Baseball and technology have always made wary partners.
For five years in the 1930s, as radio became more popular, the three New York teams — the Yankees, Giants and Dodgers — banned live play of their games because they feared the new medium would reduce attendance. When the Chicago Cubs added the spotlight to Wrigley Field in 1988, allowing them to break away from generations of games played exclusively during the day, fans were awake. When electronic calls to balls and strikes were suggested, it was the referees’ turn to complain.
Other sports may change, but baseball, in general, has made keeping the same thing a business.
With the limited instant replay installed in 2008, and with the reboot expanding in 2014, the game initially entered the digital age. But the addition of cameras at every football stadium and video screens at every club opened the door to an unintended consequence: electronic cheating.
The 2017 Houston Astros brazenly stepped through that door, developing an elaborate signal-stealing system that helped them win the world championship. Two years later, when this system was revealed to the public, it led to gunfire, suspension, and, eventually, permanently tarnishing the championship.
Nothing stimulates action in baseball faster than scandal—the office of the commissioner was created, after all, when baseball dealt with the 1919 Black Sox scandal. This season, Major League Baseball took a big leap forward in distancing itself from the stigma of streamer theft. With the introduction of the PitchCom, a device controlled by a masker allows him to communicate speechlessly with the bowler about the upcoming pitch – information that is simultaneously shared with up to three other players on the field through earbuds in their hat bands.
The idea is simple enough: If baseball could eliminate the old pitch call, with the catcher flashing signals to the bowler with his fingers, it would be harder for other teams to steal those signals. There have been a few hiccups, with the hardware not turning on, or the shooters not being able to hear it, but so far this season, everyone in baseball seems to agree that PitchCom, like it or not, is working.
Carlos Correa, a Minnesota Twins shortstop who has long served as a casual and unapologetic spokesperson for those 2017 Astros, went so far as to say that the tool would have thwarted the systematic cheating of his old team.
“I think so,” Correa said. “Because there are no signs now.”
However, not all shooters are on board.
Max Scherzer, the highest-paid New York Mets player in baseball this season, sampled from PitchCom for the first time late last month in a game against the Yankees and came up with conflicting ideas.
He said, “It works.” “Does it help? Yes. But I also think it should be illegal.”
Scherzer went so far as to suggest that the game would have something to lose by eliminating signal theft.
“It’s part of the baseball game, you’re trying to break somebody’s banners,” Scherzer said. “Does she have the desired intention of cleaning up the game a bit?” He said about PitchCom. “Yes. But I also feel that this takes away part of the game.”
Scherzer’s comments elicited mixed reactions from his peers. Paul Seewald, a Seattle devotee, called them “a little naive” and “a little hypocritical.” Sonny Gray, the Minnesota player, said he agrees with Scherzer in theory, “but refuting it would be when you sequence the signals when the runner is at second base, you have teams that have that on the video and split it as the game continues.”
Persisting in his skepticism, Sewald said of Scherzer: “I have a very good feeling he was on one or two teams stealing the signals.”
True or not, Sewald’s suggestion represented what many in the game generally believe: Many managers say there are clubs that use a dozen or more staff to study video cues and swipes. Because it is done in secrecy, there is also widespread paranoia that has developed, that even the innocent are now presumed guilty.
“I think we’re all aware of that,” said Colorado manager Bad Black. “We recognize that there are front offices that have more manpower than others.”
The belief that signal theft was pervasive led to PitchCom being widely used, perhaps faster than many imagine. And this is welcome news for the top executives of Major League Baseball.
“It’s optional, and perhaps 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 an important problem for the game in signal theft. But, secondly, it sped up the game a bit. Without having to go through multiple sets of signals with the runners at the base, the pace has improved.”
So the question becomes, what was lost to achieve those gains?
While code-breaking is as old as the sport itself, technology’s intrusion into what for more than a century has been a frail pastoral game has precipitated a sharp cultural clash. Cue theft has always been accepted by those who play, as long as it was committed by someone on the field. But the hacks are instantly 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 software is so sophisticated that algorithms can detect whether a bowler is about to throw a fast ball or is simply slipping by the way he is holding a glove.
“When you use people who don’t play the game to get an advantage, for me, personally at least, I have a problem with that,” San Diego manager Bob Melvin said.
Most agree that there is a fine line between improving technology for an existing product and ultimately changing its safety. Getting them to agree on exactly where to draw that line is a different matter.
“I wish there was no video technology or anything else,” said DJ Limaheu, the Yankees’ number two businessman.
Sword says that PitchCom was an example of the technology’s ability to “make a version of baseball that looks more like two decades ago” because it “neutralizes a modern threat.”
“I think that’s the way the world works,” Black said. “We are part of the world.”
And more technology to come. On deck is the small-league-tested court clock which, according to Sword, has been “very promising” in achieving its intended goal: shortening games. It’s expected to be rolled out in majors soon, and shooters will have to file the pitch within a set amount of time – in Class AAA, the pitch must be brought up within 14 seconds when no one is at the base and within 19 seconds when the runner is on board.
In general, shooters are less excited about court hours than they are about PitchCom.
“Ninety percent of baseball is an expectation that something great is about to happen, and you have flashes of really great things happening,” said Daniel Bard, the closest Colorado Rockies. “But you don’t know when they’re about to come, you don’t know in which stadium that’s going to happen. Especially in the ninth game of a close match, with everyone on the edge of their seat, do you want to rush it? There are so many good things in life that you don’t want Hurry it up. You’re amused. You savor. For me, one is the end of the ball game.”
However, the most drastic change may be the robot strike zone – robot rulers, 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 referees, who feel it violates their rule, and for pitch framing specialists – the art of receiving pitch and displaying it as if it were in the strike zone, Even if you are not.
“I don’t think that should happen,” said Yankees player Jose Trevino, who is perhaps the best pitcher in the field. “There are a lot of players who have been in this game and a lot of players from the past who make a living catching the ball, being good players, and playing good defensively.”
Trevino said that with the so-called Robot Rulers, the skill that many Hunters had worked so hard to master would be rendered useless.
“You’re going back there to stop the game and throw it and summon it,” he said, adding that this could affect the earning power of some hunters.
But this argument for another day. PitchCom is a new game this year that, contrary to the obvious, smooths things over in unexpected areas. It can be programmed into any language, so it bridges the barriers between pitchers and catchers. As Bard said, “My eyes aren’t adorable. I can stare at the tags, but it’s easy to just put the tag right in my ear.”
Opinions will always differ, but one thing everyone agrees on is that the technological invasion will continue.
It will continue,” Correa said. “Very soon, we will have bots playing short roles.”
James Wagner And the Gary Phillips Contribute to the preparation of reports.