College baseball goes high-tech to send pitch calls to mound

Apr 2, 2022, 10:51 PM | Updated: Apr 3, 2022, 11:26 am
FILE - Vanderbilt pitcher Chris McElvain, wearing an electronic signal receiver on his left wrist, ...

FILE - Vanderbilt pitcher Chris McElvain, wearing an electronic signal receiver on his left wrist, throws against Oklahoma State during an NCAA college baseball game, Feb. 18, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn. A growing number of college baseball teams are moving away from the tradition of catchers using their fingers and hands for pitch signs. The NCAA this year is allowing teams to have a coach in the dugout press into a keypad numbers corresponding to different pitch types and transmitting the information to a wristband worn by the pitcher. (AP Photo/John Amis, File)

(AP Photo/John Amis, File)

When he’s on the mound, Clemson left-hander Ryan Ammons will feel a little tingle on his right arm.

No, nothing’s wrong. It’s not a tweak or twinge.

Instead, it’s a reminder telling him to look at the digital display on his wristband to find out the type of pitch to throw next and where to locate it.

For a growing number of college baseball teams, the tradition of pitch signs sent by the catcher flashing his fingers and wiggling his hand is disappearing. It’s being replaced by a coach in the dugout pressing numbers into a keypad corresponding to different pitch types and transmitting the information to the mound.

A vibration in the wristband lets the pitcher know the call is in.

The technology, Game Day Signals, was developed by a small Virginia software development company and approved for use for the first time this season by the NCAA.

The impetus was to speed up pace of play, which has been a concern across the sport. It also eliminates the ability of the opposing team to steal signals.

“I’m a very fast worker,” said Ammons, Clemson’s sophomore closer. “I like getting the ball and going, so I love it. I was one of the first guys on board with it.”

As of early April, teams using Game Day Signals were Clemson, Vanderbilt, Alabama, North Carolina State, Virginia, James Madison and Pacific. Among teams waiting for their orders to arrive are Florida State, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Kentucky, Penn State and Iowa.

Major League Baseball is experimenting with an electronic communication channel for pitchers and catchers. After trying out the PitchCom system at Low-A West in the second half of last season, big league clubs are tinkering with the technology during spring training. The plan is for PitchCom to be used at the Double-A level this year.

In college baseball, catchers traditionally have looked into the dugout to pick up pitch signs from a coach and then relay them with another set of finger and hand signs. In 2018, the NCAA allowed catchers to have an earpiece in their helmets to get pitch calls from a coach using a walkie-talkie or clip-on microphone.

With the dugout-to-mound pitch sign system, the catcher also wears a wristband so he knows what pitch is coming and where to set up his target, but he plays no role in the communication.

“It’s a natural evolution of the game,” American Baseball Coaches Association executive director Craig Keilitz said. “If it speeds it up and makes it easier — and more difficult to steal signs — go do it. I think it’s great.”

The NCAA doesn’t track game times other than at the College World Series. CWS games have averaged at least 3 hours, 15 minutes each of the last four years. Since 1996, CWS game times have averaged over three hours all but two years. Prior to that, under-three-hour CWS games were the norm.

Variables such as number of pitching changes and amount of scoring can affect game length but Clemson pitching coach Andrew See said he’s found the time between pitches is reduced by about three seconds with Game Day Signals. If both teams were using the technology and combine for 280 pitches, that’s about 14 minutes.

Game Day Signals did testing in 2019 in Virginia’s Division III Old Dominion Athletic Conference, which received an NCAA waiver to use the equipment. Only catchers wore the wristbands and used hand and finger signs to relay pitch calls to the pitcher. The pitcher didn’t wear the wristband because one-way communication from the dugout to players besides catchers had not yet been approved.

Six ODAC teams used the device in a total of 121 nine-inning games, and those averaged 2:45 in length. In the combined 96 nine-inning games in which the device was not used, the average was 2:55.

The technology was the brainchild of Chris Cofer, who played baseball at VMI and was a software developer at parent company Blackhawk Enterprise of Waynesboro, Virginia.

Cofer and another Blackhawk software developer, Keith Malay, started Game Day Signals in 2018. Upon Cofer’s death in 2020, Malay continued to refine the product and help lead efforts to get it approved by the NCAA Baseball Rules Committee.

Game Day Signals uses encrypted low-band radio waves with a range of 500-550 feet, Malay said, and the battery life is five to six hours before recharging is required.

To call a pitch, the coach typically presses two numbers into his keypad. For example, “1-1” could mean fastball, low and away. When the sign is sent, the pitcher’s wristband vibrates. If the pitcher doesn’t like the pitch, he can shake it off as he would with the catcher and the coach sends in a new sign.

Use of the technology has expanded beyond dugout to mound. Vanderbilt, for example, has all nine players in the field wear the wristband. The coaches’ keypad can deliver up to six digits, so combinations of numbers could be used to call pickoff plays or make defensive adjustments.

Teams also could use the technology on offense to signal steals or hit-and-runs.

Malay said it costs $3,000 to $4,000 for a full package, which includes one coach’s keypad and 10 player wristbands.

Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said his players enthusiastically embraced the wristbands when they were brought out in fall practices.

Clemson’s transition from the old way to new way has been a little slower.

“The bullpen guys loved it. The starters didn’t love it, so I didn’t have our starters do it,” See said. “But it’s amazing. Our bullpen is way better than our starters right now.”

Two of Clemson’s three weekend starters have started using the wristband in the past week or two. The lone holdout is No. 1 starter Mack Anglin, and See said he expects Anglin to be on board before long.

“I think it has helped my game out tremendously being able to pitch at the pace I want to pitch at,” said Ammons, the Tigers closer, “and overall I think it was a great idea to be able to put it into our bullpen and hopefully move it to our starting pitchers.”

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College baseball goes high-tech to send pitch calls to mound