Could A Helmet Headset Speed Up Games?

SEE ALSO: Pace of Play Archive

The American Baseball Coaches Association’s committee to study the pace of met for the first time in December, but as chairman and Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin reported at the convention last week in Anaheim, they have already come up with several ideas to possibly speed up the game.

The ideas are largely similar to those that have been explored in recent years by both Major League Baseball and the NCAA, such as using a pitch clock and cutting down the time for pitching changes. But the committee also discussed the more novel concept of putting a digital headset in catchers’ helmets to allow coaches to relay play calls more quickly. That idea sparked the most discussion throughout the convention.

Pace of play has become more of a concern at all levels of baseball in recent years, and the length of an average nine-inning game at the College World Series has increased by more than 25 minutes since 2012. Rule changes to speed up the game seem likely in the near future, and the ABCA committee was formed to make sure the coaches have a voice in the process.

Corbin’s committee is still in the very early stages of its work and is investigating many possible solutions. He said the idea for a coach-to-catcher communication system came from the system employed by the National Football League.

“Just thinking about the football part of it and knowing that the catcher and coach could work in conjunction with one another and not have to look over and call the pitch a little bit quicker and keep the game moving,” Corbin said. “So it’s something we thought about in that meeting.”

While headsets are not approved to be used during official games, some programs have experimented with them in fall ball. Coastal Carolina tested a product this fall made by Gubser & Schnakenberg LLC (GSC), the company that supplies the in-helmet headsets used by the NFL. Georgia created its own system using a Bluetooth headset and cell phones.

For now, both Georgia pitching coach Fred Corral and Coastal pitching coach Drew Thomas are using the technology exclusively for teaching. Bulldogs head coach Scott Stricklin said the coaches were able to provide immediate instruction to their catcher from the dugout, rather than waiting until they could review the video.

“Instead of sitting in the dugout talking about it, we were talking with the catcher to help him understand why we’re calling certain pitches in certain situations,” Stricklin said.

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.

Alex Shada, director of operations at GSC, said they were pleased with the system created for Coastal and believe the headset could help speed up baseball games. He said it was not the first time a baseball team had approached GSC, but Coastal was the first team to use the system they created. The system GSC designed is based on what it already makes for football helmets.

“It’s a spin off of the way we design systems for NFL, college and some high schools,” Shada said. “It was a fun challenge for us, to be honest.”

There are many hurdles to clear before coach-to-catcher communication systems can be used in the NCAA. The NFL began using a coach-to-quarterback communication system in 1994 and added the same technology for one defensive player per team in 2008. But college football has yet to adopt the technology, despite widespread support from coaches, according to USA Today. The NCAA’s Football Oversight Committee discussed the issue last summer, but made no recommendation to bring coach-to-helmet technology to college.

One concern for college football has been the cost of such a system. Shada said each NFL team has nine helmets that are equipped with radios. In addition to the helmets, the NFL employs a gameday coordinator who makes sure both teams are using their assigned frequency and that the radio turns on and off at the right time (communication is cut off with 15 seconds left on the play clock or when the ball is snapped).

Cost is likely to be a concern for college baseball as well, especially because there are more teams than in the Football Bowl Subdivision and baseball budgets are smaller than football. But Shada said the cost should also be lower because baseball teams would likely only need a few helmets equipped with the headsets.

The idea of coach-to-catcher communication has generated plenty of interest and Shada said he has heard from several baseball teams in the last week. Stricklin believes it, as well as several other ideas to improve the pace of play, should be investigated further, but cautioned the radios won’t be a quick fix.

“To me, on the surface, it’s a good idea and something we need to explore,” Stricklin said. “Pace of play is something we need to pick up on. It needs to get better in our game. This might help, but I think we’re still several years away from being able to implement it in-game.”

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