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

Luis Severino cupped the glove around his ear resentfully. The announcers here sounded the sirens of two Death Star attacks on Yankee Stadium. The pitcher signaled frustration with a piece of new technology that was quickly deployed on baseball’s biggest stage. Manager Aaron Boone stepped onto the pitch, handing Severino a replacement.

It was a brief, embarrassing moment for PitchCom, a new piece of hardware quickly appeared on the uniforms of pitchers and catchers across the MLB. After a test season in the Low-A West minor league, there’s one big problem its creators haven’t addressed: user error.

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

“We were worried about that,” said Craig Filicetti, co-founder of PitchCom. “Honestly, it’s very light and very barely noticeable. We’ve had people just go with them, when they’re on top of them in certain situations. “

It was a momentarily forgettable – and understandable – moment for a pitcher midway through his first starting game since 2019. It’s funny enough in hindsight that it’s right. Even Severino had to laugh, and in the end didn’t tarnish what had been so far. a wildly successful debut for a new technology in a sport that often doesn’t like change on the surface.

PitchCom has earned near-universal acclaim in MLB this week, from traditionalist White Sox manager Tony LaRussa to mainstream initiator, Zack Greinke, who has beaten the collective brains of baseball fans by scream in the 2020 match against the Giants.

Of course, for all we’ve come to expect from the MLB, there are certain aspects of the game that the league would like to change, from the fast pace of play (the average game runs 3 hours 10 minutes) during the 2021 Regular Season) to sign steals. The latter came in 2019, when former Houston Astros pitcher Mike Fiers revealed that the 2017 World Champion team had built a system of video cameras and trash cans for their batters to use. they know what the opponent pitcher is going to throw.

The scandal was the main catalyst behind the creation of PitchCom.

Co-founder John Hankins told TechCrunch: “I thought about that for a while and realized that there had to be a way to provide the signs secretly. “Baseball has been trying to solve this problem for a while. They’ve got some people coming up with lots of different methods to stop sign theft. They’ve got the vibrato, but counting nine shakes slows the game down, especially if someone brushes it off. “

Image credits: PitchCom

Hankins, a lifelong baseball fan, found inspiration closer to home. Self-described psychiatrist Filicetti has created a wrist-based system to send signals on stage. Filicetti, an electrical engineering student at the university, says the Live Show Control device has been used by thousands of people across 60 countries.

“Jumping out of the technology that Craig did,” Hankins added, “I thought, why don’t we just use a push button transmitter that we can put on the catcher’s wrist and have it play into the hat. player, instead of ear pads, so they don’t lose situational awareness. “

The final product has a color close to the pair’s original image. The catcher wears an input device on the inner forearm that has rows of buttons. Teams assign each team a different field and can add positions. When the combo is pressed, it’s transmitted to the headset, sending audio player instructions like “Slider, high, inward.” Outside the wrist is a pre-printed cheat sheet, although the pair say many teams are choosing to do without it, as the catchers memorize the combinations. In addition to customizing button combinations, teams and players can also enter custom voiceovers. “They can bring their grandmother in,” says Hankins. “They can put on their coach’s voice.”

The product uses an encrypted wireless protocol to avoid high-tech symbol theft. Supposedly, if a piece is lost, the team can recode the system to avoid foul play. Early iterations of the headphones relied on bone conduction, although eventually PitchCom determined that the volume simply wouldn’t be loud enough to compete with the sound of a full stadium. Aside from the first test of the minor league and spring training, it’s hard to mimic the live game scene. In a sense, the players themselves are performing the test in a high-leverage situation in front of a nationwide audience.

There are also limitations in the field. The MLB has only allowed it to be used for defensive purposes, including pitching and picking up counter-attacking players. That means hitters and hitters themselves won’t be able to use it on the court. The questions remain; for example, will the product be able to compete with the noise levels of a packed crowd in the knockout stages.

“It’s very difficult to test,” says Filicetti. “We’re trying to collect how many dB of noise you’ve got on the mound. But I will say – and MLB agrees with this – that these opening nights are a pretty good representation of what they’re going to get in the finals. And we’ve seen very good success. We have space and lots to play with. We have volume control and where we can go. We are closely monitoring this.”

The company was started by Hankins and Filicetti and founded on a big gamble. It was a product developed for one customer: the world’s largest baseball league.

“It’s a huge risk,” said Hankins. “There was only one customer and we had no feedback when we first built. Do players like it? We don’t know any players. Union not contacted. I tried contacting the reporters, I called MLB Radio and they promptly fired me. I tried to meet local reporters covering the sign theft scandal. We were eventually connected with someone with connections to Major League Baseball and Players’ League. “

The “fence” technique still exists. The timing of the first prototype – March 2020 – couldn’t have been worse. The league is trying to organize a baseball season amid the global pandemic, eventually reducing the season’s 162 regular games to 60.

Image credits: PitchCom

“We have received [MLB’s] attention at the end of 2020, “added Hankins,” in the knockout round. In San Diego, we met with their executives, put a prototype on their heads, and they loved it. From there, it was great. We met with them a couple of times and they asked if we could send them some spring 2021 training for them to check out. We couldn’t get in there because of COVID protocol, so they asked the MLB guys to put it in seven different spring training camps and show them. Very good feedback. ”

This year’s season has had a rough start of its own, as negotiations between the MLB and the Players’ League threaten to postpone – or even cancel – the season. In the end, a compromise was reached. The delayed 2022 season began last week, and with that, several teams have sported PitchCom equipment on the field.

Immediate public response. Some traditionalists are still hesitant to introduce a new technology on the field, although most of the feedback has been positive – especially in regards to increasing the speed of play. The PitchCom founders say they’ve responded to requests from international and minor leagues, along with soaring interest from women’s professional softball teams. For now, the team is still focused on providing the best experience for MLB’s 30 teams, but scaling is paramount.

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

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