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For Fans Who Should Know Better

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Mudville: December 2, 2022 1:45 am PDT
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This must happen for baseball to survive and flourish. 

There needs to be more individualism, more creative activity and less robots.

You might say the same about life, too. The “do it our way or else’’ performance acting from our officials after three years is getting a bit tired.

Everywhere you turn, baseball is trying to sneak in a little more technology and a lot less human spirit. It’s a constant drip, drip, drip that is eroding the essence of the game and it comes in different and relentless forms. That is the subject of this week’s Baseball or Bust.

We all know Robo Umps are coming soon and that will steal away a little more of the soul of the game. I miss manager-umpire arguments. Give me a good Lou Piniella blowup any day of the week. And I don’t know if you have noticed, but Robo Catchers officially arrived this week in spring training, spitting out orders to Robo Pitchers.

There goes a little bit more of the cat and mouse game that makes baseball so interesting.

Ever so quietly, baseball has brought its latest new technology to the ballfield, a keypad communications wristband that catchers wear for calling pitches that sends an audio command to the pitcher. Pitches and location can be called by hitting a button or two on the wristband.

“That is simply not done anymore, just like you can’t slide hard into second base or home. As a result, sign stealing became worse and worse. Pitchers had to pull out a card to read the nuclear sequence code.”

Fastball away … you hit the button and suddenly there is an audio command coming to pitcher via a small speaker in the brim of his cap.

Curve ball away … all of a sudden there is a voice command.

I call it Siri for Pitchers.

No flashing finger signals. No trying to out-think the opponent on how to deliver the signs.

Baseball is doing this to fix the problem the Nerds created, stealing signs with cameras all over the ballparks, the 2017 Astros were the poster child for such thievery.

Paranoia runs deep in baseball as a result, and when a runner gets to second base it is on to a much more intricate set of signs for catchers and pitchers. Old fashioned sign stealing has been around the game forever– and that is part of baseball – but the Nerds could not leave well enough alone and all of a sudden sign stealing was enhanced by the use of different camera angles and technology.

They had to cheat the game.

This was never a problem of course in the not-so-distant past of baseball. If a pitcher felt his signs were being stolen at second base by the runner they would deliver a wake up pitch to the batter, sometimes that pitch would land in the ribs of the batter.

Same goes if the thought that signs were being stolen in a much more devious way from other parts of the ballpark, like a spy in the bleachers or in the scoreboard.

For generations of pitchers, the problem was solved on the field.

That is no longer allowed by baseball.

That is simply not done anymore, just like you can’t slide hard into second base or home. As a result, sign stealing became worse and worse. Pitchers had to pull out a card to read the nuclear sequence code. I am not a fan of that but at least you can say that was a skill the pitcher had to learn.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - SEPTEMBER 25: Trevor Richards #33 and Danny Jansen #9 of the Toronto Blue Jays celebrate a 6-1 victory against the Minnesota Twins at Target Field on September 25, 2021 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)

Know the code. But now the bar has been lowered again.

So much so that the technology was answered by, you guessed it, by more technology.

Baseball is using its shiny new equipment this spring, but what is funny is that Jack McKeon invented just such a message delivering device 50 years ago in 1962 when he was managing in AAA Vancouver. He had a little receiver dropped in the inside pocket of his pitcher’s jersey and he would speak into a radio transmitter in the dugout to give those verbal commands to his pitcher – and it was more than just pitch and location. If the runner had too big a lead McKeon told the pitcher the exact moment to turn and throw to first.

Things are a little more high-tech now and a little more pricey.

The Blue Jays used the new equipment this week for an inning with right-hander Trevor Richards on the mound and Danny Jansen catching. It was only spring training and two hits and a run were allowed in Richards’ Siri inning, but that is just the start.

Depending on the feedback baseball collects in spring training, the program can be put to use this season.

No signs, no waggle of fingers, time-honored baseball maneuvers, just a touch of a button and a verbal command issued to the pitcher.

It’s a speed-up rule and it may speed up the game a bit but there is a certain rhythm to baseball and both pitchers and catchers are going to have to get used to this new equipment, not staring in to get the sign and just getting a verbal command and got to work.

Is there a way to change the pitch? Let’s say the pitcher wants to go fastball in instead of slider away, how will that be communicated? A shake of the head or wipe away on the leg by the pitcher and the catcher hits the cancel button and orders up new verbal command.

Blue Jays Pitching Coach Pete Walker. (Photo: MLB)

Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker, one of the top three pitching coaches in the game in my book, offered this assessment on the Blue Jays broadcast on Tuesday, telling Buck Martinez: “Major League Baseball has sent them out to all the teams and some teams are utilizing them. We talked to the Tigers and they weren’t too interested in it, their guys didn’t like it but we’re giving it a shot. Anything that benefits the pitcher and catcher and makes things go faster, maybe keeps the opposing team from picking up signs, I’m open to it. But it is not going to be easy. One thing we found today in live BP it kinda affects the rhythm of the pitcher a little bit.

