Wristbands For Pitchers? Some Colleges Embrace New Way To Call Games

Image credit: Virginia lefthander Andrew Abbott (Photo courtesy of Avery Mullaney/UVA Athletic Media Relations)

Baseball’s rhythm begins with the pitcher looking in to the catcher for a sign. The catcher flashes a few fingers, the pitcher nods, sets and fires. It has been the same routine dating back to the 19th century.

This spring, however, around the country several college teams broke that rhythm. The NCAA this year adopted a new rule allowing pitchers to wear a wristband on their glove hand with a signal card, just like the ones their catchers have been wearing in increasing numbers over the years.

For teams employing the new pitcher wristbands, the pre-pitch routine starts with the pitcher and catcher looking into their dugout. There, the pitching coach flashes a series of numbers. The pitcher and catcher check them on their wristband to see the pitch call and the pitcher sets and fires.

The idea is that by eliminating the middle man—the catcher—from the sign transmission process, pace of play can be improved and the threat of sign stealing, which has been front of mind after the Astros scandal in MLB, is eliminated.

Teams only got one month of games to work with the new wristbands before the 2020 season was canceled due to the novel coronavirus, but the early results for the wristbands were positive. They were used by a variety of teams from powerhouses like Miami, Michigan and Virginia to a mid-major like Western Michigan and everywhere in between.

Duke righthander Bryce Jarvis said when his coaches told the team they would be using the method this spring he was not a fan. It only took him a few weeks to change his mind.

“I was really skeptical about that at first,” Jarvis said. “I did not like it. I do not like change. But now that we’re a couple weekends into the year, the rhythm you can get into speed wise, because it keeps the tempo so fast, like I went back on film and watched the time between getting sign on the wrist band and the time the pitch is actually delivered, it’s way quicker than it feels like.”

Duke coach Chris Pollard said he has been advocating for the rule change for the last couple years. When it was announced at the American Baseball Coaches Convention in early January that the wristbands would be allowed this season, he wasted no time in adopting them.

In the Blue Devils first team meeting of the new year, Pollard told the team to prepare to use the new system. Many reacted with similar skepticism as Jarvis.

“When we got word in January, we were like we’re in with both feet on this,” Pollard said. “It took some getting used to, but we just forced it on them right away in (individual practices) and sim games and now it’s second nature for guys.”

The actual system is quite simple. Coaches create a spreadsheet, either from scratch or with the help of one of two programs designed to make the wristband cards, putting in pitch types and pickoff plays in every cell. The cards typically have 150 cells each, meaning that every pitch or pickoff is repeated many times so that a fastball may be called by several different sign combinations from the dugout. Further adding to the security of the system, teams typically change the cards out three times a game and could do so more often if they wanted.

The system also allows teams to have every infielder wear the wristband if they want. That allows first basemen to know when a pick play is coming and the infielders to shift themselves appropriately for every pitch.

Like Pollard, Central Florida coach Greg Lovelady was also eager to switch to the wristband system. He was a catcher during his playing career and was Miami’s catcher and captain on the 2001 national championship team.

Lovelady said as a player he might have been initially skeptical of the new system because it was so different than what he was used to but expected he would have adjusted quickly—much like his players’ response was this season.

“Once I got comfortable and knew the pitchers knew what was going on and I knew what was going on, it would be ok,” he said. “I wish we had the number system (for calling pitches). The signs we had were so hard it took me a year to figure it out. It would have been easier if you didn’t have to focus on what the pitching coach was giving. We had six sets and they were changing all the time. You had to be so locked in. Here you can kind of zone out a bit because it’s so easy.”

The wristbands are not without detractors, however. UCLA coach John Savage, who doubles as his team’s pitching coach, told the Associated Press that he didn’t want to add anything more to his pitchers’ workload. Some have issues with the aesthetics of the wristband and the battery looking into the dugout after every pitch. And, for those that believe catchers should call games, not pitching coaches, the idea is especially loathsome.

But it undeniably has advantages. There probably wasn’t yet enough data from the 2020 season to discern the pace-of-play benefits, but anecdotally the teams that are using the wristbands believe their games are moving faster this spring. The peace of mind they have in using an un-hackable system to deliver pitch calls is also a clear benefit after a winter of hearing all about banging trash cans and center field cameras picking up signs.

While college baseball has never had a sign-stealing scandal on par with what MLB just dealt with, the technology exists in many ballparks to do something similar. With games increasingly being televised and instant replay utilized, the pieces are all there to be exploited. But if no sign is coming in from a catcher, there’s no chance of it being picked.

Lovelady, who coaches UCF’s catchers, said he previously spent a lot of time working with his charges to make sure they were giving signs in a way that couldn’t be stolen and not getting into any routines. Now, they don’t have to worry about it.

“You’re trying to eliminate picking up signs and stuff,” he said. “Catchers giving it away, guys looking in at second base, cameras, it all gets taken into effect and helps.”

Pitchers wearing wristbands isn’t a big change, but it does seem to have an effect. And in a sport that is looking for the latest edge—both in sign stealing and pace of play—every bit counts.

“We’ve been notorious for playing slow and we’ve had some guys that work slow, but (this year) we’ve played a bunch of 2 hours, 20 minutes and 2.5 hour games,” Pollard said. “It’s speeding up the game. And we’re not giving a single pump that can be picked up by anybody – a camera, a guy standing at second or anybody.”

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