Just over a month into the season, the Braves have joined the ranks of MLB teams using the new PitchCom system to electronically send the catcher’s signs to pitchers — at least with some of their pitchers who choose to utilize the new technology.
Only about half of the 30 teams were using PitchCom when the season began, but now as many as 29 teams are deploying the system. Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud said veteran pitchers Charlie Morton and closer Kenley Jansen were among those who wanted to use it.
And so, the Braves began using it earlier this week, though some players and coaches still have some reservations about PitchCom, which is designed to prevent sign-stealing and improve the pace of play.
PitchCom replaces the traditional method of catchers using fingers to give signs to pitchers, instead having them push buttons on an electronic wristband that relays a voice with pitch and location — “fastball outside,” for example — through a small speaker in the caps of the pitcher and up to three other players on the field.
“I just used it for the first time tonight,” Braves pitcher Max Fried said late Friday, after giving up a season-high nine hits and four runs in six innings of an 11-6 loss to the San Diego Padres in a series opener at Truist Park. “It was definitely different. I liked it. I really only used it with a guy on second base, just to see if it could speed up some of the tempo and all that kind of stuff. I think I’ll be using it going forward.”
Morton is expected to use it Saturday when he starts the second game of the three-game series.
“The first day we used it, I didn’t have a Velcro piece attached anywhere on my gear,” d’Arnaud said. “I was in and out of my pocket. And I was flustered. My head was swimming a million miles a minute. But then we talked to the Red Sox guys and they had this special Velcro they let us have. It made it a lot easier, so the positioning of it was easier.”
A few days into the season, d’Arnaud was asked about PitchCom and didn’t sound keen on using it, in part because he thought it would eventually take pitch selection out of the hands of the catcher.
The veteran catcher said at the time: “I think baseball will evolve into someone else will be calling the signs, and I’m not a fan of that. I think that it’s a game of the players, so that’s the biggest thing for me. The way I see it evolving is a team they hire, someone who’s calling the whole game — like in the NFL, for example, they have offensive coordinators. So yeah, I see the pros and cons. Like, if the infielders and the outfielders know what’s coming, it definitely simplifies a lot of things with runners on second base.
“(But) I think it’s rushing the game, rushing the timeless game. … Everyone’s learning how to use it. But you put your two feet in the box and you look up, and the pitcher’s starting his windup, it’s not comfortable. So yeah, everyone’s still learning how to use it. We haven’t used it. But I see the pros and I see the cons of it.”
Five weeks later, here’s what d’Arnaud said about PitchCom before Friday’s series opener with the Padres, after the Braves used the system in a two-game series against Boston last week.
“Now I like it,” he said. “Now it makes sense. It’s easier to use. And if the pitchers like it, I like it. That’s what it’s more about.”
Catcher Kevin Plawecki of the Red Sox said the same thing to a Boston Globe reporter last week. Plawecki went from considering it a gimmick to being “completely for it. I did a 180.”
Some players with teams that have used it all season say the main issue with the system is it’s sometimes hard to hear the voice through the speakers in their caps if a crowd is particularly loud.
When asked what he thought of PitchCom, Braves manager Brian Snitker said after Friday’s game, “I don’t know. Our guys are starting to introduce it a little bit. A few guys. Some of them aren’t there yet. They were throwing bullpens and working with it. So it’s just kind of now starting to play with certain guys.
“Some guys don’t want to use it; that’s fine. I’ve read a lot of guys just … some guys like it, some don’t. The ones that like it, we’ll have it available for them.”
One Braves coach said his biggest concern about using the system is that players might lose some sense of awareness — for example, a catcher seeing where a hitter sets his feet in the box, or checking the positioning of infielders, especially with the shift, before calling for a pitch.
PitchCom offers an opportunity to call the next pitch quickly. The Braves realized they needed to slow things down to help the catcher take the positions of the hitter and infielders into account and also allow the pitcher to stay in a normal rhythm and tempo.
Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson said he’s used to seeing the catcher put down a sign before the pitcher comes set and starts his delivery. But with the pitcher sometimes getting the sign even before he got back on the mound, Swanson said it made the rhythm seem strange until the Braves made an adjustment.
“A lot of teams will do it before (the pitcher) gets on the rubber,” d’Arnaud said. “We’re kind of still waiting until the hitter is ready. I think (Boston’s Trevor) Story was hitting and I did it before. I felt bad that he had to keep calling time. It’s disrespectful for me to call it early and he’s just putting his head up and the pitch is already on his way. Once that happened, I was like, ‘Slow it down. Wait at least until the hitter is ready.’”
Smith gives up lead
Though Fried gave up four times as many runs in six innings as he allowed in his previous two starts against the Padres, the lefty still was in position to get another win against his original organization. Briefly in position.
Reliever Will Smith gave up a three-run homer in the seventh inning to give San Diego a lead, and the Padres blew the game open in the ninth with four runs against Spencer Strider and Darren O’Day, including Trent Grisham’s three-run double off O’Day.
Swanson’s three-run, two-out homer in the sixth gave the Braves a 6-4 lead. They scored four in the inning after a two-out Adam Duvall pop fly was dropped by Wil Myers in shallow right (it was ruled a hit).
William Contreras, whose leadoff homer in the third inning was his fourth of the season, had a two-out single in the sixth to chase Darvish, and Swanson greeted righty Robert Suarez with a 436-foot homer to center field on a full-count, 98 mph fastball. It was the third-longest homer of the shortstop’s career.
Fried was 2-0 with a 0.56 ERA in two previous starts against the Padres, including a three-hit shutout Sept. 24 at San Diego. The lefty also was 4-0 with a 1.38 ERA in his past four starts before Friday, when Fried gave up the most hits he’d allowed since the Marlins got nine in five innings against him July 10.
He was charged with four runs and two walks and had six strikeouts in six innings.
Acuña still out of the lineup
The Braves were without Ronald Acuña Jr. for the second consecutive game Friday due to lingering soreness in his left groin, but the superstar right fielder said he would play Saturday.
Acuña missed Wednesday’s game against Boston and the Braves were off Thursday, so they hoped their dynamic leadoff man would miss only one game. But after checking him out Friday afternoon, the decision was made to rest Acuña for at least one more day.
“They treated him up all day (Thursday), and I guess he still felt it a little bit today,” Snitker said after the slightly delayed lineup announcement Friday. “So hopefully one more day will knock it out.”
Snitker said Acuña was “day to day” and would be checked again Saturday before a decision on whether to play him. Acuña said he felt fine and, when asked if he would play Saturday, replied “Sí.”
Snitker said Acuña also was unavailable to pinch hit Friday or enter as a late-innings substitute.
“I think anybody with a leg problem, I don’t think you want to bring them off (the bench) cold,” Snitker said. “That’s kind of defeating the purpose, because they’d be better off playing and staying warm than doing that and taking a chance.”
The good news for the Braves is that Acuña hasn’t had any problems with his surgically repaired right knee since being activated April 28, just over nine months after tearing the ACL and having season-ending surgery. He’s hit .282 with a .391 OBP, .878 OPS, four extra-base hits and 5-for-5 stolen bases in 10 games.
In his past six games, Acuña is 8-for-22 (.364) with two doubles, two home runs, five walks and a .482 OBP.
Travis Demeritte batted leadoff and continued his early-season success, going 3-for-3 with three singles and two walks in five plate appearances. The Georgia native has hit .314 with a .379 OBP and .908 OPS in 58 plate appearances since being brought up from Triple A, and has two doubles and three home runs.
“He’s taking advantage and having some really solid at-bats,” Snitker said. “I kind of like him hitting down in the order with at-bats like that, especially when Ronald’s leading off. Get them guys going like that and they’ll be some guys in the middle of the order to drive in. But he’s having really, really good at-bats.”
— The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal contributed to this report.
(Photo: John Bazemore / Associated Press)