Detroit — The Tigers, one of the last holdouts, officially joined the PitchCom movement Thursday night.
After three trial runs over the last two weeks, Tarik Skubal was the first starting pitcher to use the technology to receive the pitch calls from catcher Tucker Barnhart.
“Yeah, it was the first time we committed to it as a team,” Barnhart said. “I think it’s something that inevitably is going to be a necessity, like when the pitch clock comes in specifically. It makes sense and I thought it worked seamlessly last night.”
Most teams have already adopted the wearable technology which allows catchers to transmit a pitch call to the pitcher and to infielders if need be. Barnhart wore the device on his shin pad, covering up which buttons he pushed with his glove. The device is voice programmed to deliver the pitch call into an earpiece located in the pitcher’s hat.
“We’re going to use it until something malfunctions,” Barnhart said. “And if something malfunctions, we can just go back to using old-school signs.”
Joe Jimenez, Alex Faedo and Wily Peralta had sampled it in games earlier this season and there were malfunctions. Barnhart said the pitchers and catchers met before the game with manager AJ Hinch and the coaches and agreed to commit to it for the rest of the year.
“I think it sped things up maybe a little,” Barnhart said. “When you are on the same page with a guy, I think giving signs versus giving signs with PitchCom — it’s going to work out pretty much the same. Where it really speeds it up is when there is a runner at second base.”
The point of the technology is to speed up the pace of play, for sure, but also to eliminate some of the sign-stealing that goes on with runners on second base. Pitchers and catchers have become increasingly wary of runners stealing signs and had developed elaborate, varying and time-consuming series of signs to disguise the call.
“At the end of the day, it eliminates people from stealing signs at second base,” reliever Jacob Barnes said. “And if for some reason they are still seeing what you’re throwing, then you can look more for tipping pitches than sign-stealing.
“It’s either a bad pitch or, if they are consistently getting you and you are making quality pitches, you might want to look into tipping. And whether they were stealing signs or not, now that’s out of the mind. Mentally, it’s better and it can speed up the game a little bit.”
The Tigers quickly dismissed the PitchCom technology in spring training. Barnhart was staunchly opposed to it at first. He apologized to the pitching staff for his initial reluctance.
“We just decided early in spring to table it and worry about other things,” Barnhart said. “Me specifically, just trying to get to know guys and understand them and trying to have conversations. Personally, I felt adding something else into that could potentially add a level of obstruction in the getting-to-know process.
“We decided as a group to table it.”
There was another aspect of it Barnhart and others didn’t like.
“I thought it was another avenue, another way to change the traditional side of things,” he said. “At the end of the day, it may eventually lead to coaches calling pitches from the dugout. I don’t know. That was my first thought. They’re just trying to change things to change things.
“We had the meeting and I know I didn’t need to apologize, but from a catcher’s perspective I was against it. I wish we would’ve went through all the hiccups and kinks in spring training versus trying to talk guys into using it now.”
The technology itself is remarkable. They haven’t, but the Tigers could program it so it’s Barnhart’s or Eric Haase’s voice the pitcher hears in his ear. They can call pitches in Spanish if they want — though the Spanish-speaking pitchers don’t want that. They all understand “four-seam up” and “slider backdoor” just fine.
If a pitcher shakes off a sign, the catcher just hits another button. Or, if he’s adamant about the call, hit the same button. A lot of times, the catcher can call the next pitch before the pitcher even steps back on the rubber after the previous pitch.
“The more we’ve seen other teams do it, we got a better understanding of what is going on,” Barnes said. “I think everyone is going to like it. It just eliminates that thought process — whether they’re stealing signs or not.
“It’s not going to save like 30 minutes or anything like that. But it can maybe save five, six, seven minutes throughout a game.”
Reliever Drew Carlton, before he was summoned to the big leagues, was using the PitchCom and a pitch clock at Toledo. He said it definitely helped speed up the process, to the point where the clock never really became an issue.
The pitch clock is expected to be used in the major leagues next season.
“It will work fine if we just commit to it,” Hinch said. “To me, it’s a no-brainer. I don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable trying it out, but it’s pretty seamless. Nobody seems to be having a ton of issues with it. It’s the smartest thing to do.”
As for it leading eventually to coaches calling pitches from the dugout?
“I hope not,” Hinch said. “I don’t want any part of that. I think the biggest thing it helps is pace of play — getting the sign, getting it in and being done with it. All the extra fear will play out over time.”
Pump the brakes
It was big news Thursday that Tigers’ top prospect Riley Greene began his rehab assignment at Low-A Lakeland, just eight weeks after he broke a bone in his foot.
But just because he healed faster than expected, it doesn’t mean the Tigers will rush the process of getting him back up through the ranks and possibly to the point where he can make his big-league debut.
Greene will have to go through something equivalent to full spring training, which can be another six weeks. And that’s assuming there are no setbacks — health-wise or performance-wise.
“We have 26 guys on this club trying to play right now,” Hinch said. “It’s important for this organization that the young players play. It’s more important for us to focus up here and let him mend. When and if he’s ready to come, great. Just like with any young prospect.
“I’m just glad he’s playing.”
Starting pitcher Michael Pineda is expected to have his broken finger examined again in a couple of weeks, Hinch said. In the meantime, he’s been playing catch, short distances with his broken middle finger and ring finger taped together.
Guardians at Tigers
First pitch: 4:10 p.m. Saturday, Comerica Park, Detroit
RHP Shane Bieber (1-3, 3.55), Guardians: The former Cy Young winner hasn’t had the best of months in May. Over his last three starts, he’s posted a 5.51 ERA, allowed 21 hits and 10 earned runs in 16⅓ innings, and opponents are batting .309 against him. Over that same span, he’s issued eight walks with 17 strikeouts, 10 of those coming in last week’s losing effort to the Tigers.
RHP Alex Faedo (1-1, 3.00), Tigers: The rookie is coming off his first major league win and is making his fifth consecutive start since being summoned into the rotation. Simply put, Faedo has been solid and has given the Tigers a chance when he’s toed the rubber, giving up no more than two runs and going at least five innings in each outing