John Hankins has heard several versions of that story in the last few weeks. There are now 27 teams in the majors who are using the device he helped invent.
PitchCom is not unlike sending a group voice message. Via a device on his wrist or attached to his shin guard, the catcher keys in the type and location of the next pitch.
That sends out an audio message — “fastball inside” as an example — to a thin speaker inside the sweatband of the pitcher’s cap near one of his ears.
The second baseman, shortstop, and center fielder also wear speakers so they can adjust the defense. So does the catcher, so he knows he hit the right buttons.
The messages replace catchers using their fingers to signal pitches.
PitchCom eliminates the problem of a runner on base peering in at the catcher and decoding the signs in time to signal the batter. Or worse, the opposition using a camera to do that.
The signals are encoded in such a way that they’re “impervious to hacking,” according to Hankins.
Hankins, a Beverly native who lives in Carlsbad, Calif., came up with the idea in 2019 after reading about the Astros stealing signs from the catcher in 2017.
A baseball fan with a degree in electrical engineering, Hankins also is a patent attorney.
His partner, Craig Filicetti, has a background in engineering. He owns a company that sells the electronic devices used in professional shows by magicians and mentalists.
There were a few starts and stops early on, but they came up with a device that impressed MLB executive vice president of baseball operations Morgan Sword.
That led to a meeting with other MLB officials, a tryout in the minor leagues, and approval for use this season in the majors.
At one point, MLB considered a system that used a series of buzzes to indicate pitches. PitchCom is better.
“The pandemic slowed us down and we’ve made a series of improvements along the way,” Hankins said. “The feedback we’re getting has been excellent.”
The Yankees were early adopters of PitchCom. The Red Sox were less enthusiastic at first but started using it this past week.
“I love it,” said Jason Varitek, the Sox’ game-planning coordinator and catching coach. “It helps the flow of the game. The pitcher doesn’t have to wait. He has more time to process and commit to what he’s doing.”
Varitek, who was a major league catcher for 15 seasons, was charged with getting the Sox up to speed with PitchCom. His first step was to try it himself.
“It’s comfortable to use,” he said. “The catcher has a lot of facets of the game to take notice of, so this takes one thing off his plate. They can’t steal the signs now.”
Every team has its way of personalizing the system.
Red Sox bullpen catcher Charlie Maddon recorded the sound clips for each pitch and location. But when Hirokazu Sawamura pitches, he gets instructions in Japanese from interpreter Yutaro Yamaguchi.
In time, the Sox may have Plawecki and Christian Vázquez do the recordings.
Nick Pivetta tried it on Tuesday in Toronto with Vázquez and gave up after two innings because one of the buttons was misprogrammed.
“I’ll try it again,” Pivetta said. “I see the advantages.”
There’s no hard evidence of this yet because it’s early in the season, but anecdotally PitchCom has improved the pace of play.
“I liked it a lot,” said Nate Eovaldi, who used PitchCom during his start at Toronto this past week. “We were able to work quickly with it and it gave me a better tempo.”
Throughout the game, as an out was being made, Plawecki was sending Eovaldi the next pitch.
By the time Eovaldi had the ball back in his glove, he was ready to get into his delivery.
“My back was to the plate and I was getting the signal. I like to visualize the next pitch by staring at the grass or a patch of dirt for a few seconds,” Eovaldi said. “Then I was ready to pitch. I was in a great rhythm.”
Plawecki noticed right away the positive effect it had on Eovaldi.
“Pitching is about tempo and timing,” Plawecki said. “I could see he liked it. For me it’s great because I don’t have to worry about anybody stealing the signs. Press a couple of buttons and it’s done.”
Plawecki and Rich Hill also have used PitchCom. Michael Wacha tried it once in spring training and wants to give it another shot.
Most of the relievers, who often come in with men on base, are in favor of its use.
“As a pitcher, if it speeds things up it’ll keep your defense on their toes, and that’s a big advantage,” Wacha said.
Hankins said he’s getting calls from many college programs eager to use PitchCom and he expects the NCAA will approve its use.
