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

Luis Severino conceded frustrated the glove around his ear. Yankee Stadium’s two-beat Death Star siren blared over the PA, the announcers reasoned. The pitcher signaled frustration at a new technology that was being quickly adopted on baseball’s biggest stage. Manager Aaron Boone walked out the hill and presented Severino with a spare.

It was a brief, awkward moment for PitchCom, a new piece of hardware that has quickly made its way into the uniforms of pitchers and catchers across the MLB. After a testing season in the Low-A West Minor League, there was one big issue that the developers didn’t address: user error.

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

“We were concerned about that,” says Craig Filicetti, co-founder of PitchCom. “Honestly, it’s so light and so imperceptible. We’ve had people who would just walk away with them if they were upside down in some situations.”

It was a passing — and understandable — moment of forgetfulness 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 has been a hugely successful debut for a new one Technology in a sport that is often outwardly hostile to change.

PitchCom has received near-universal acclaim in MLB this week, from traditionalist White Sox manager Tony LaRussa to orthodox starter Zack Greinke, who has fried baseball fans’ collective brains scream 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 that the league is keen to change, from a blistering pace of play (average game lasted 3 hours, 10 minutes during the 2021 regular season) to stealing to sign. The latter came to a head in 2019 when former Houston Astros pitcher Mike Fiers revealed that the 2017 world-winning team had concocted a system of video cameras and trash can hits to let their hitters know what the opposing pitcher was about to throw.

The scandal was the primary trigger for the formation of PitchCom.

“I thought about it for a while and realized there had to be a way to make a mark in secret,” co-founder John Hankins tells TechCrunch. “Baseball has been trying to solve this problem for some time. They have had a number of people come up with many different methods to prevent sign theft. They had buzzers, but counting nine buzzers will slow the game down to a crawl, especially if someone shakes it off.”

Photo credit: PitchCom

A lifelong baseball fan, Hankins found inspiration in his local community. The self-proclaimed mentalist Filicetti had devised a wrist-based system for sending cues on stage. Filicetti, an electrical engineering student at the college, says the Live Show Control device has been used by thousands in 60 countries.

“When we jumped off the technology that Craig had already developed,” adds Hankins, “I thought, why don’t we use a push-button transmitter that we put on the catcher’s wrist and have them play to the player’s hat instead of an earpiece , so they don’t lose situational awareness.”

The shades of the final product closely match the couple’s original vision. The catcher wears an input device with rows of buttons on the inside of his forearm. Teams assign everyone a different slot and can add locations. When the combination is pressed, it is transmitted to the earpiece and sends the pitcher instructions such as “Slider, high, inside”. There is a printed cheat sheet on the outside of the bracelet, although the pair say many teams forego it as catchers memorize combinations. In addition to customizing keyboard shortcuts, teams and players can also enter custom voices. “They can use their grandmothers,” says Hankins. “They can use their trainer’s voice.”

The product uses an encrypted wireless protocol to avoid high-tech sign theft. For example, if a character is lost, the team can recode the system to avoid foul play. An early iteration of the earbud relied on bone conduction, although PitchCom ultimately determined that the volume just wasn’t going to be loud enough to compete with the sounds of a packed stadium. Aside from early minor league testing and spring training, it was difficult to replicate a live playing environment. In a way, the players themselves are running the tests in a high-leverage situation in front of a national audience.

There are also restrictions on the pitch. MLB has authorized its use for defensive purposes only, including pitching and pick-off by baserunners. This means that batters and the baserunners themselves cannot use it on the field. Questions remain; for example, whether the product will be able to compete with the noise levels of crowded crowds during the playoffs.

“It’s difficult to test,” says Filicetti. “We were trying to figure out how many dB of noise you have up the hill. But I will say — and MLB agrees — that these opening nights are a pretty good representation of what they’re going to get during the Finals. And we have seen very good results. We have headroom and stuff to play with. We have volume controls and places to go. We are watching this closely.”

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

“It was very risky,” says Hankins. “There was only one customer and we had no feedback at the beginning of the build. Would the players like it? We didn’t know any players. The league hasn’t been in touch. I tried to contact reporters, I called MLB Radio and they quickly fired me. I tried to reach local reporters covering the sign-theft scandal. Eventually we got in touch with someone who had a connection to the Players Union and Major League Baseball.”

Roadblocks remained in place. The timing of the first prototype – March 2020 – could not have been worse. Struggling to stage a baseball season amid a global pandemic, the league eventually reduced 162 regular season games to 60.

Photo credit: PitchCom

“We got it [MLB’s] Attention in late 2020,” Hankins adds, “during the playoffs. We met with their executives in San Diego, put a prototype on their head and they loved it. From then on it was great. We met with them virtually a couple of times and they asked if we could send them some for spring 2021 training to test. We couldn’t go in there because of COVID protocols, so they had MLB guys take it 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 of its own as negotiations between MLB and the Player’s Union threatened to postpone — or even cancel — the season. In the end a compromise was found. The belated 2022 season kicked off last week, and with that came a number of teams with PitchCom gear on the pitch.

The public reaction was immediate. Some traditionalists still oppose the introduction of a new on-field technology, although most of the feedback has been positive – especially in terms of speeding up the pace of the game. PitchCom’s founders say they have received inquiries from international and minor leagues, along with a surge of interest from professional women’s softball teams. For now, the team is still focused on delivering the best experience for MLB’s 30 teams, but the issue of scaling is paramount.

“Scaling will be a challenge,” says Filicetti. “We have to make our main customer happy.”

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

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