MLB authorizes PitchCom to limit character theft

Old-fashioned finger signals and character theft could 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 button transmitter, worn on the glove’s wrist, which sends the desired tone type to headphones that carry bones inside the pitcher’s cap and any three other players on a team.

MLB says that about half of the 30 teams have announced that they will open the season with the system, and the league expects others to join when they get better acquainted with it during the year.

Tested during spring training, the system is designed to eliminate the temptation of teams to use illicit means to steal signs, as teams have done throughout baseball history. More urgency for the new system was felt after it was revealed that the 2017 Houston Astros used illicit technology to steal signs and pass them on to attackers on their way to winning the championship.

Almost every sign theft – including the accepted method by which basic runners try to see the signs – begins by spying on catcher fingers. But even external methods can seem outdated.

MLB said that the communication system, known as PitchCom, is encrypted and that the league has other systems that prevent hacking or signal interception.

“We’ve worked a lot there and we feel good about it,” Chris Marinak, MLB’s chief operating officer and strategic director, told a news conference on Tuesday.

During the initial testing, Marinak said, MLB found that the system helped speed up the pace of the game. In addition to traditional finger signs, pitchers stand on the tire and stare at the catcher as the signs are transmitted.

Under the new system, pitchers can get signs as they walk along the embankment and collect, so that when they climb on the tire, they are ready to throw. This will not prevent pitchers from shaking off their catchers and the rare open disagreements between pitchers and catchers over field selection.

Most clubs indicated that the pitcher, shortstop, second base player and midfielder would wear the headphones, Marinak said, and they could hear recorded, customized phrases like “fast ball down and away”.

No team or launcher is required to use PitchCom, and teams may have some launchers that use the system and others that do not.

Other technology initiatives for the upcoming season include microphones for referees to talk to fans at the stadium and those watching on television. The referees, who were trained before the season, will explain the rules and details of the managerial challenges of the field call, just as football referees do.

Teams will also have access to tablets in their dugouts showing videos of recent bats, controlled and delivered by MLB. The system is designed to centralize and restrict videos that teams have access to during matches. Videos of the terrain will begin about half a second before the terrain is released, eliminating “99.9 percent” of all signs shown by catchers, Marinak said. Teams will not be able to gain access to the videos until the end of each half.

The league will also expand the use of robotic referees in the high lower leagues – but they will be limited to calling and kicking. Field clocks, which limit the time between pitches, will be used for all lower league games as a precursor to its potential use in the major leagues in the coming years.

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