Minor league to experiment with electronic catchers' signals

·3 min read
Atlanta Braves catcher Kevan Smith, left, celebrates a win with relief pitcher Jesse Chavez, right, during the ninth inning of a baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies, Thursday, July 22, 2021, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

Catchers' signals — and stealing them — could become a relic if an experimental electronic device is successful.

Major League Baseball will give catchers in the Low A West league the option starting Aug. 3 to use a 12-button transmitter that can be strapped with Velcro around a catcher's wristband. Receivers fit inside the sweatband of a pitcher's cap and the padding of the catcher's helmet.

A tiny speaker is included, with volume designed to be loud enough for the player to hear but not be so loud that nearby opponents can pick up the sound.

Teams with the option to be included in the experiment are Fresno, Lake Elsinore, Modesto, Rancho Cucamonga, San Jose, South Inland, Stockton and Visalia, Major League Baseball said in a memo sent Friday to farm directors and field staffs of Low-West teams.

“The system includes three components, a transmitter, which is worn on a wristband by the catcher, and two receivers (one worn by the catcher, and one worn by the pitcher),” according to the memo from senior director of on-field strategy Joe Martinez, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press. “The catcher denotes the desired pitch and location using the transmitter, and this information is passed to the receivers using an encrypted communication channel and played using bone-conduction technology.”

The memo by Martinez, a former big league pitcher, was first reported by ESPN.

The device, developed by a company called PitchCom and tested at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, is programmed for signals in English and Spanish. Clubs can add languages on their own, such as Japanese and Korean. MLB hopes the devices will cut down on time spent by pitchers stepping off the rubber and changing signals.

“The PitchCom devices were tested in side-sessions during major league spring training, and the feedback from players, coaches, and front office staff was extremely positive,” the memo said. “Based on those preliminary results, we are optimistic that these devices have the potential to be a viable long-term option to reduce sign-stealing risk and improve pace of play, particularly with runners on second base."

Sign stealing has been an issue since professional baseball began in the 1860s. The Houston Astros were found to have stolen catchers' signs using a video camera in the outfield and relayed those signals to batters by banging on a trash can during their run to the 2017 World Series title.

That led to Astros manager A.J. Hinch getting fired along with Boston manager Alex Cora, Houston's 2017 bench coach, and New York Mets manager Carlos Beltran, a player on the 2017 Astros. Hinch and Cora were suspended for the 2020 season. Hinch was hired to manage Detroit for 2021 and Cora was rehired to manage the Red Sox for 2021.

If successful, an electronic device in theory would eliminate a large part of sign stealing, though teams still try to detect signals from the dugout to batters and baserunners.

Coaches and players other than the catcher may not be sent signals. Pitchers and catchers leaving games may hand devices to the incoming player, or a new pitcher may enter with the extra receiver each team will be given.

A team may continue to use the system if the opposing club's device malfunctions.

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AP Baseball Writer Ronald Blum contributed to this report.

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