Sources: MLB discussing on-field technology to prevent sign stealing

Amid growing paranoia about sign stealing, Major League Baseball is discussing on-field technology for communicating pitch calls and plans to start soliciting feedback from players this spring training, league sources told Yahoo Sports. The commissioner’s office is in the process of developing a handful of prototype devices to encode pitcher-catcher communication, including a wearable random-number generator and lights in the mound, sources said.

One consideration for any pitch-calling technology is the ability to accommodate coaches dictating pitches from the dugout, which a league source foresees being the norm in the not-too-distant future.

Concern within the game that traditional methods of relaying signs are vulnerable to nefarious theft predates the bombshell reporting this offseason on the Houston Astros’ alleged trashcan scheme of 2017. Signs have become increasingly complicated over the years, sometimes even without a runner on second base. Against the Astros in the World Series last season, the Washington Nationals relied on a rotating sequence of multiple signs that changed frequently. 

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Indeed, conversations within the commissioner’s office on developing some sort of technology to prevent sign stealing have been taking place for about a year, sources told Yahoo Sports. When the league implemented more stringent rules around ballpark video feeds in February 2019, there was an internal acknowledgement that the long-term fix for sign stealing would likely require revamping the traditional methods of calling the game.

MLB is investigating the Astros now and will likely dole out punishments intended to deter future sign stealers. But the problem likely extends beyond any one team — or at the very least, the suspicion is more widespread.

"This paranoia, industry-wide, that came about as a result of technology and using technology to steal signs, I think that accelerated those talks about some sort of development of a communication device between pitcher and catcher,” a league source said, emphasizing that this has been a concern for decades, but that the expanding influence of analytics and R&D groups has made advance scouting and sign stealing more sophisticated.

The colloquial understanding is that the easiest and most obvious solution would be earpieces that allow pitchers and catchers to communicate directly. However, in initial testing last year, minor league pitchers throwing bullpens with earpiece prototypes found them distracting and uncomfortable, a league source said.

One of the devices in development, described by league sources, is a wearable random-number generator (similar to a push password used for secure log-ins) that corresponds to which sign in a sequence is relevant. This would preserve the existing dynamic of a catcher putting down a sign for interpretation by the pitcher, but overlay it with a level of secure encryption that would be virtually impossible to decode even with a dedicated software program

Alternatively, the finger system could be replaced by in-ground lights on the mound. Sources with knowledge of the idea said catchers would have access to a control pad that corresponds to a lighting panel visible only to the pitcher. A certain button for a certain light sequence for a certain pitch.

The potential technological solutions currently being discussed by the commissioner's office include a wearable device that would decode signs via random number generator, and an in-mound lighting system. (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images)
The potential technological solutions currently being discussed by the commissioner's office include a wearable device that would decode signs via random number generator, and an in-mound lighting system. (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images)

With all of these options and other more theoretical solutions, there’s concern around connectivity, operating the various systems smoothly, and how any kind of paradigm shift would impact pace of play. The league’s hope is that eliminating the need for complicated sign sequences would shave a couple of seconds off each pitch and ultimately speed up the game.

Crucially, any new technological implementation is expected to preemptively address the pace-of-play problem that could be introduced if teams move toward coaches calling the game from the dugout, which a league source anticipated would eventually become commonplace.

In college baseball, games are typically called from the dugout with a coach relaying a sign to the catcher who interprets it, often based on an armband, a system that is secure but time-consuming and clunky. The concern is that as pitch sequencing gets increasingly analytical, major league teams will want to have a dedicated “defensive coordinator” calling games from the dugout. And although it’s not a requirement at this stage of prototype development, league sources said that if they did institute a technological overhaul of pitch communication, it would need to be able to accommodate this potential forthcoming change in roles.

If both of these come to pass — a cultural shift toward coach-called games plus the technological communication devices — in conjunction with the rise of automated strike zones through the minors and eventually into the majors, it would fundamentally erode the defensive demands of the catcher position.

Implementation is not imminent. The league discussed these hypothetical devices with team front-office personnel at industry meetings this offseason, but they’re still trying to understand which of many potential solutions best suit the requirements. To that end, MLB hopes to have a handful of prototypes ready in time to solicit feedback from big league players this spring.

"There’s real testing that needs to take place with these things, first and foremost, in terms of safety and then also the integrity of the devices and then the impact that they’re gonna have,” a league source said. “Is it going to speed the game up? Is it going to slow it down? How is it going to change the game?”

But, the source concluded, "I think we will have a technological solution at some point.”

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