“If Major League Baseball okays it, we’ll find a way to implement it,’’ Walker said. “Again it’s different. I can’t say I am a fan or not a fan, anything that speeds up the game and limits the opposition stealing signs, I’m very open to. I’m hoping our pitchers give it an honest shot, and I guess we’ll see where it goes.’’

Cameras can still be utilized to see if pitchers are tipping pitchers and that is always the No. 1 concern of pitching coaches. “With all the cameras at every angle it just makes it more difficult to hide stuff, we just have to constantly stay on top of it and we are spending a lot more time on that and making sure our pitchers aren’t tipping,’’ Walker said.

Perhaps they also may have to make sure the opposing team is not intercepting the Siri communication between catcher and pitcher.

In the past with catcher’s signs if you were better at giving signals and hiding signals than the other catcher that is an advantage that is out the window now. If the pitcher was smarter than the other guy’s pitcher and grasped the signs easier, that doesn’t matter anymore.

If you can hear the command coming out of your cap you are on board with the new way. Get used to it because it’s coming across the board to baseball. I can’t wait to see it utilized in Little League.

That’s one of the many reasons having the Atlanta Braves win the World Series last season was such a genuine surprise and a good thing for baseball. The Braves had to make changes on the fly because of injuries and other situations and they wound up beating baseball at its own game.

They found the right combination of players. They never stopped working on the little things either with infield coach Ron Washington drilling the Braves infielders day in and day out. It comes down to talent and out-working the opposition.

Ron Washington

Atlanta's Ron Washington (right)

Instead of letting the players work it out on the field with signals, this will be the new way. Same goes for the banning of shifts which will happen next year or as I refer to it: The Joey Gallo Rule.

God forbid you try to beat the shift by going the other way or dropping down a bunt.  That does not matter. If you can’t beat the shift, just create new rules to beat the shift and constantly lower the competition bar.

Again, just another small erosion of the game, another lowering of the bar. There also was a certain drama late in the game with a runner on second and the pitcher and catcher trying to communicate without the theft of signs. All that built up the drama but now Siri or you can call it Pitching Waze will eliminate that, all for the benefit of having a few seconds knocked off a baseball game.

You can speed up the game in other ways, like making sure the hitter is in the box ready to go. The constant repetition of unstrapping the batting gloves and then staring at your bat to visualize your at-bat and get your breathing to a certain pattern is a real time suck. The cat and mouse of giving signals is interesting but why make it a skill when you can add more technology.

I’m sure some teams will try to intercept the Siri commands, perhaps by locking a camera on the catcher’s wristband and decoding the pitches and location buttons.

One benefit of this technology is that pitchers can never use the excuse they were not on the “same page’’ as the catcher during the at-bat. They hear the command and they sign off on it when they release the pitch “slider away’’ that their catcher, their Siri, told them to throw.

It is a shame that baseball doesn’t want you to out-think and out-perform the opposition, just throw harder and hit the ball farther and in cases where you will not make adjustments create a new rule that does not penalize the hitter for not making those adjustments. Penalize the creative defense instead.

I’m all for The Shift because it is so easy to beat if only they try to beat the shift.

On Wednesday I was watching the Rays and Braves playing in CoolToday Park and the Rays, being the creative team they are, went to a four man outfield. Can’t do that next year. All four infielders will have to have at least one foot on the infield dirt.

As for players making adjustments, I had to laugh when I saw that young Yankees pitcher Deivi Garcia said he is going back to his 2020 mechanics. The Yankees and pitching coach Matt Blake changed his successful mechanics because they thought he was “too rotational’’ whatever that means and they also dropped his arm slot. Their overuse of video had to be behind changing the arm slot. Garcia’s numbers were alarming last year with a 6.48 ERA in two starts with the Yankees and in AAA his ERA was even worse, 6.85 over 24 appearances and 22 starts.

Essentially this gets back to my earlier comment, that pitchers are not allowed to be their creative selves in this current Nerd environment.

If a young Luis Tiant showed up at Yankees spring training tomorrow, the Yankees would say there is too much movement in his windup and he should change to a more standard power windup to add mph to his fastball instead of leaning on the art of deception that made his career. Let these pitchers be their creative selves. Too many cookie cutter deliveries may add power but usually they hinder comfort and deception.

Every pitcher cannot be a robot, sometimes the Nerds just have to leave it alone.

Garcia clearly was worrying about his mechanics last year instead of worrying about how to get hitters out and that comes down to competitive approach. Pitching is not a video game. As Al Leiter told me years ago, “Pitching is all about conviction.’’

You have to let it go and just know you are better than the hitter. That is the mindset of success. It’s not about being “too rotational’’ it’s about conviction.

Hey, Siri don’t be a robot, be a pitcher.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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