A new rule intended to help speed up the game also could thwart attempts to steal signs in college baseball.
The NCAA will allow a pitcher to wear a wristband with a signal card when the season opens Friday, allowing him and the catcher to look into the dugout to get pitch calls and eliminating the need for the catcher to relay the call with hand signs.
Sign stealing has come to the fore since the Houston Astros were found to have used electronics to steal signs during their run to the 2017 World Series championship and in the 2018 season.
The wristband rule in college baseball was put in to expedite the process of coaches calling pitches from the dugout with the implementation of the 20-second limit between pitches.
“The wristbands with the card that you can change every inning makes it harder for people to steal signs,” Minnesota coach John Anderson said. “We're in a similar space as professional baseball with all the video systems and cameras and more television broadcasts today.”
Attempts to steal signs has always been accepted in baseball, with coaches and players keeping an eye on the opponent's on-field mannerisms, how the catcher sets up or how fielders move, not to mention trying to figure out hand signs.
“There's a way to pick pitches and a way not to pick pitches,” UCLA coach John Savage said. "If you get an unfair advantage from the in-game (TV) monitor or center field camera and relay pitches right away, I just think it's very unethical.
“The message has been sent. Everybody's been talking about it literally every day since that (Astros) thing came out and they're still talking about it, and it's not going away. Your job as a staff is to make sure that you fix anything you're doing in terms of giving away pitches. That's always been on the plate. But this other way of doing it is clearly crossing the line.”
An investigation found that the Astros used the video feed from a center field camera to view and decode opposing catcher’s signs. Players banged on a trash can to signal to batters what was coming, believing it would improve chances of getting a hit.
Illegal sign-stealing hasn't been a big issue in college baseball except for one notable exception. In 2004, Florida State coach Mike Martin accused Miami of stealing his catcher's signs using a clubhouse television and walkie-talkies.
According to news accounts, Martin said Miami's walkie-talkies were on the same frequency as the ones the Seminoles used to communicate with their bullpen. Martin heard a Miami player correctly predict pitches to a person who apparently was in the dugout or stands, and that person somehow tipped off the batter. The Atlantic Coast Conference investigated but no action was taken.
Wristbands have long been used for play-calling in football, with the quarterback getting a signal from the sideline and then looking at his wristband to match the signal with the play. Similarly, the pitcher's wristband might display numerical combinations for specific pitches, such as 1-3-1 for a fastball and 5-4-1 for a curveball.
The numbers could change throughout the game or even during an at-bat to minimize the chance of sign stealing from the opposite dugout, by a runner on second base or, worst case, by someone monitoring the TV broadcast in the clubhouse.
Not all teams are on board with pitchers wearing wristband.
“I think it gives them too much on their plate,” Savage said. “It's tough enough to execute a pitch, pitch out of problems, navigate through a game. I don't necessarily want the pitcher having to look into the dugout after every pitch and look for a sign. Our job is to come up with a system that's really hard to pick from the pitching coach, which is myself, to the catcher.”
Anderson is in wait-and-see mode. At Minnesota, the catcher and pitcher call games themselves with occasional input from coaches. Anderson said that system will continue, but he is considering having the catcher and pitcher wear wristbands and have the catcher flash signs that change by inning or situation.
“We're edging into that space, I'm afraid,” Anderson said. “We're paranoid, no question, so we're going to pay attention. If we feel we can't keep our kids in position where people don't have our signs, we're going to have to go into that space as well.”
The new rule requires the pitcher to be on the mound but not on the rubber when he looks into the dugout and then at his wristband. To not distract the batter, the card must be dark in color and worn on the inside of the forearm and wrist unless the card is covered with a flap.
Savage and Anderson said they suspect, but can't prove, some of their opponents have used technology such as TVs in the clubhouse to steal signs.
“When you see guys sitting on pitches and squaring up pretty good breaking balls and change-ups in fastball counts, you start to wonder,” Anderson said. "I think we're all a little gun shy, too, because we're all aware of what's potentially going on. You get a little paranoid just because you know it's a possibility.”