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Nats pitchers are warming to PitchCom, baseball’s new on-field device

A close-up shows the PitchCom device used by catcher Tyler Stephenson of the Cincinnati Reds last month. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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On Friday night at Oracle Park in San Francisco, right after Aaron Sanchez’s wild pitch moved a runner to second base, Keibert Ruiz jogged to the Washington Nationals’ dugout in the middle of an at-bat. It was an odd sight, the catcher abandoning his post for a beat. But the reason was perhaps even odder.

Ruiz had forgotten the armband that would allow him to tap some buttons and send a pitch call through a speaker affixed to Sanchez’s hat, 60 feet 6 inches away on the mound. The quick-passing complication was caused by PitchCom.

The Nationals have had a few of those while phasing in the technology. Major League Baseball introduced it this season, starting with spring training trials, to curb sign-stealing and incrementally improve the pace of play. By pressing buttons instead of using their fingers, catchers can conceal signs and sometimes offer a pitch type and location while pitchers are still walking back to the rubber. And without traditional signs, catchers don’t need to go through multiple sets with a runner on second, speeding up play in those situations.

At first, Washington’s pitchers were resistant. They’ve peered in for signs their entire lives. There’s a rhythm to it, and there has been for more than a century. But after seeing the New York Mets use PitchCom during the season’s opening weekend, the Nationals came around to trying it with runners on second base only. That made the past two weeks a bit of a trial-and-error period.

Before Ruiz forgot the armband, which he is required to remove while hitting, reliever Austin Voth misplaced the speaker on his hat — officially called a “receiver” — and couldn’t hear the signs during an appearance Tuesday. Before that, on April 20, starter Erick Fedde wanted to make a pickoff throw to second and there was no button for it, leaving him and Ruiz stumped.

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But the pitchers have mostly just enjoyed the peace of mind that has come with hidden signs. Their shifts in perspective show how important that is.

Fedde: “When they brought it up down in Florida, a lot of guys in the clubhouse were like: ‘Nah, nah, nah. That’s not us.’ You know, we didn’t want to change. But it’s nice to know they can’t get your signs at second, which some teams are really good at. It’s comforting.”

Voth: “I’m definitely getting used to the idea of there being no way they can see them, since as a pitcher you’ve kind of been dealing with that your whole career, going back to high school. It’s a good different.”

Starter Patrick Corbin: “When I was with the Diamondbacks, they were really good at picking up other teams’ signs at second. I’d sort of sit in the dugout, like, ‘Man, I hope teams aren’t doing that to me.’ Guess it could be much harder now.”

In February, when Josh Rogers saw a video of Vanderbilt pitchers getting signs from the dugout on an electronic wristband, the Nationals’ lefty tweeted: “Love the Vanderbilt program. Absolute first class in everything they do. That’s just not baseball.” Two months later, Rogers became the first Nationals pitcher to use PitchCom for a full inning, not just when a runner reached second base.

He grinned at his initial reaction — “I’ll own it, I’ll own it,” he said — and liked how the voice in his ear helped calm what he called a “scattered brain.” Rogers also reported no hiccups with the new tech. So far, the Nationals’ problems have had simple solutions. Fedde and Ruiz considered using the “Knuckleball” or “Cancel” button for pickoffs until a signal was programmed in. Voth, laughing about his mishap a day later, explained that he mistakenly put the receiver on the back of his hat instead of by his ear.

To get the calls from Ruiz, Voth removed his hat between pitches and pressed the receiver to the side of his head. His experience sparked a constructive discussion in the clubhouse.

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All PitchCom devices are distributed and closely monitored by MLB. As of this past weekend, the Nationals had been given 10 receivers, five of which could be used at a time. That includes the pitcher, catcher and infielders who feel they could benefit by knowing the pitch calls. But after seeing relievers have to clip on their receivers while on the mound, Corbin suggested that every pitcher on the roster should have one and be permitted to attach it in the dugout or bullpen. A handful of his teammates agreed.

Part of why Voth misplaced his was because he was rushing to warm up for a two-on, two-out jam. It’s something for MLB officials to consider as they gather feedback from teams.

“You’re coming to the mound, you’re trying to get your bearings, and at the same time the catcher is giving you this device,” Voth recalled. “And on top of that, you’re trying to focus on the batter you have and be competitive in the major leagues, you know? So it was frustrating in that moment but turned out all right. There’s always going to be a few kinks with something like this.”