Old-fashioned finger signals and sign theft may soon become obsolete in Major League Baseball. From this season, the teams will start using electronic devices that transmit signals from catchers to pitchers.
The system, which was officially unveiled on Tuesday, includes a push-button transmitter worn on the cat’s wrist by the glove, which sends the desired tone type to the bone conduction headphones inside the pitcher’s caps and all three other players determine the team.
MLB says about half of the 30 teams have indicated they will open the season with the system, and the league expects others to join as they get to know it better this year.
Tested during spring training, the system is designed to eliminate the temptation for teams to use illegal means of stealing signs, as teams have done throughout the history of baseball. More urgency for the new system was felt after it was revealed that Houston Astros had been using illegal technology since 2017 to steal tokens and hand them over to fighters on their way to winning the championship.
Virtually every sign theft – including an accepted method of making base runners try to see the signs – begins with spying on the hunter’s fingers. But even overboard methods can become obsolete.
MLB said the communications system, known as PitchCom, is encrypted and that the league has other systems to prevent hacking or signal interception.
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“We did a lot of work there and we feel good about it,” Chris Marinak, MLB’s chief operating and strategic director, told a news conference on Tuesday.
During initial testing, Marinak said, MLB found that the system was helping to speed up the pace of the game. With traditional finger signs, the pitchers stand on the tire and stare at the kettle as the signs pass.
Under the new system, pitchers can receive the tokens as they go around the mound and gather, so that when they get on the tire, they are ready to throw. This will not stop the pitchers from shaking off their catchers and the rare open disagreements between pitchers and catchers over the choice of terrain.
Most clubs said they would get the pitcher, shortstop, second baseman and center fielder to wear the headphones, Marinak said, and they could hear recorded, personalized phrases like “quick ball down and away.”
No team or pitcher is required to use PitchCom, and teams may have some pitchers who use the system and others who do not.
Other technology initiatives for the upcoming season include microphones for referees to speak to stadium fans and those watching television. The referees who have been trained before the season will explain the rules and the detailed challenges of the manager when calling on the field, just as football referees do.
Teams will also have access to tablets in their dugouts showing videos of recent bats, all controlled and supplied by MLB. The system is designed to centralize and restrict the videos that teams have access to during games. The videos on the field will start about half a second before leaving the field, eliminating “99.9 percent” of all signs shown by the catchers, Marinak said. Teams will not be able to access the videos until the end of each half-inning.
The league will also expand the use of robot judges in the major minor leagues – but they will be limited to calling balls and punches. Field clocks that limit time between pitches will be used for all minor league matches as a precursor to its potential use in the major leagues in the coming years.