Tigers’ adoption of PitchCom pays dividends

Detroit Tigers

This story was excerpted from Jason Beck’s Tigers Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox

Tarik Skubal was walking around the mound, getting ready for the first pitch of his start last Thursday against the Guardians, when a loud voice startled him. He’s used to pitching in front of large crowds and hostile environments, but he wasn’t ready for this.

“The first time in the game, I was like, ‘Whoa, why is that [so loud],’” Skubal said, pointing to his ear. “I knew I was going to throw a fastball down and away. When it came, it was like, ‘Wow.’”

Welcome to the Tigers’ midseason adoption of PitchCom, the electronic system that allows catchers to relay calls to pitchers without showing signs. Most Major League teams have been using it all season, but the Tigers had difficulty with the system when they experimented with it in Spring Training, and stuck with traditional sign-relaying for the first month.

The Tigers are coming around to it now for a few reasons. First, they’ve seen some of the early issues resolved and the process streamlined through work with other teams. Second, they believe it can help them pick up the pace between pitches and prepare for the potential arrival of a pitch clock in the future. It would be difficult if not impossible, catcher Tucker Barnhart suggested, for them to use traditional signs and still get calls in under the pitch clock currently being used in the Minor Leagues. Third, and partly related to that second reason, they don’t have to be so paranoid about sign-stealing.

“I think the biggest thing it’s helping is the pace of play,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “All the extra stuff will play out over time.”

Barnhart, who was admittedly not a fan of the system in Spring Training, had worked with PitchCom with a few pitchers over the last few weeks, including rookie Alex Faedo. But Skubal’s start was the first time they felt comfortable going with it full-time. The results were fairly encouraging.

“It was really good. I don’t know what my time in between pitches was, but it felt a little bit faster than normal, especially with runners on,” Skubal said. “The only thing that was different was if you shake [off a pitch], having to go through the signs again. If you shake [with normal signs], you go back to the fingers right away. If you shake on [PitchCom], he has to press three buttons or whatever. Other than that, I thought it was really good. I’m going to use it the rest of the year.”

The system is part video-game controller, part audio relay. The catcher has a handheld typepad of buttons that he uses to relay pitch selection and pitch location. He can either store it on his wrist or hold it somewhere.

The pitcher hears the instructions through an earpiece he’s wearing — hence the noise Skubal was referring to, though there is a volume button — as do the second baseman, shortstop and center fielder for defensive positioning purposes. The earpiece clips into the cap; both Skubal and second baseman Jonathan Schoop said they bumped up their hat size by one tick to accommodate the earpiece.

“It’s good,” Schoop said. “You’re not having to look into the catcher for the signs. Sometimes that’s hard.”

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