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How two former stage mentalists are bringing their craft to MLB

Undercover communication techniques used in mentalism performances helped create the latest in baseball technology.

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San Francisco Giants v Washington Nationals Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

It’s the standard routine. Collecting the ball from the catcher as he strides back to the mound to reset, the pitcher takes his place on the rubber and looks in to receive the signs. The painted nails behind the plate give him direction before he comes set to fire in his next pitch. If a change is needed, the signs are repeated, or time is called as the catcher runs up to the mound to discuss the next options.

This season, the routine has been noticeably different. Gone are the painted nails and recurring mound visits. Instead, a new technology system has come to take its place: PitchCom. An electronic system that communicates signs between the pitcher, catcher, and select field players, this new automation has been implemented by almost all MLB teams this season. In a memo sent out on April 5th, MLB informed clubs that PitchCom would be approved for the 2022 regular season, after receiving positive feedback from experimental usage at the single-A level, as well as big league spring training.

The PitchCom device is made up of a button transmitter worn by the catcher, who determines pitch and location, and sends information to the pitcher through an earpiece in their hat. Up to three additional fielders can also wear an earpiece to receive the same information as the pitcher. The channels are encrypted and can be used in multiple languages, and also have the ability to be programmed with code words to replace pitch names like fastball and curveball. The PitchCom team has reportedly collaborated with MLB’s security team to be confident that it cannot be hacked, using trillions of code combinations to make prediction impossible.

On a recent episode of Mariners All Access, Angie Mentink sat down with Mariners’ coordinator of advanced scouting, Sam Reinertsen, to understand how the team has been applying the new device. He explained which buttons create certain commands, and emphasized a positive experience from many of the Mariners’ pitchers who’ve experimented with it. “The benefits are very big, and I think that’s why most teams are generally adopting this pretty well,” said Reinertsen.

Both catcher Tom Murphy and pitcher Matt Brash also discussed PitchCom with Jen Mueller earlier last month and were excited about its ability to speed up pace of play as well as eliminate sign stealing:

PitchCom creators John Hankins and Craig Filcetti designed the device with clear intentions in mind after witnessing a need for new technology in the sport. Both Hankins and Filcetti have backgrounds in stage mentalism, which requires similar technology. Mentalism includes forms of hypnosis, telepathy, and more that aid in the performance of mind-reading and other related psychological experiences.

Filcetti graduated with a degree in Electrical Engineering, and started his own business as a developer and owner of sound control communication for stage performers. John had been a friend and client of Craig’s for over a decade, and John knew that Craig’s background would make him the perfect partner to develop PitchCom.

“As a lifelong baseball fan, right after news of the sign stealing scandal broke, I believed that the issue of sign stealing could be solved with some of the techniques we use as mentalists to provide covert communications on stage as a starting point,” Hankins explained.

The plan for their technology was to create a system that was easy and fast to use, and would allow the catcher to call pitching without vocalizing or signs. It would be easier for the players to communicate, and additionally harder for opposing teams to interpret. John explained his concept to Craig and asked if he’d be interested in creating the actual product and pitching it to MLB. “Thankfully, although not knowing very much about baseball at the time, he was excited by the challenge and said yes. And we started working together and Craig had a prototype built within a month,” Hankins said.

Hankins and Filcetti have been very pleased with PitchCom’s implementation in MLB so far, and appreciate the players’ acceptance of it with only a few short weeks of use. “This is an entirely new concept, asking them to do something different from what has been done for over 150 years, and what they have been doing their whole baseball lives. And yet, 27 teams so far have embraced it.” said Hankins. He hopes that the technology could have a positive impact on the level of performance in games. “I would like to think that PitchCom allows players to let their natural abilities dictate who wins and loses, and not worry about whether someone is looking in at their signs with a camera or binoculars and signaling the batter. It will let players concentrate on playing the game and not focus on counter-espionage.”

MLB has embraced PitchCom in its inaugural season, and teams continue to experiment with the new technology. It has been widely embraced and well received, just as Hankins and Filcetti had hoped. With the sport continuously searching for ways to engage the newer generations of baseball fans, PitchCom appears to be a step in the right direction and consistent with other measures that have been adopted or under consideration for speeding up the game and creating more action.