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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Could MLB umpires using PitchCom help with strike calls? Players have mixed feelings.

Houston Astros’ Carlos Correa connects for a two-run homer in the fourth inning of Game Five of the World Series against the Washington Nationals in Washington on Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019. Correa, now with the Minnesota Twins, said he favors umpires using technology that allows pitchers and catchers to communicate, as a way of knowing the intention of every pitch and improving their ability to call balls and strikes more accurately. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

By Tyler Kepner / The Athletic

Scott Servais spent 11 seasons as a major league catcher, and sometimes, he tried to help the man hovering behind his back.

“If there were certain pitches that I knew would be tougher for the umpire to call, I would comment to him, ‘Hey, we’re gonna be doing a lot of this today,’” said Servais, now the manager of the Seattle Mariners. “Like if it was a lefty with a big slider or a hard cutter, I might say, ‘We’re gonna be running this in here a lot,’ just to give him a heads-up.”

The idea was that if the umpire knew the pitcher’s intentions, he might reward him with more strike calls if he consistently executed his game plan. Now, with PitchCom, technology that allows pitchers and catchers to communicate, baseball has a way to allow umpires to know the intention of every pitch. But umpires don’t use the device.

Minnesota Twins shortstop Carlos Correa said recently that he thinks they should, and Servais acknowledged he had never considered a modern application of his old technique. Yet, the more he thought about the concept, the less he liked it.

“If you’re expecting a pitch to break a certain way and it’s not there — it’s still a strike, but you’re like, ‘No, it can’t be a strike because it was supposed to be over here,’” Servais said. “So, maybe now they call it a ball. There may be some benefits to it, and I wouldn’t rule it out, but I’d have to push back on Carlos in that regard.”

Correa raised the idea in Cleveland last weekend after some borderline ball-strike calls went against the Twins in a close loss to the Guardians. Correa is not a chronic complainer — he has never been ejected — but thinks the PitchCom would help umpires call a more accurate zone.

“It just occurred to me because I was thinking during the game about that,” Correa told Dan Hayes of The Athletic. “If umpires knew what was coming, it would be a lot easier for them to call balls and strikes instead of just trying to guess what way the ball is going to go.”

The Twins’ pitchers had the lowest walk rate in the majors through Wednesday, at 6.7%, with the Mariners just behind, at 7%. Their pitchers wouldn’t seem to have much of an issue with the strike zone, but even so, some of Seattle’s pitchers seemed to like Correa’s idea.

“I think it would help,” said Bryce Miller, a right-handed starter. “Sometimes I think if the catcher’s set up for a certain location and we miss, it’s [automatically] a ball. But if [the umpire] knows a splitter’s coming, he should be looking at the bottom of the zone. So, if you throw it there, it might help in getting that pitch.”

Former umpire Ted Barrett raised another issue, saying that some umpires might need to crank up their earpiece, which would inadvertently give away the pitch to the hitter. But Barrett, who called games from 1994 to 2022, wouldn’t dismiss the idea entirely.

“Me personally, I never wanted to know; I didn’t have to hit, so I could wait to react after it’s received,” he said. “I would try it in a spring training game to see if it helped — but, man, you need a Batman utility belt now to keep everything in place.”

Mariners designated hitter Mitch Garver, who has caught more than 300 games in the majors, explained why the idea might have merit. Then he hit on the point that is said to most concern Major League Baseball.

“I’ve caught some guys with outlier stuff, and those are the pitches that really screw up the umpires — like the low-release fastball that rides the bottom of the zone and catches the lower half, or the sweeping breaking ball that comes all the way across the plate; it’s hard for them to see that cross,” Garver said.

“I’m trying to think of a negative to that [idea], and the only thing I could think of is that an opposing team might be able to relay the way a certain umpire sets up for a different pitch.”

If an umpire knows a splitter is coming, Garver added, he might crouch down a bit, expecting the pitch to be low. Likewise, he guessed, if a high fastball is on its way, he might stand more upright.

According to an MLB official, who was granted anonymity to discuss internal planning, the league has explored the idea but decided against implementing it. The reason is precisely what Garver mentioned: The league does not want to create another situation that could tempt teams to relay signals to the batter.

After the sign-stealing scandal involving Correa’s 2017 Houston Astros team, anything that might lead to similar activity is a nonstarter for MLB. So, as intriguing as Correa’s concept might be, the inspiration for PitchCom’s existence is the same reason it won’t be given to umpires.

Where have all the flowers gone?

Since the Philadelphia Phillies opened Citizens Bank Park 20 years ago, the flower beds above the left field wall have been a charming little part of the scenery. The first homer there, by Bobby Abreu in 2004, cleared the flowers. So did pitcher Joe Blanton’s homer in the 2008 World Series and Bryce Harper’s “Bedlam at the Bank” blast in 2022.

But if April showers bring May flowers, then what happened to the floral arrangements in Philly? For TV viewers this season, it seems that the flowers are no more, replaced by a short orange billboard stretching above the length of the left field wall.

A recent visit to the park, however, revealed that the flowers never went anywhere at all. They’re just hidden by that billboard — which, ironically, advertises a “vegetation management” company that managed that vegetation right out of view.

The Phillies insist they haven’t forgotten about the flowers and are said to be considering various plans for what to do with them. Maybe they’ll have a pregame ceremony for their return, featuring former Phillies Kevin Flora, Erik Plantenberg and Pete Rose.

That’s for a later date, though. As for now — well, mum’s the word.

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