Pushing buttons: How the Cubs customized, embraced PitchCom
The Cubs, unlike some teams, didn’t use PitchCom in spring-training games. But a little over a month into the season, it has won over most of their staff.
PHOENIX — Cubs catcher Willson Contreras covered his right knee with his glove, his right hand busy pressing buttons under it. Left-hander Justin Steele looked up just to give a quick nod, then delivered a called strike to fan the side in the second inning of the Cubs’ 3-2 victory Sunday against the Diamondbacks.
The inning would’ve flown by no matter how Contreras relayed pitch calls to Steele. But the PitchCom device attached to the top of the catcher’s shin guard and the receiver in the pitcher’s cap shaved off the time between Steele digging in and reading the sign.
“I kind of like it,” Steele said.
When MLB approved PitchCom this spring, the Cubs weren’t ready to use it in games. They were signing new pitchers practically every day and had just added a new backup catcher before the lockout.
“The last thing we want to do is add another thing to the mix,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said.
A little over a month into the season, however, almost all of the Cubs’ pitchers are using PitchCom.
“It feels like it makes the game go really quick,” lefty Drew Smyly said after a late-April start. “You almost get the pitch before I even step on the rubber. And just get in a good little flow. I’m a big fan.”
There were a few wrinkles to iron out before the Cubs put the device to use. The biggest was deciding how to program the nine buttons to best suit their group. To maximize the buttons, teams can program a quick push or long hold to mean different things. So, in addition to pitch and location, they can relay things like pitchout and pickoff.
“We wanted to simplify the terminology a little bit,” Hottovy said, “because we didn’t really like how it was set up originally.”
Hottovy sat down with the catchers and strategy/catching coach Craig Driver to map out the signs. Then baseball operations fellow Duncan Wallis — “the voice of PitchCom for the Cubs,” Hottovy dubbed him — recorded himself saying each one.
“One big sticking point for us was that the catchers hated wristbands,” Hottovy said. “So we had to figure out a way to attach it to them. And once we got that, then they were like, ‘OK, that’s pretty cool.’ ’’
Gradually, Cubs pitchers started embracing the new device. Smyly said he tried it out because rotation mate Marcus Stroman gave it a positive review. Scott Effross was the first reliever to try it in a game — in the Cubs’ 21-0 win against the Pirates three weeks ago — after getting used to listening to it in the bullpen.
The ability to control tempo, even if that doesn’t always mean speeding it up, and the peace of mind with a runner on second base were the advantages that Cubs pitchers who use PitchCom cited the last couple of weeks.
Traditionally, because of the baserunner’s vantage point, teams have changed up signs with a man on second to keep opposing teams from relaying pitch calls. PitchCom addresses that sign-stealing concern. Steele started using PitchCom only with a runner on second against the Rays last month.
“At that point, I was kind of like, ‘It’s pretty useful, especially with a runner on second,’ ’’ he said.
Now Steele uses it for every pitch.
Similarly, reliever Keegan Thomson started using PitchCom last weekend to eliminate the possibility of the Dodgers picking off the Cubs’ signs.
The Cubs, however,have left the choice of whether to use the device up to each pitcher.
“I’m old school,” explained Mychal Givens, one of a couple of Cubs pitchers who doesn’t use PitchCom. And he doesn’t plan to. Some pitchers — Kyle Hendricks, for example — only use it with a runner on second.
“I’ve liked it so far,” Effross said.
“And it’s so new that there’s obviously a couple of kinks that need to be worked out. I’m sure the original sign-giving kinks were similar.”
Contreras and Yan Gomes said they’ve given the wrong sign at times. Steele recalled that Gomes accidentally called a pitchout once, and the lefty just chuckled.
“The first inning, I had major anxiety because I didn’t know which buttons to press,” Gomes said of his first time using it when he caught Steele in Milwaukee.
There are still times, Contreras said, that he won’t hold a button long enough and accidentally will give a new pitch instead of a location, for example. On the other side of the battery, some pitchers have to remind themselves not to work too quickly.
Even so, Hottovy said if he was still pitching, he’d use PitchCom.
He added: “It’s going to improve as we use it.”