A sign-stealing scandal rocked baseball, now this hardware is here to help – TechCrunch

Luis Severino in cut the glove around his ear in frustration. The Yankee Stadium Death Star’s two-shot siren blared over the AP. The pitcher expressed frustration with new technology that was quickly rolled out to baseball’s biggest stage. Manager Aaron Boone walked to the mound, handing Severino a spare.

It was a brief and embarrassing moment for PitchCom, new material that quickly made its way onto the uniforms of MLB pitchers and catchers. After a season of testing in the minor league Low-A West, there was one major problem that its creators hadn’t solved: user error.

“I left it in the dugout,” Severino told reporters after the team’s 4-2 win over Boston.

“We were worried about that,” says Craig Filicetti, co-founder of PitchCom. “Honestly, it’s so light and so unnoticeable. We’ve had people just get away with it, when it’s on its head in a number of situations.

It was a moment of momentary – and understandable – oblivion for a pitcher in the middle of his first starting game since 2019. It was funny enough in hindsight that even Severino had to laugh and ultimately didn’t tarnish what happened. so far been an extremely successful debut for new technology in a sport that has often been outwardly hostile to change.

PitchCom has won near-universal fame in MLB this week, from traditionalist White Sox manager Tony La Russa to anti-Orthodoxy starter Zack Greinke, who fried the collective brains of baseball fans by shouting pitches during a baseball game. 2020 against the Giants.

Of course, for all the foot-dragging we’ve come to expect from MLB, there are some aspects of the game the league is eager to change, from a pumped-up pace of play (the average game lasted 3 hours, 10 minutes during the 2021 regular season) to sign Vol. The latter came to a head in 2019, when former Houston Astros pitcher Mike Fiers revealed that the 2017 world champion team concocted a system of video cameras and trash cans to let their batters know what the opposing pitcher would pitch.

The scandal was the main catalyst for the founding of PitchCom.

“I thought about it for a while and thought there had to be a way to provide signs secretly,” co-founder John Hankins told TechCrunch. “Baseball has been trying to solve this problem for a while. They brought in a number of people with many different methods to prevent signs from being stolen. They had buzzers, but counting nine buzzers will slow down the game, especially if someone gets rid of them.

Picture credits: PitchCom

Hankins, a lifelong baseball fan, found inspiration closer to home. Another self-proclaimed mentalist, Filicetti, had created a wrist-based system for sending signals on stage. A college electrical engineering graduate, Filicetti says the Live Show Control device has been used by thousands of people in 60 countries.

“Leaping off of the technology that Craig had already done,” adds Hankins, “I thought, why not use a push-button transmitter that we can put on the wrist of the receiver and play it on the player’s hat? , rather than an earpiece, so they don’t lose situational awareness.

The final product closely approximates the pair’s original vision. The catcher wears an input device on his inner forearm that sports rows of buttons. Teams each assign a different location and can add a location. When the combination is pressed, it is transmitted to the earpiece, sending the caster instructions such as “Cursor, up, inside”. On the outside of the wrist is a printed cheat sheet, although the pair say many teams choose to skip it as the catchers memorize the combinations. In addition to customizing button combinations, teams and players can also input custom voices. “They can put their grandmothers on,” Hankins says. “They can put on their coach’s voice.”

The product uses an encrypted wireless protocol to prevent theft of high-tech panels. If, for example, a piece is lost, the team can re-encrypt the system to prevent foul play. An early iteration of the earpiece relied on bone conduction, though PitchCom ultimately determined that the volume just wouldn’t be loud enough to compete with the sounds of a full stadium. Beyond early minor league testing and spring training, it’s been difficult to mimic a live game setting. In a sense, the players themselves perform the tests in a high-leverage situation in front of a nationwide audience.

There are also limitations in the field. MLB has only authorized its use for defensive purposes, including pitching and knocking out baserunners. This means batters and baserunners themselves will not be able to use it in the field. Questions remain; for example, whether the product will be able to compete with the noise levels of packed crowds during the playoffs.

“It’s hard to test,” says Filicetti. “We tried to collect the number of dB of noise you have on the mound. But I will say — and MLB agrees with that — that those opening nights are a pretty good representation of what they’re going to get in the Finals. And we’ve had great success. We have room and things to play with. We have volume control and places we can go. We are following this closely. »

The company was started by Hankins and Filicetti and founded on a major gamble. It was a product developed for one customer: the biggest baseball league in the world.

“It was definitely a risky build,” says Hankins. “There was only one customer and we had no feedback during the initial build. Would the players like it? We didn’t know any players. The league was not in contact. J Tried to contact reporters, I called MLB Radio and they promptly fired me. Tried to get local reporters covering the sign-stealing scandal. Eventually we were put in touch with someone who had a connection to the Players Union and Major League Baseball.

Roadblocks persisted. The timing of the first prototype – March 2020 – couldn’t have been worse. The league was scrambling to put together a baseball season amid a global pandemic, ultimately cutting 162 regular season games to 60.

Picture credits: PitchCom

” We have acquired [MLB’s] watch out late 2020,” adds Hankins, “during the playoffs. In San Diego, we met their leaders, put a prototype on their heads and they loved it. From there, it’s great. We’ve met them virtually a few times and they’ve asked if we could send them some for spring training 2021 to test out. We couldn’t get in there because of COVID protocols, so they had some MLB folks take it to seven different spring training camps and show them. The response was very good.

This year’s season got off to a rocky start, as negotiations between MLB and the Player’s Union threatened to postpone — or even cancel — the season. Eventually a compromise was found. The delayed 2022 season kicked off last week, and with it a number of teams took to the field with PitchCom devices.

The public reaction was immediate. Some traditionalists are still reluctant to introduce new technology to the field, although most feedback has been positive, especially when it comes to accelerating the pace of play. The PitchCom founders say they have responded to requests from international and minor leagues, as well as a spike in interest from women’s professional softball teams. Currently, the team is still focused on providing the best experience for all 30 MLB teams.

“Scaling is going to be a challenge,” says Filicetti. “We have to keep our number one customer happy.”

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