Catchers spend fall adjusting to headsets

By: Matt Jones
Published: Tuesday, October 10, 2017
An earpiece is shown on Arkansas catcher Zack Plunkett during a fall scrimmage at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville.
Photo by Ben Goff
An earpiece is shown on Arkansas catcher Zack Plunkett during a fall scrimmage at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville.

— When we first sat down with Arkansas pitching coach Wes Johnson last fall, he spoke fondly of a rule change that had been floated in baseball circles.

A year later, the change has made its way to Baum Stadium.

Beginning in 2018, the Southeastern Conference will allow pitching coaches to communicate with catchers via technology. Catchers will wear earpieces that will allow them to get a call from a coach, then immediately signal the pitch to the mound.

While it might not sound like much, coaches say it is an important step for the game. The elimination of a signal from the dugout and a catcher searching for a call on his wrist sheet could eliminate around five seconds between each pitch. Johnson said he has been told the headsets could shave 25 to 28 minutes off the time of a game — welcomed news to fans and TV executives who have increasingly complained about game times.

Arkansas’ games last season lasted an average 3 hours, 17 minutes. Six games lasted longer than four hours.

“We’ve got to do stuff with pace,” Johnson said last fall. “The whole point behind it is the pitcher and catcher get in a rhythm and the pace of the game happens.”

Arkansas catchers Grant Koch and Zack Plunkett say they can see other areas in which the technology could help them, not only during a game but also during the course of a long season. If one game could reduce the time on their feet by 10 minutes or so, for instance, then 30 SEC games could account for hours less stress.

“Seasons are definitely long and a couple of minutes taken off here and there squatting, I could see that being beneficial for sure,” Plunkett said.

Like other SEC teams, Arkansas is using the communication equipment in fall practice, but the Razorbacks will only be able to use the technology in about half their games in 2018.

The NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel approved the SEC’s request to use the technology on an experimental basis during conference games and at the league tournament in Hoover, Ala. SEC teams will not be able to use the technology in nonconference or NCAA postseason games, including ones played at their home parks.

In addition to the communications rule, the NCAA will allow the SEC to use expanded replay in conference games. Under that change, a coach would be able to challenge a ruling and if that challenge is successful, he would be awarded another challenge to use later in the game. Reviewable calls will be expanded to include force/tag plays; base-running calls such as whether a runner scored before a third out, tagged up or didn’t touch a base; hit-by-pitch calls; and runner placements on boundary calls.

If the experiments accomplish a better product, it isn’t far-fetched to think they could be implemented on a nationwide basis within a few years.

“In baseball, it’s long been a point of discussion,” SEC associate commissioner Herb Vincent told The Associated Press, in reference to the catcher headset. “Baseball is a very traditional sport and you don’t want to do too much that changes the actual nature of the sport. We think this happens to be one area that can speed up the game without really impacting the performance on the field.”

So how does it work?

The catchers wear an earpiece — not unlike a headphone you might plug into your cellphone — and have a wireless receiver attached to the back of their belts. Johnson communicates with them via a walkie-talkie, often with his back turned to the field to prevent his lips from being read.

“You think it’s foolproof, but there have definitely been times Coach Johnson has said something into the microphone and I didn’t understand what he said,” Koch said. “It’s hard to get his attention because he might be turned around in the dugout. I may not hear it and he may not know. That’s something we’ll have to work through.

“But he can give me two or three pitches ahead and it gives me time to think. It might just be on a batter-to-batter scenario. For me, it’s just having the flow of the game right and let’s us keep a rhythm.

“Once pitchers get in a certain rhythm, there’s a pace that you can kind of feel out as the game goes on. If you’re worried about getting signs, then it can kind of slow and delays that.”

Craig Parry, Arkansas’ volunteer coach who works with catchers, said he likes the communication between the dugout and catcher, but would like to see it become more than one way in practice.

“Allow the catcher to communicate back,” Parry said. “They can’t really respond until it’s between innings. You’re not going to be sitting behind the plate during a game talking out loud about fastball here, but at least in the fall ball portion, it’d be great.”

Parry said coaches aren’t talking to the catchers every pitch. In fact, the coaches’ philosophy at Arkansas is to let catchers call their own pitches for the most part.

“Grant has become more mature and more intelligent behind the plate and understands pitch calling, but I also think we have plenty of guys on the mound that are mature enough to understand what they’re trying to do,” Parry said. “Grant has been around several of those guys now for several years, so that combination plays well into that.”

“There will be some instances where (the coach will) say, ‘Hey, fastball in right here,’” Plunkett said, “but it’s usually very select.”

Koch said he has been calling games in some capacity since before college. The key is to not only know your own pitcher, but also to know the tendencies, strengths and weakness of the opposing batters.

“It’s something I’m very comfortable with,” Koch said. “I’ve got a good feel for the pitchers and for the game, too.

“Coach Johnson kind of lets me do my own thing for the most part. He set the foundation and then kind of trusted me in a lot of situations last year calling the game.”

Koch said he’ll be interested to see how the headsets affect other aspects of the game. With the ability to communicate directly with the field, it might cut down on the number of mound visits from the dugout, for instance.

Because the headsets are not allowed outside of SEC play, Arkansas is practicing the old-fashioned way this fall, too, with signs and wrist sheets. That, combined with experienced catchers, should help when the technology inevitably fails during a game.

“I think any time there’s a change like this — especially if there were complications — the older you are and the more experience you have, you’re more equipped to handle that adversity,” Koch said. “I think if there are complications or anything like that, I’ll be ready to handle whatever that is. If something doesn’t work, I know it won’t be time to panic.”

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