Baseball and technology have always made wary partners.
For five years 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 reduced attendance. When the Chicago Cubs added lights to Wrigley Field in 1988, allowing them to break away from generations of games played exclusively during the day, fans were on their feet. When electronic calls for balls and strikes were suggested, it was the umpires’ turn to protest.
Other sports may change, but baseball, by and large, has made the job 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 ballpark and video screens 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 system of stealing records that helped them win a World Series. Two years later, when this system was exposed to the public, it resulted in firings, suspensions and, ultimately, the permanent blackening of a league.
Nothing spurs action in baseball faster than a scandal—the Commissioner’s office was created, after all, as baseball grappled with the 1919 Black Sox scandal. This season, Major League Baseball took a giant leap forward in distancing itself from the taint of plate-stealing with the introduction of PitchCom, a device controlled by a catcher that allows him to communicate wordlessly with the pitcher about which pitch is coming — information that is shared simultaneously with up to three other players on the pitch via headsets on the strips of their covers.
The idea is simple enough: If baseball can eliminate old-fashioned pitch-calling, 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, is working.
Carlos Correa, a shortstop for the Minnesota Twins who has long served as the unofficial and unapologetic spokesman for these 2017 Astros, went so far as to say the tool would have prevented his old team from systematically cheating .
“I think so,” Correa said. “Because there are no signs now.”
However, not all pitchers are on board.
Max Scherzer, the New York Mets’ ace and the highest-paid player in baseball this season, first tried PitchCom late last month at a game against the Yankees and came away with mixed feelings.
“It works,” he said. “It helps; Yes. But I also think it should be illegal.”
Scherzer went so far as to suggest that the game would lose something by eliminating steals.
“It’s part of baseball, trying to break somebody’s marks,” Scherzer said. “Does it have the desired intention of cleaning up the game a bit?” he said of PitchCom. “Yes. But I also feel like it takes away from the game.”
Scherzer’s comments drew mixed reactions from his peers. Seattle reliever Paul Sewald called them “a little naive” and “a little hypocritical.” Minnesota first baseman Sonny Gray said he agreed with Scherzer in theory, “but my rebuttal would be when you do hit sequences when a runner is on second base, you have teams that have it on video and analyze it as a play. to be continued.”
Continuing his skepticism, Sewald said of Scherzer, “I have a pretty good feeling he’s been on a tag team or two.”
Whether true or not, Sewald’s suggestion was representative of what many in the game generally believe: Many managers say there are clubs that employ a dozen or more staff members to study video signs and sweep. Because it is done in secret, there is also a nationwide paranoia that has developed, with even the innocent now considered guilty.
“I think we all know that,” Colorado manager Bud Black said. “We know there are front offices that have more manpower than others.”
The belief that caption 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 brass.
“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 major issue for the game in token stealing. But secondly, it has sped up the game a bit. Without having to run through multiple sets of plates with runners on base, the pace has improved.”
So the question becomes, what is being lost to achieve these gains?
While code-breaking is as old as sports itself, the intrusion of technology into what for more than a century was a lackluster, pastoral game has precipitated a sharp culture clash. Stealing has always been acceptable to those who play, as long as it is committed by someone on the field. But injustices 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 era where computer programs are so sophisticated that algorithms can tell whether a pitcher is going 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 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 that improves the current product and, ultimately, altering its integrity. Agreeing on exactly where that line 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 what it looked like a few decades ago” because it “neutralizes a recent threat.”
“I think it’s just the way people are going,” 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 says has shown “extreme promise” in achieving its goal: shortening games. It’s expected to be implemented in the majors soon, and pitchers will have to deliver a pitch within a specified time frame — in Class AAA, a pitch must be thrown within 14 seconds when nobody is on base and within 19 seconds when a runner is on on the ship.
In general, pitchers are less enthusiastic about pitch watches than PitchCom.
“Ninety percent of baseball is the expectation that something really cool is going to happen, and you get glimpses of really cool things happening,” Colorado Rockies closer Daniel Bard said. “But you don’t know when they’re going to come, you don’t know what field it’s on. Especially in the ninth inning of a close game, with everyone on the edge of their seats, do you want to rush it? There are many good things in life that you don’t want to rush. You’re enjoying yourself. you taste To me, one is the end of a ball game.”
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 believe it impairs their judgment, and to catchers who specialize in pitch framing — the art of taking a pitch and making it look like it was in the strike zone, even if it wasn’t.
“I don’t think that should happen,” said Yankees catcher Jose Trevino, perhaps the game’s best player. “There’s a lot of guys that have come through this game and a lot of guys from the past that have made a living out of catching, being a good player, being a good defensive catcher.”
With so-called robot referees, Trevino said, a skill that so many hunters have worked so hard to master will become useless.
“You’re just going to go back out there to block, throw and call the play,” 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 game, and beyond the obvious, it smooths things out in unexpected places. It can be programmed for any language, so it bridges the barriers between pitchers and catchers. And, as the Bard said: “My eyes are not wonderful. I can stare at the signs, but it just makes it easier to put the sign right up to my ear.”
Opinions will always vary, but the one thing everyone agrees on is that the technological invasion will continue.
“It will continue,” Correa said. “Soon, we’ll have robots playing shortstop.”
James Wagner and Gary Phillips contributed to the report.