“I won’t say who, but we also had a major league catcher call who wanted to be an investor in our company,” Hankins said. “It’s an exciting time for us. We’re working hard to keep up with the demand and stay in communication with teams that need help.”
Like Plawecki, Eovaldi considers himself a baseball traditionalist and was wary of the new technology. But he couldn’t argue with the results.
“I think it’s definitely going to help pitchers. But they have to be willing to try it,” Eovaldi said. “At first it’s strange to have somebody talking in your head. But you get used to it quickly and it helps you.
“So much has changed in baseball the last few years. You can be hard-headed and fight it, or you can make it work for you.”
TIME IS TICKING
Red Sox remain work in progress
Veteran baseball people will tell you to wait until June 1 before making any assessment about a team. Considering the abbreviated spring training, maybe that’s June 15 this season.
Or maybe the time is now when it comes to the Red Sox.
The Sox shuffled their cards on Friday, recalling Franchy Cordero and Jaylin Davis from Triple A, demoting Rob Refsnyder, and designating Travis Shaw.
Two fringe big leaguers in, two fringe big leaguers out.
It remains curious that the Sox did not obtain a better platoon outfielder to use with Jackie Bradley Jr. in right. They opened the season with Christian Arroyo, who had never played the outfield before, in that role.
Now it’s Davis, a 27-year-old who has never been able to stick in the majors.
And was Shaw really the best they could do as a lefthanded bat on the bench? He had a .634 OPS from 2019-21.
The Sox also have an ill-defined bullpen. Hansel Robles, who signed on March 19, is their best late-inning option.
Chaim Bloom has done a good job of working every avenue to bring talent into the organization. But this team has felt 85 percent finished since Opening Day, and that’s not good enough in the American League East.
A few other observations on the Red Sox:
▪ Trevor Story’s range toward the middle has helped improve the infield defense. It allows Xander Bogaerts to cheat a step to the shortstop hole and Rafael Devers a bit closer to the line.
But it also makes double plays more difficult.
On Wednesday, the Sox had a chance to turn a double play but Story had an unusual angle to the bag. By the time he got the feed from Bogaerts, the Blue Jays’ Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was on top of him.
“He can’t see the runner,” Bogaerts said. “If I was playing second, I would feel the same way. His whole career he’s had the [runner] in front of him, you know where he is. Now you’re waiting.”
Bogaerts said it’ll take some time for Story to make that adjustment and feel comfortable after playing shortstop all his career.
“It’s up to me and Raffy to get him the ball quicker, too,” Bogaerts said. “But Trevor, he has great hands. He’s been great to have on our team.”
Said manager Alex Cora: “That’s just practice. They’ve been doing a great job with the shifts. [Story] will get to know what Xander can do, what Raffy can do, and then he’ll decide how to go to the bag. It’s not easy … but so far this season our defense has been great.”
▪ Less than a month after agreeing to a six-year, $140 million deal, Story quit the Excel agency and joined Wasserman.
Story was the last of the loaded class of free agent shortstops to sign. His average annual salary with the Sox ($23.3 million) was well below Carlos Correa ($35.1 million) and Corey Seager ($32.5 million) and just above 31-year-old Marcus Semien ($23.0 million).
▪ Don’t be surprised if the Red Sox find a role for Jon Jay in the coming years. The 37-year-old outfielder retired this past week after 12 seasons in the majors.
Jay plans to complete his college degree before making another career choice.
“He has a future in this game,” Cora said. “His goal is to be a manager at one point. He’s somebody we’ve talked about for a few years here. I do believe he can impact an organization.
“If his name does come up, he has a vote from here. What he brings to the equation is very impactful.”
▪ Bradley had only occasional experience in right field before this season. But he had three defensive runs saved through 18 games. That’s three more than Mookie Betts.
Having Bradley in a corner is like taking a Ferrari to do errands. But given that he’s being platooned, it does make some sense.
