Sign of the times: Major League Baseball agrees to electronic appeal

NEW YORK (AP) — In a move that ends a tradition dating back more than 150 years, Major League Baseball has approved the use of an electronic device that allows catchers to signal pitches in an effort to eliminate the theft of panels and the speed of games.

Since the beginning of baseball in the 19th century, catchers used their fingers to signal the type of pitch and its intended location.

As video in ballparks increased in the 21st century, so did sign theft — and concerns about how teams were trying to sweep signals. The Houston Astros were penalized for using a camera and hitting a trash can to alert their batters of pitching types during their 2017 World Series title run.

“It basically eliminates any need to create a signaling system, for a signaling receiver,” Chris Marinak, MLB’s director of operations and strategy, said Tuesday. “You literally press a button and it sends the pitch call to the pitcher. And what we’ve seen so far, it really improves the pace of the game.”

Some teams have tried the system during spring training, with Chicago White Sox manager Tony La Russa and New York Yankees Aaron Boone among those who said they liked what they saw.

MLB provides each team with three transmitters, 10 receivers and a charging case for the PitchCom Pitcher Catcher communication device.

“A maximum of five receivers and one transmitter may be in use at any one time,” MLB wrote in a five-page memorandum Tuesday to general managers, assistant general managers, managers and equipment managers, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press.

A catcher has nine choices on his wristband: “four seams high inside, curve high middle, slider high outside, shift middle inside, sinker middle, cut middle, splitter low outside. ‘inside, seam in the middle, two low seams on the outside’.

A thin band concealed inside a cap allows audio to be heard at an adjustable level, intended for use by pitchers, second basemen, shortstops and center fielders.

“When changing pitchers, the manager must provide a receiver for the replacement pitcher,” the memo reads.

Receivers and transmitters may only be used on the field and may not be used during games in clubhouses, dugouts, or bullpen.

“Signals communicated via PitchCom can only be given by the receiver in the game. Signals cannot be sent from the dugout, the bullpen, another player on the field, or anywhere else,” reads the memo.”Clubs are responsible for their PitchCom devices. Any club that loses a transmitter or receiver will be charged a replacement fee of $5,000 per unit.”

Marinak said about half of MLB’s 30 clubs have expressed interest.

“I’m not sure every team will use it,” Marinak said at the third annual MLB Fan Innovation and Engagement Showcase. “I think it’s kind of a personal preference.”

Players can no longer watch video replays of the game on clubhouse televisions, but can only view video on iPads controlled by the MLB office. The video will only update at the end of each half round and players will be able to go back and replay, but will not be able to view content during an ongoing half round.

“Players don’t have access to any technology beyond what we offer in terms of in-game video,” Marinak said. “We also monitor all traffic transmission to understand what content is delivered to the iPad.”

The new system of referees with microphones explaining video reviews to fans began with an exhibition game at Dodger Stadium on Monday night. MLB is also taking video from 104 of 120 minor league baseball fields.

The computerized plate umpires’ automated ball/strike system will be used at 10 parks in Triple-A West, Charlotte in Triple-A East and Low-A Southeast. MLB intends to illustrate calls on stadium bulletin boards.

The launch clocks will be used in all minor league stadiums, likely a prelude to their installation in major league stadiums for 2023.

MLB introduced its new 1,400 square foot replay operations center in midtown Manhattan, which opened just as COVID-19 hit in 2020 and replaced a 900 square foot facility in SoHo that was used since 2014.

There are 90 46-inch professional monitors and 60 24-inch touchscreen monitors in the 31 x 29-foot room, with three desks with six screens behind them for supervisors and administrators, then two more rows with technicians.

According to Chris Zagorski, vice president of operations and replay technology, MLB takes 18 cameras from each stadium showing 60 frames per second plus up to four high-speed cameras as fast as 360-480 frames per second.

There is a backup rebroadcasting center in San Francisco, in case there is a power outage in New York. For special event matches like in Dyersville, Iowa, Williamsport, Pennsylvania and London, a replay room is set up on-site.

Marinak said fans using the MLB Ballpark app to enter stadiums with e-tickets grew from 3% in 2017 to 19% in 2019 to 56% in 2021.

— Ronald Blum, Associated Press Baseball writer

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