Luis Severino hollowed out the glove around his ear in frustration. The two-chime Death Star siren at Yankee Stadium blared over the public address system, announcers reasoned. The pitcher noted his frustration with a new technology that was quickly implemented on baseball’s biggest stage. Manager Aaron Boone came out to the mound and handed Severino a replacement piece.
It was a brief and embarrassing time for PitchCom, a new piece of hardware that quickly found its way into the uniforms of MLB pitchers and catchers. After a season of testing in the Low-A West minor league, there was a major issue that its creators didn’t address: user error.
“I put him on the bench,” Severino confessed to reporters after the team’s 4-2 victory over Boston.
“That worried us,” says PitchCom co-founder Craig Filicetti. “Honestly, he is so light and so unnoticeable. We’ve had people just walk away with them, when they’re upside down in various situations.”
It was a momentary — and understandable — moment of forgetfulness for a pitcher in the midst of his first starting game since 2019. It was funny enough in hindsight that even Severino had to laugh, and it ultimately doesn’t tarnish what has so far been a Wildly successful debut of a new technology in a sport that has often been seemingly hostile to change.
PitchCom earned near-universal praise in MLB this week, from traditionalist White Sox manager Tony LaRussa to orthodoxy-busting starter Zack Greinke, who fried the collective brains of baseball fans by yelling pitches in a 2020 game against the Giants.
Of course, for all the delays we’ve come to expect from MLB, there are certain aspects of the game the league is eager to change, from a fast-paced game (the average game lasted 3 hours, 10 minutes during the 2021 regular season) to sign the robbery. The latter came to a head in 2019, when former Houston Astros pitcher Mike Fiers revealed that the 2017 world champion team had invented a system of video cameras and trash cans to let their hitters know what they would throw. the opposing pitcher.
The scandal was the main catalyst behind the founding of PitchCom.
“I thought about it for a while and thought there must be a way to covertly provide signals,” co-founder John Hankins tells TechCrunch. “Baseball has been trying to solve this problem for a while. Various people have come up with many different methods to prevent sign theft. They had buzzers, but counting nine buzzers will slow down the game, especially if someone takes it away from you.”
Hankins, a lifelong baseball fan, found inspiration closer to home. Mentalist Filicetti, a self-described sidekick, had created a wrist-based system for sending signals to the stage. Majoring in electrical engineering at university, Filicetti says the Live Show Control device has been used by thousands in 60 countries.
“Leapfrogging from the technology that Craig had already done,” Hankins adds, “I thought, why don’t we use a button transmitter that we can put on the receiver’s wrist and have them play with the player’s hat, instead of a headset?” , so that they do not lose the knowledge of the situation”.
The final product closely resembles the couple’s original vision. The receiver uses an input device on the inside of the forearm that sports rows of buttons. Teams each assign a different field and can add placement. When the combination is pressed, it is transmitted to the headset, sending the caster instructions like, “Slider, stop, in.” On the outside of the wrist is a printed cheat sheet, though the pair say many teams are choosing to do without it, as catchers memorize the combinations. In addition to customizing button combinations, teams and players can also input custom voices. “They can put their grandmothers in,” says Hankins. “They can put the voice of their coach.”
The product uses an encrypted wireless protocol to prevent hi-tech signal theft. If, for example, a piece is lost, the team can re-encrypt the system to prevent foul play. An early iteration of the headset relied on bone conduction, though ultimately PitchCom determined that the volume simply wouldn’t be loud enough to compete with the sounds of a packed stadium. Beyond the early minor league tryouts and spring training, it’s been difficult to mimic a live game scenario. In a sense, the players themselves are testing in a high-leverage situation in front of a national audience.
There are also limitations in the field. MLB has only authorized its use for defensive purposes, including throwing and throwing out baserunners. That means hitters and baserunners won’t be able to wear it on 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 prove it,” says Filicetti. “We have been trying to collect how many dB of noise you have 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 during the Finals. And we’ve seen very good success. We have headroom and things to play with. We have volume control and places we can go. We are monitoring this closely.”
The company was started by Hankins and Filicetti and founded on a big gamble. It was a product developed for a client: the largest baseball league in the world.
“It was very much a risky build,” says Hankins. “There was only one client and we had no feedback when we were initially building. Would the players like it? We didn’t know any players. The league was not in contact. I tried to contact reporters, I called MLB Radio and they promptly fired me. I tried to contact local reporters who were reporting on the sign-stealing scandal. We eventually connected with someone who had a connection to the Players Union and Major League Baseball.”
Roadblocks persisted. The timing of the first prototype, March 2020, could not have been worse. The league was scrambling to put on a baseball season in the midst of a global pandemic, eventually cutting the 162 regular season games down to 60.
“We got [MLB’s] attention in late 2020,” adds Hankins, “during the playoffs. In San Diego we met with their executives, put a prototype in their heads, and they loved it. From there, it’s been great. We met with them several times virtually and they asked if we could send them some for spring training 2021 to test. We couldn’t get in there due to COVID protocols, so they had the MLB folks take you to seven different spring training camps and show them around. The response was very good.”
This year’s season got off to a rocky start, as negotiations between MLB and the Players Association threatened to postpone, or even cancel, the season. In the end, a compromise was reached. The delayed 2022 season kicked off last week, and with it, several teams took to the field with PitchCom devices.
The reaction of the public was immediate. Some traditionalists are still resistant to introducing new technology to the field, though most feedback has been positive, particularly in regards to speeding up the pace of play. PitchCom’s founders say they’ve received requests from minor and international leagues, along with increased interest from women’s professional softball teams. Currently, the team is still focused on providing the best experience for all 30 MLB teams, but the issue of scaling is top of mind.
“Climbing is going to be a challenge,” says Filicetti. “We have to keep our number one customer happy.”