In the wake of the sign-stealing scandals — not to mention a series of lesser controversies that probably shouldn’t have been — Major League Baseball has started to use electronics to relay signs from catcher to pitcher and vice versa. It’s called PitchCom. A decent number of teams have been using it this season and it seems to be up to the pitcher-catcher tandem on whether or not they do.
“Here’s what I’ll say on PitchCom,” he said (via Newsday). “It works. Does it help? Yes, but I also think it should be illegal. I don’t think it should be in the game. Stealing signs is part of the game. For me, I’ve always taken pride in having a complex system of signs and having that advantage over other pitchers.”
“The fact that we’re taking this out of the game and we’re putting in technology, now you can’t steal signs on second, the pitcher can’t have an advantage of having a complex system. It’s part of baseball, trying to crack someone’s signs.”
That’ll be music to the ears of many old-school baseball fans.
PitchCom uses a sleeve that the catcher wears to get the signs to the pitcher, and possibly up to three fielders via earpiece. The sleeve has buttons on it, not unlike a video-game controller. There’s obviously one button per pitch and then once the catcher pushes it, everyone wearing the earpiece hears either the pitch name (“slider”) or a code word they’ve assigned for each pitch.
As Scherzer mentioned, stealing signs has long been an established part of baseball and it’s why pitchers and catchers learn to disguise signs at an early age. There have long been established rules rules (yes, some unwritten) on it, too, such as:
- Using technology to steal signs is illegal and totally over the line.
- A batter looking backward at a catcher is bush league and punishable by a beanball.
- If a team is bad at disguising signs, relaying them from a runner on second to the batter is acceptable and actually encouraged.
There’s been a heightened sensitivity on the issue since the 2017 Astros and 2018 Red Sox both won the World Series and were later embroiled in scandals relating to those seasons. Others have been accused as well. Of course, it isn’t new. The 1951 Bobby Thomson “shot heard ’round the world” has controversy attached to it, as does Cleveland in 1948, the 1960s White Sox and a host of others.
On this front, I found it interesting Scherzer raised the point about taking pride in preventing the opponent from stealing signs. The 2019 Nationals beat the Astros in seven games in the World Series. MLB has since found the Astros weren’t using technology to steal signs during the 2019, but the Nats were preparing as if everything was on the table. Via the Washington Post:
There were some layers to the Nats’ plan for Houston. First, each pitcher had to have his own set of signs, and catchers Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki had to be familiar with each one. So the staff printed out cards with the codes and had them laminated. The catchers could have them in their wristbands, a la an NFL quarterback with play calls strapped to his forearm, and the pitchers would have them in their caps. Each pitcher had five sets of signs, and they could change them from game to game — or even batter to batter, if necessary. Using the set labeled No. 2, but worried the Astros were catching on? The pitcher could signal to the catcher to move to set No. 3.
The Nationals also decided that they would use multiple signs regardless of whether there was a runner on second base or not. No one on? Runner on first? Let’s make sure the catcher runs through a series of signs anyway, just in case.
This is probably where Scherzer’s argument carries the most weight. There are plenty of coaches on staff to run through stuff like this on the signs. Having that kind of success against a high-powered offense would absolutely bring on a feeling of great pride, especially if you thought they were trying to steal signs and failed.
The flip side of that would be a belief that it’s an unnecessary waste of time when they could simply use PitchCom and spend their time game-planning for specific hitters and detailing a pitching plan (how long the starter should go, how to line up the bullpen, etc.).
It probably boils down to whether or not one believes preventing sign stealing should be a skill or not. Scherzer appears to believe it should be.