PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- With one out in the second inning Saturday afternoon at Charlotte Sports Park, the Braves put runners on first and second base with Ryan Goins coming to the plate. Rather than walking out to the mound to go over a new set of signs with pitcher Phoenix Sanders, Rays catcher Mike Zunino took his place behind the plate and punched a button on a device strapped to his left arm.
It looked different, not just because it was Spring Training. The Rays were using new technology that allowed Zunino to electronically send signs to Sanders, a pitch-calling system developed by PitchCom that could help improve the pace of play and eliminate illegal sign-stealing.
Minor Leaguers tested the system in the Single-A California League last summer, but Saturday was the first time Major Leaguers used it in a game. The reviews from the two parties most directly involved were extremely positive.
“It’s something I'm really intrigued with, and hopefully it picks up some steam,” Zunino said. “It's something that's really going to get the game moving, I think.”
Said Sanders: “It was very easy to use. There were no hiccups or anything with it, so I definitely would be up to use it in a game.”
For Sanders’ two innings, Zunino attached the PitchCom transmitter -- a black object that looks like a remote control, with a number of small black buttons -- to a sleeve on his left forearm. Sanders tucked a 6-inch-long, rubbery receiver inside his cap, as did second baseman Brandon Lowe. Zunino also wore a receiver inside the padding of his helmet.
Zunino would press one of the buttons, and over an encrypted channel, each player wearing a receiver would hear a generic male voice -- which comes pre-recorded in English or Spanish -- say which pitch the catcher had called.
“It’s almost like their version of Siri or Alexa just tells you what pitch to throw,” Sanders said.
That cut down the amount of time Sanders, already a pretty quick worker, took between pitches. When an Atlanta runner reached second, the Rays didn’t need to use multiple sets of signs or a mound visit to adjust them. Zunino just pushed a button, the voice relayed the call, and the game kept moving. And having a middle infielder like Lowe wear a receiver allowed the Rays’ defense to make pre-pitch adjustments behind Sanders like it normally would.
“It didn't slow me down,” Sanders said. “It's got to make their job easier. Like I was telling Zunino, it'd be tough if I came in [to the game] with a new sign set today that he's never heard of, and it's like, 'Hey, we're going to use these at second today,' without him going, 'OK, I've got to learn this on the fly in 20 minutes.'
“It definitely gets rid of that kind of stuff and allows you to trust your scouting report and just be able to kind of say, 'OK, this is what I know I can do.’ It was pretty easy.”
On the two occasions Sanders shook off a pitch called by Zunino, all the All-Star catcher had to do was press another button. Just like that, the new pitch call made its way to Sanders’ receiver. By pressing and holding down a button, Zunino could go beyond signaling a pitch type to specify certain locations for Sanders -- “fastball in,” “curveball down” and so on.
“It seems like it's got the technology to really be able to say like, 'I want this. I want that,’” Sanders said. “It's just a matter of how long [the catcher] holds it down.”
There were some minor issues, like Zunino accidentally setting the volume too high when he punched in his first sign -- it was loud enough he worried the Braves’ Guillermo Heredia might have heard the call in the batter’s box -- or Lowe struggling to hear some calls over the stadium’s public address system. (Players can adjust the volume on their receivers, as they both learned.) Some pitchers might prefer the traditional method of calling pitches, although Zunino said he’d heard from others who would at least be interested in using the system with runners on second base to prevent sign-stealing.
Overall, their takeaways were overwhelmingly favorable.
“There's going be stuff, I'm sure, that's going come to light,” Zunino said. “But just to be able to do it, call pitches right now and see it has been pretty fun. I mean, I never thought we'd get to this point.”
Sanders hadn’t used the system before but found his first experience “pretty easy” and said he’d be in favor of more widespread use. Zunino, who had already worn the device while catching another pitcher’s live batting practice session, said he was “hoping some guys pick up on it more” and even suggested further potential benefits beyond just curbing sign-stealing and improving pace of play.
“It was easy to call pitches. Most of our guys are very open-minded,” Zunino said. “If it can save them a couple seconds looking in and it could get them in the right headspace to execute that pitch, I mean, maybe that's all we need. … If [pitchers] have that extra time, maybe instead of having to look in, it gives you 2-3 extra seconds for recovery. There's a lot of different things, but ultimately, the times we've used it, it's really sped up the game.”
The Rays went back to the traditional method of calling pitches after Sanders left the mound. Zunino said he wasn’t the only one who noticed a difference in tempo the rest of the game.
“Man, it was smooth. I had conversations with Chad Fairchild, the umpire, and he could tell when Phoenix came out and we weren't using it,” Zunino said. “We were able to keep a better pace with it. … I felt like it was fairly smooth.”