▪ The Angels arrive at Fenway on Tuesday for a three-game series. Shohei Ohtani is their scheduled starter on Tuesday and Mike Trout has reclaimed his place as one of the best in the game after missing the final 4½ months of last season.
Bring your kids so they can one day say they saw Trout in person. He’s eighth all time in OPS, ahead of Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial, and other legends.
Cabrera has the numbers to prove it
Maybe it’s because he has been around so long that it’s easy to forget just how great Miguel Cabrera is. Consider these achievements:
▪ He’s the only player in history with 3,000 hits, 500 home runs, and a Triple Crown.
▪ Only Cabrera, Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays have at least 3,000 hits, 500 home runs, and a career batting average of at least .300. Mays hit .301, Aaron .305, and Cabrera is at .310.
▪ Only Cabrera, Aaron, and Albert Pujols have 3,000 hits, 500 homers, and 600 doubles.
▪ Cabrera is now one of seven players with 3,000 hits and 500 home runs. Along with Aaron, Mays, and Pujols, Eddie Murray, Rafael Palmeiro, and Alex Rodriguez also hit those marks.
“It was so typical that he got [No. 3,000] on an opposite-field single,” said the Red Sox’ J.D. Martinez, who played with Cabrera from 2014-17. “He always used to say, ‘Go get your single and then you can try and hit home runs.’ I’m so happy for him.”
Martinez was released by the Astros out of spring training in 2014 and signed with the Tigers shortly after.
“I was remaking my swing and trying to copy what he was doing,” Martinez said. “Of course I wanted to play there. It was like walking in the room and seeing God. I learned so much from him.”
What did everybody miss with Carlos Rodón? He was a free agent until March 14, when he signed a two-year, $44 million deal with the Giants. The 29-year-old is 3-0 with a 1.17 ERA in four starts and has struck out 38 in 23 innings with only eight walks. Brian Bannister and Andrew Bailey continue to do outstanding work with pitchers in San Francisco … The top high school pitching prospect in the draft, Dylan Lesko of Buford, Ga., had Tommy John surgery. There remains a good chance he is taken in the first 10 picks given the lack of pitching depth in this year’s draft class. There are roughly four other potential first-rounders who had Tommy John … MLB’s 324-game suspension of Trevor Bauer for violating the joint domestic violence, sexual assault, and child abuse policy will not end until after the 19th game of the 2024 season. It may well be a lifetime ban. At that point, Bauer will be 33 and will have last appeared in a major league game on June 28, 2021. Beyond that, would any team risk the bad publicity and likely backlash from its fan base for signing Bauer? There are three women who have accused Bauer of violent behavior during sexual encounters. He has denied the charges … Assistant general manager Jeff Greenberg left the Cubs to take the same position with the Chicago Blackhawks. Greenberg, 36, interviewed to become GM of the NHL team and made a good impression. He’ll be in charge of building up the analytical department … Athletics president Dave Kaval popped up on Twitter this past week to make comments mocking attendance at an Athletics-Giants game. The photo Kaval used to make his point was taken 15 minutes before first pitch. Then Kaval challenged a local radio personality to a debate. The Giants are averaging 32,252 fans and the Athletics 7,943 … Tony La Russa and Terry Francona believe MLB made a mistake going back to nine-inning doubleheaders this season. With the shortened spring training, La Russa expects there will be an uptick in injuries when teams have to overwork their bullpens …The Astros gave reliever Pedro Báez a two-year, $12.5 million deal before the 2021 season. He was released Wednesday after appearing in only seven games for Houston over two seasons with a 5.40 ERA. Báez missed most of last season with a sore shoulder and this season was “really overmatched,” according to one scout … All the best to former Athletics clubhouse manager Steve Vucinich, who is recovering from heart surgery. “Vuce” is an Oakland legend and one of those people you enjoy running across … Happy birthday to Iván DeJesús, who is 35. The infielder was one of the five players the Red Sox obtained from the Dodgers in 2012 for Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, Adrián González, and Nick Punto. DeJesús played in only eight games for the Sox and was traded to the Pirates in the offseason.
Peter Abraham can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.