WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Jeremy Hellickson went out to bullpen mound No. 1 around 10 a.m. Monday as part starting pitcher, part guinea pig.
Hellickson was paired with catcher Spencer Kieboom. A meeting with a small group from Major League Baseball made the basic bullpen session unlike any other they have experienced. Both Hellickson and Kieboom strapped what looked like white Apple watches onto their left wrists. The duo was part of an experiment a sheet on the clubhouse tack board called “P/C communication devices”.
The idea is to use electronics to foil sign stealing and increase pace of game. Monday’s initial dalliance with the idea showed how far it is from being executed in the future. The “watches” are intended to allow catchers to call a pitch digitally. Another option is a larger rectangular device which emulates a quarterback’s playsheet.
Recent events, like the Red Sox-Yankees filming incident in 2017, have prompted the league to be more pro-active in considering remedies for sign stealing. Though, most expect any changes to just lead to players and teams searching for a new advantage to gain an edge.
Kieboom and Hellickson embraced trying the idea, smiling at the devices and making jokes about possible hacker interference. Kieboom shuffled to the plate and crouched. He pressed the watch-like device on his left wrist with dots aligned in a three-by-three format. A curveball away to a right-handed hitter, for instance, would cause a 2 to blink in the lower left corner of Hellickson’s device. Hellickson stood on the rubber then looked at his wrist.
“Didn’t come through,” he said.
After a bit of guidance and new attempts, it worked. Kieboom tapped. Hellickson glanced, nodded and delivered.
In the end, both were skeptical of the device’s baseball future.
“It’s not practical at all,” Hellickson told NBC Sports Washington.
“I appreciate what people are thinking,” Kieboom told NBC Sports Washington. “I appreciate the want and need to address any kind of issues. I don’t necessarily -- these are the first times I’ve seen anything like this. Very rarely the first time you ever try anything is it gold.”
Problems with the idea ranged from who initiates the pitch call -- Hellickson could only receive the info, not send it -- to lights on the watch being a tell in the evening. In general, baseball, and its players, are resistant to change, which will always be a hurdle.
MLB stressed this process is in its earliest test-and-discuss stages.
“The meetings this spring have been exploratory in nature,” an MLB spokesperson said. “It has been helpful to show concepts to on-field personnel and to gather their feedback. We aim to be proactive in the technology space now and frequently look at new technologies that may or may not come to fruition.”
Technology has recently mixed with old-school ways of sign and information stealing. Runners on second base still pose a threat, as always. A stadium filled with cameras and cell phones presents a new one.
Hellickson is adamant the watch experiment is not an answer to the problem. He’s also among those who hold only modest concern about on-field sign stealing.
“I feel like it’s part of the game,” Hellickson said. “And us trying to mess with [the runners] out there. I don’t think there’s too much sign stealing going on in the game to make it this big of a deal. But if they do want to do that, the watch isn’t going to be the answer.”
Hellickson also argued attempts to steal signs can work both ways. More than once, a runner on second has incorrectly tried to tip a pitch to the hitter, leading to a bad swing and a glare from the batter’s box out to second base.
“I think that’s pretty funny,” Hellickson said.
Trying to read signs -- whether pitch calls or indicators and patterns from the dugout and third base coach -- is a legacy element of the game. Technology has added wrinkles. Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle is 61 years old. He entered the major leagues as an outfielder in 1977.
“There’s much more exposure to your signs than ever before,” Hurdle said. “With the technology available, it’s a whole different deal. There was a time and period back when I played it was called an art and science of sign stealing. Everyone wanted to know how to do it, learn how to do it, you gravitated to people who could do it.
“I know names of people who were kept on staffs BECAUSE they could do it. There was a time where our mindset, was, if somebody’s stealing your signs, shame on you. Change your signs. However, with the technology that’s available in today’s game, it does make it much more challenging. Different coding that’s going on. Lack of a better term: it’s a whole different ball game.”
Hurdle cited an instance when he learned an overhead camera had zoomed in on a book with scouting reports in the visitor’s dugout. That information was being sent to the opposition during the game. He moved the book.
He also uses a mantra applicable to what MLB is trying to do: “If you’re not willing to adapt, improvise and overcome, you’re going to get left in the dust.”
This initial pass has issues. Hellickson thought the watch felt odd, saw that it only occasionally worked and just doesn’t see a grand problem in the first place. Kieboom was more intrigued. He’s the rare 28-year-old who consults a watch to confirm the time in his daily life. So, it didn’t feel strange. It was just different. And not ready.
“I don’t see anything changing like that in the near future,” Kieboom said.
That would be fine with Hellickson.
“Honestly, I hope I’m out of the game when they bring that in,” Hellickson said. “It’s too much.”
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