How Catchers and Pitchers Are Using Technology to Communicate on the Baseball Field [Thoughts After Dark]

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Thoughts After Dark answers the questions you have in the final moments before drifting off to sleep when a simple Google search turns into an hour-long exploration into how things are made and how they work. Your random late-night questions are answered here — even the ones you didn’t know you had.

For the first time since 1968, all 30 Major League Baseball (MLB) teams played their first games on the season's opening day. On Thursday, March 30, there was basically nonstop baseball, where patrons watched and sang “Take Me Out to the Ball Game, munched on peanuts, and tried to catch foul balls to take home as souvenirs.

When I was a kid, my dad took me to a Royals game and bought me everything a 10-year-old might want: a sugary slushie, a giant salted pretzel, a bag of Cracker Jacks, and, of course, a hot dog. Despite not being a big sports fan then or now, attending baseball games always feels like a treat. In the Midwest, baseball season means the weather is finally warming up, and at the stadium, the excitement of being able to go outside without a coat and winter gloves is palpable.

While patrons chat about the latest run in the stands, an entirely different language occurs on the baseball field. The catcher uses unique hand signals to communicate with the pitcher about what type of pitch to throw and where to throw it. At least that’s how pitchers used to know whether to throw a low curveball or a sinker.

This changed during the 2017-18 baseball season due to a sign-stealing scandal. Since then, MLB has been trying to devise a different strategy to communicate plays, and they think they might have found it with the PitchCom device. How does the technology work, and how is it changing baseball?

The History of Hand Signals in Baseball

Since the beginning of baseball in the 19th century, catchers have used hand gestures to signal the type of pitch to throw. Catchers and pitchers can’t communicate verbally, so they had to develop another way to get on the same page.

Historically, catchers have called a pitch while in a squatting position using the fingers of their throwing hands. While the signal needs to be visible to the pitcher, it needs to be hidden enough to avoid the opposing team signaling the sign to their hitter.

Some of the common pitch signs are:

  • One finger = fastball
  • Two fingers = curveball
  • Three fingers = slider
  • Wiggle fingers = change up

To communicate where a pitch should be thrown, catchers often tap a particular side of their thigh. However, the signs differ from team to team to better prevent sign stealing. Some catchers may use body signals like touching their mask to mean fastball.

The Astros Baseball Scandal

A few years ago, a sign-stealing scandal stole news headlines and reverberated across baseball stadiums. The Houston Astros were found to have positioned a center field camera at their home stadium that sent the video of opposing teams’ hand signals to their replay room, where someone would relay the signals to players in the dugout.

When players in the dugout were notified of the signal, they would bang on trash cans or use bats to tell the hitter what kind of pitch was coming. For example, if the trash can was hit once or twice, the pitcher planned to throw an off-speed pitch.

After investigating, MLB discovered that the Astros used this method throughout 2017 and into 2018. Many fans wondered if their 2017 World Series victory was attributed to sign stealing, and if it was, many wanted to strip the team of their win.

However, the baseball commissioner, Robert D. Manfred, said that once MLB went “down that road of changing what happens on the field, I just don’t know how you decide where you stop.”

MLB fined the club $5 million and docked several top draft picks. The investigation led to other teams being accused and fined for signal stealing.

Introducing the PitchCom Device

The biggest advantage a pitcher has over a hitter is the element of surprise. For catchers and pitchers to continue communicating on the field, MLB needed to find a way to better prevent sign stealing. They landed on the PitchCom device and approved it for use in MLB before the 2022 season began.

According to PitchCom’s website, the device uses a proprietary push-button and is a “player-wearable transmitter that allows players on the field to communicate plays to each other without using physical signs or verbal communication.”

The device, worn on a catcher's wrist, has 12 buttons mapped to different pitch types and locations like “curve high middle,” “splitter low inside,” and “four seam high inside.” In order to communicate the pitch and its placement, pitchers, second baseman, and shortstops tuck a thin band inside their baseball caps to receive the audio signal. The signal, which sounds robotic, communicates the next pitch to throw, such as a “low curveball” or “high fastball,” depending on how the team programs the device.

The device can also be programmed to speak other languages like Spanish, eliminating communication issues. Signals sent using the PitchCom device are only permitted to come from the catcher during a game, and only five receivers and one transmitter can be used at any given time per MBA rules.

While PitchCom is approved for use, teams aren’t required to use it. MLB union head Tony Clark emphasized that “the guys on the field are in the best position to make decisions as individuals about whether it's right for them.” Either way, MLB is providing each team with three transmitters, 10 receivers, and a charger.

While the system has experienced malfunctions, and loud stadiums can make it difficult for pitchers to hear the audio signal, most teams consider the device a major success.

How PitchCom Is Changing Baseball

This isn’t the first time MLB has tried to eliminate sign stealing, but other methods excluded the use of technology altogether. Beyond being the first use of this type of technology in baseball, PitchCom is changing America’s favorite pastime in one really specific way.

It’s speeding up the game.

Instead of pitchers needing to be in place on the pitcher’s mound, waiting for the catcher to give the hand signal, and then deciphering that signal, catchers can now communicate the next pitch immediately after a pitch is thrown. The quick audio signal also prevents any delays due to signal confusion.

However, some players don’t like the change. Max Scherzer, the New York Mets’ ace pitcher, says that “cracking somebody’s signs” is part of the game. Additionally, Atlanta Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud says it’s “rushing the timeless game.”

So far, about half of the MLB teams are utilizing the device and finding success. From preventing sign stealing to eliminating confusion and delays, PitchCom has secured its spot as the newest player on some of our favorite baseball teams.

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