusion of technology into what for more than a century had been a languid, pastoral game has set off an intense culture clash. Stealing signs has always been accepted by those who play, as long as it is done by someone on the field. But hacks immediately rise – and the unwritten (and now written) rules of the game are broken – 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 reveal 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 improving the current product and, ultimately, changing its integrity. Getting them to agree on exactly where that line sits is drawn is a different 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 looked a few decades ago” because it “neutralizes a recent threat.”

“I think it’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, which Sword said has shown “extreme promise” in achieving its intended goal: shortening games. It is expected to be implemented in the majors soon, and pitchers will have to deliver a pitch within a specified time – at Class AAA, a pitch must be thrown within 14 seconds when nobody is on base and within 19 seconds when a runner is on. is on board.

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 going to happen, and you have flashes of really cool things happening,” Colorado Rockies closer Daniel Bard said. “But you don’t know when they’re coming, you don’t know what pitch it’s on. Especially in the ninth inning of a close game, with everybody 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. you enjoy You taste To me, one is the end of a ballgame.”

The most radical change, however, could be the Automated Strike Zone – robot referees, in common parlance. Commissioner Rob Manfred said earlier this summer that he hopes to have such a system in place by 2024. Automated calls are anathema to umpires, who feel it impinges on their judgment, and to catchers, who specialize in pitch framing — the art get a throw and show it as if it were in the strike zone, even if it wasn’t.

“I don’t think that should happen,” Yankees catcher Jose Trevino may have said the game’s best pitch-framer. “There are a lot of guys that have lived 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 that so many catchers have worked to master will become useless.

“You’re just going to be back there blocking and pitching and calling the game,” he said, adding that it 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 places. It can be programmed for any language, so it bridges barriers between throwers and traps. And, as Bard said: “My eyes are not great. I can look at the signs, but it just makes it easier to just put the sign right in my ear.”

Opinions will always vary, but the 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 reporting.

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