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MLB should experiment with in-game headset use

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The technology is available, so let’s try it out.

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Bud Black thinks baseball should adopt headsets, and so do I.

Let me add that the possibilities of the person who gets to speak (the manager? the catcher? the pitcher?) and the person who gets to listen (the catcher? the hitter?) are intriguing.

While Major League Baseball examines pace-of-play issues, Black has opposed implementing a pitch clock and other recommendations that he sees as affecting the strategy of the game (see here and here). But he’s more open to headsets.

As he said in April 2017, ”Headsets . . . like the NFL. That's coming, and I don’t see why it shouldn’t come.”

In arguing for this, he’s following the lead of former Yankee’s manager Joe Girardi, who’s long urged their adoption. “I’m a big proponent of trying to introduce some type of communication through headphones. Like they do in the NFL,” Girardi says. “I think you could speed the game up that way in certain instances.”

This makes sense. As MLB.com’s Anthony Castrovince writes, “The baseball industry is in the midst of a wide-ranging conversation about how to improve the pace of play. It is also waist deep in an information revolution, in which data is impacting the in-game blueprint like never before.” Moreover, Commissioner Rob Manfred tends to be tech friendly.

Think of last year’s Apple Watch cheating incident when the Red Sox played the Yankees. Technology is difficult to regulate, and it’s not going away, so it makes sense that headsets would be part of this conversation. With that in mind, consider how headsets have been used in sports and their possibilities for baseball.

Background: The NFL and NCAA Baseball

Since 1994, professional football has used headsets that allow the coach to communicate with the quarterback through helmet radios. In 2008, this was expanded to include one defensive player per team. (Here’s a nice video history/explainer from SBN Studios.) In short, the use of headsets clarified communication and helped speed up the game.

As it turns out, NCAA baseball, where the manager generally calls all the pitches, has been exploring the use of headsets. In January 2017, Teddy Cahill reported on The American Baseball Coaches Association’s Pace of Play Committee, led by Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin. The implementation of headsets is a primary topic of discussion.

Currently, Coastal Carolina and the University of Georgia use headsets to improve teaching because this technology allows coaches to talk to players during practice while events are unfolding rather than waiting to review video.

There are possibilities beyond teaching, however. Cahill notes:

Eventually, however, the technology could also be used to speed up games. An average of about 300 pitches are thrown every game and, in college, most coaches call the pitches from the bench. Relaying signals to their catchers takes time, which could be reduced with a headset. If a headset shaves even three seconds off the average time between pitches that would cut a total of 15 minutes off the length of a game.

That strikes me as something worth considering.

The Possibilities for Headsets in MLB

At this point, it’s not even clear how MLB would use headsets, but here are three possible scenarios.

The Manager Communicates with the Catcher

Given that the catcher directs so much of what happens in baseball, this arrangement makes sense. Moreover, adding a headset to the catcher’s helmet would probably be less distracting. The receiver would be positioned close to the catcher’s ear, so neither the hitter nor the umpire could hear.

Bud Black favors this approach: “Instead of a catcher or a bench coach going through [various signs] to throw over to first or call for a pitchout, you’d just go, ‘Pitchout,’ and he hears you . . . I wouldn’t push back on that, because that’s strategic stuff. And with all the information we’re getting, it might make sense to think hard about that one.”

The Manager Communicates with the Hitter

This is Joe Girardi’s preferred arrangement: “You could put [receiving devices], realistically, in your hitters’ helmets . . . and you could say what you wanted and then it’s not a sign from me, a sign to the third-base coach and then a sign to the player.”

A criticism of this approach is that it would interrupt the hitter’s concentration. And as with any new approach to the game, getting player buy-in is important.

The Catcher Communicates with the Pitcher

Kunj Shah quotes Bless You Boys’ Cody Warner with this interesting possibility:

“Also could actually shift the majority of game calling from the catcher to the pitcher. You don’t want the catcher telling the pitcher which pitch to throw, verbally. Not with the batter standing right there. So the pitcher would cover his mouth, say what he wants to throw, and the catcher would confirm with a nod or shakeoff. Opposite of the current system.”

Honestly, I’m intrigued by the possibilities.

Pace of Play

Each of these is far from implementation, if not consideration. An endorsement of headset use may be found in their ability to speed up the game, which we know is an MBL priority. As Dave Sheinin writes:

The idea makes plenty of sense for baseball. Not only would it eliminate the elaborate schemes to steal the opposing catcher’s signs by visual measures — which, as Girardi acknowledged, pretty much every team in baseball undertakes, with or without the use of technology — but it could also have the secondary effect of improving the sport’s worsening pace-of-play and time-of-game issues, one of Manfred’s most passionate crusades.

On the negative side, the players would need to approve this kind of change, and Anthony Castrovince’s reporting suggests there’s not much interest.

I’ve written in favor of pitch clocks, and I’m all for trying out headsets, which would address pace-of-play issues without being as visibly invasive as a pitch clock. MLB can use the minor-leagues as a laboratory for in-game headset use to see what comes of it. The technology is available. Let’s use it.