Advertisement

Baseball preview: New rule allows for devices that simplify pitch-calling

Apr. 11—Brady Stone slipped the snug-fitting hearing device into his right ear and then tugged on his catcher's helmet.

The Kennebunk High junior then jerked the mask back up over his ear, then down, then up. The ear piece that Stone will be using to hear pitch calls from his coach this season stayed securely in his ear.

The new one-way communication system that will be allowed in high school baseball in Maine and across the country this season had just passed Stone's initial test.

"It stays in pretty tight," he said. "It sounds pretty good. Just like a regular ear phone, like you're on the phone talking. I wear AirPods and stuff throughout the day, so I'm used to it."

Last summer, the National Federation of State High School Associations approved the rule change to allow one-way communication from a coach to the catcher for the purpose of calling pitches.

The rule prohibits electronic communication with any player other than the catcher, only while the catcher is playing defense, and requires the coach to be in the dugout or bench area.

The MPA also approved use for this season. It's up to each team to determine if they want to invest in the technology. In a preseason survey of southern Maine varsity baseball coaches, seven of the 20 coaches who responded said they will be using one-way communication this season.

"I know for us we're excited about the opportunity to use it," said Kennebunk Coach Andrew Coulombe. "Whether you're giving hand signals or verbally communicating, it was still going to happen. This is just a different delivery system. You can still call pitches with it or without it. I just know for us it's going to simplify that piece of the game."

Greely Coach Derek Soule said, "I think it's all positive. It speeds up the game. For kids who are going to play at the next level, catchers especially, it gets them experience with using an electronic device. I don't know how many coaches call pitches from the dugouts, but for those who do, it (definitely) speeds up the game."

For those coaches who have decided to not use electronic communication — at least not yet — most said they were purposely waiting to get a better idea of the overall impact of the rule and they wanted more information on which devices worked best at the best value before making a purchase.

"We haven't decided yet," said Thornton Academy Coach Jason Lariviere. "There are a lot of options. Some are expensive, some aren't. I like the idea of doing it, but it's just figuring out the best system to use."

The rule change was made to bring high school baseball, in a modest way, in line with the technological evolution at the college and pro level. It also is hoped the use of simple, verbal communication will speed up the pace of play.

"I can just say 'fastball, out,' and that's it," Coulombe said.

One-way communication was approved at the college level in 2021. At the college level, catchers can have an ear piece to hear the call. Other players, pitchers and fielders alike, can wear a wristband to receive a signal of what pitch has been called.

MLB uses a different technology, called PitchCom, which allows transmission of calls from a catcher to multiple players, via a wrist-band device. Introduced in 2022, it is now used by all MLB teams. The catcher has a nine-button keypad that transmits a signal that is then heard as audible spoken instructions by the pitcher and up to three fielders. PitchCom instructions can be heard in players' chosen language.

At the high school level, communication can only go from one specific coach to the catcher and only while the catcher is playing defense. No other coaches are allowed to listen in. The catcher cannot verbally respond to the coach. No other player can receive an electronic signal.

Once the catcher receives the audible instruction, the rest of the process is still old-school hand signals, "that catchers have used for a hundred years," as South Portland Coach Mike Owens put it.

Kennebunk and South Portland are both using a system made by Porta Phone, a company well-known for two-way headsets used by football coaches. The baseball device retails for $450 — about the same price as a new top-tier bat.

The catcher attaches a receiver clearly labeled "listen only" to the back of his chest protector and puts in the ear bud. The coach has the transmitter and a basic head set microphone. If the catcher's ear bud doesn't fit well, gets lost, or runs out of battery power, the system includes a wired earpiece that connects directly to the receiver.

"My catcher looks like a secret service agent with the pack on the back of his chest protector and the wire into his ear," Owens joked.

Kennebunk senior pitcher Drew Sliwkowski said he doubts the new systems will dramatically impact the game. Nor does he think it will matter if only one team is using a system.

"If it was the college system and one team had it and another team didn't, that would make it a little more (unfair). The evenness would be different," Sliwkowski.

But Kennebunk junior pitcher Isaac Jensen predicts that the new pitch-calling method will have a positive impact on fielders, too, because catchers will be more confident with their calls.

"He knows (the pitch call) exactly, right from coach, and that makes the signs easier for him and, I think all of us," Jensen said. "Because seeing a catcher who knows what he's doing, whose confident in his signs, that really helps a lot."