MLB aims to fight tech with more tech
In the wake of the sign-stealing scandal that has rocked baseball and become the biggest controversy in the sport since the Steroid Era, some voices have argued that further limiting or banning technology from games is the best or only solution. Major League Baseball, however, had already been exploring a simple strategy to address sign-stealing even before the scheme involving the Houston Astros became public: Combat tech with more tech.
For well over a year, MLB executives have engaged in informal discussions about a variety of technologies and communication devices that, if implemented, would preserve the age-old communication between pitchers and catchers over pitch selection while all but eliminating the effectiveness of elaborate sign-stealing schemes, according to Chris Marinak, MLB’s executive vice president for strategy, technology and innovation.
MLB executives have brainstormed with some of the nation’s biggest tech companies, including Apple and Google, about concepts and hardware. And MLB has solicited feedback from players at spring training each of the past two years about prototype devices, and executives will do so again when camps open next month in both Florida and Arizona.
Marinak cautioned and stressed that several obstacles stand in the way of the implementation of a communication device, not the least of which is the production of the hardware itself. While gaining near universal approval among players also looms as a sizable roadblock, and implementation will be neither easy nor imminent, MLB views an embrace of technology as the most prudent long-term approach toward addressing sign stealing.
The search for a solution figures to amplify after Commissioner Rob Manfred last week imposed severe sanctions on the Houston Astros for cheating during their 2017 World Series-winning season (and during the 2018 season). Manfred announced one-year suspensions for general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch, but Houston owner Jim Crane elected to dismiss both as soon as the nine-page report detailing the investigation’s findings was released. That report said the team’s former bench coach, Alex Cora, and then-Astros player Carlos Beltran were intimately involved in the planning and execution of the scheme. Both Cora, who is also being investigated for his role in a sign-stealing scandal while managing the Red Sox to the 2018 title, and Beltran, who was hired as Mets manager this offseason, have since departed their clubs.
Still, Marinak acknowledges adding new technology won’t be an easy process. “If we could find something that works that’s easy and efficient, absolutely. I’m not sure we’ve come across that yet. There’s a lot of ancillary things to think about.”
Among the technologies that MLB continues to discuss:
■ A random number generator: Imagine a pitcher and catcher each wearing a small screen on their wrists. The devices are synced with a random number (one through five) that changes in unison every 15 seconds. Before a pitch, the pitcher and catcher look at their respective screens. If, for instance, they display the number “3” then the catcher and pitcher know that the third hand signal that the catcher flashes while crouched behind the plate will correspond to the pitch selection. The number on the screens randomly changes before the next pitch selection.
This approach is viewed by MLB officials as the lightest infrastructure-wise because Wi-Fi won’t need to be embedded underneath the pitcher’s mound. And among all possibilities, it’s one that has drawn some positive feedback and interest from players — though far from universal praise. The drawbacks: As pace-of-play concerns loom over the sport, it certainly wouldn’t make the game faster. There’s also the potential for sign mix-ups if the pitcher and catcher look at the screen at the moment the numbers change.
■ An earpiece: Two years ago, MLB officials got mixed reviews from players when they introduced them to a prototype earpiece. The concept is easy enough. But if the pitcher is wearing an earpiece, he also needs to wear some form of communication pack on his belt, which is not desirable for players who want to be unencumbered. If the catcher is equipped with a small microphone in his helmet, the batter may be able to hear anything he says. And even if the pitch call is coded much like in football — the catcher may say “22 Red 7” into the mic — and only the pitcher can decipher it, language or pronunciation issues could abound.
■ A watch: Apple watches were specifically mentioned in Manfred’s report as the type of technology currently prohibited during games, and the Red Sox were busted using them to steal signs against the Yankees in 2017. But they could also help solve baseball’s current problem. Imagine a catcher wearing a small Apple Watch-like device. He presses a button and it sends a signal of a fastball that the pitcher sees on his own watch. But how practical is it for a catcher to scroll through options and press a button, or for a pitcher to look at his device?
Marinak said that Wi-Fi would need to be embedded underneath the mound to enable Wi-Fi on the pitcher’s watch. There’s also concern about the watch face growing dim every two seconds and needing to be tapped twice to come alive.
■ Lights: The catcher presses a button on a wrist watch or a small device attached to the outside of his glove. A corresponding light or light sequence flashes near the pitcher on the mound or field that only he can see. One of the bigger issues with this approach is that it would be among the most difficult to also incorporate the middle infielders, who may need to know what pitch is coming.
While any of these solutions might help combat sign-stealing, they likely will detract from MLB’s longstanding efforts to speed games up.
“We already have the fastest mechanism, particularly when no one is on second base: Put down one finger and go — fastball,” Marinak said. “How much faster can you get than that?”