College baseball goes high tech to send pitch calls to the mound
When he’s on the mound, Clemson southpaw Ryan Ammons will feel a little tingle on his right arm.
No. Everything is fine. It’s not a fit or a pinch.
Instead, it’s a reminder telling him to watch the digital display on his wristband to find out what type of pitch to throw next and where to locate it.
For a growing number of college baseball teams, the tradition of pitching signals sent by the catcher flashing his fingers and waving his hand is dying out. He is replaced by a trainer in the canoe pressing numbers on a keyboard corresponding to different types of terrain and transmitting the information to the mound.
A vibration in the bracelet lets the launcher know that the call is in progress.
The technology, Game Day Signals, was developed by a small software development company in Virginia and approved for the first time this season by the NCAA.
The impetus was to pick up the pace of play, which has been a concern across the sport. It also eliminates the opposing team’s ability to steal signals.
“I work really fast,” said Ammons, second closest to Clemson. “I like to take the ball and go for it, so I love that. I was one of the first guys on board with that.
In early April, teams using Game Day Signals were Clemson, Vanderbilt, Alabama, North Carolina State, Virginia, James Madison and Pacific. Among about 60 teams waiting for their orders to arrive are Georgia, Georgia Tech, Tennessee, Kentucky, LSU and Michigan.
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 in spring training. The plan is for PitchCom to be used at the Double-A level this year.
In college baseball, catchers have traditionally looked into the dugout to pick up pitching signals from a coach and then relayed them with another set of finger and hand signals. In 2018, the NCAA allowed receivers to have an earpiece in their helmet to receive pitch calls from a coach using a walkie-talkie or clip-on microphone.
With the Mound Dugout Terrain Signaling System, the catcher also wears a wristband so they know what terrain is coming and where to set up their target, but it plays no role in communication.
“It’s a natural evolution of the game,” said Craig Keilitz, executive director of the American Baseball Coaches Association. “If it speeds it up and makes it easier – and harder to steal signs – go for it. I think that’s great.”
The NCAA does not track playing times other than during the College World Series. CWS games have averaged at least 3 hours and 15 minutes each for the past four years. Since 1996, CWS playtimes have averaged over three hours in all but two years. Prior to this, CWS matches of less than three hours were the norm.
Variables such as the number of pitch changes and the amount of runs 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 used the technology and combined for 280 pitches, that’s about 14 minutes.
Game Day Signals conducted testing in 2019 in Virginia’s Division III Old Dominion Athletic Conference, which received a waiver from the NCAA to use the equipment. Only the catchers wore the wristbands and used hand and finger signals to relay throwing calls to the pitcher. The pitcher was not wearing the bracelet because one-way communication between the dugout and players other than the receivers had not yet been approved.
Six ODAC teams used the device in a total of 121 nine-inning games, and those games averaged 2:45. In the 96 combined nine-inning games in which the device was not used, the average was 2:55.
The technology was designed by Chris Cofer, who played baseball at VMI and was a software developer at parent company Blackhawk Enterprise of Waynesboro, Virginia.
Cofer and fellow Blackhawk software developer, Keith Malay, launched 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 Board of Trustees. NCAA baseball rules.
Game Day Signals uses encrypted low-band radio waves with a range of 500 to 550 feet, Malay said, and battery life is five to six hours before a recharge is needed.
To call a pitch, the coach typically presses two numbers on their keypad. For example, “1-1” could mean fastball, low and far. When the sign is sent, the caster’s bracelet vibrates. If the pitcher doesn’t like the pitch, he can throw it off like he would the catcher and the coach sends a new sign.
The use of technology has extended beyond the canoe to the mound. Vanderbilt, for example, requires all nine players on the field to wear the wristband. The coaches keypad can provide up to six digits, so combinations of digits can be used to call pick plays or make defensive adjustments.
Teams could also use technology on offense to report thefts or hit-and-runs.
Malay said it costs $3,000 to $4,000 for a full package, which includes a coach’s keyboard and 10 player wristbands.
Corbin said his players enthusiastically embraced the wristbands when they were taken out during fall training.
Clemson’s transition from old to new was a little slower.
“The bullpen guys loved it. The starters didn’t like it, so I didn’t ask our starters to do it,” See said. “But it’s amazing. Our bullpen is much better than our starters right now.
Two of Clemson’s three weekend starters have started using the bracelet in the past week or two. The only resister is starter No. 1 Mack Anglin, and See said he expects Anglin to be on board shortly.
“I think it’s helped my game tremendously to be able to throw at the pace I want to throw,” Ammons said, the Tigers closer, “and overall I think it was a great idea to be able to put it in our bullpen and hopefully transfer it to our starting pitchers.