How one-way communication devices are affecting high school baseball

A tiny electronic device is making an impact much bigger than its size on high school baseball this season.

The National Federation of State High School Associations now allows one-way communication devices to be used during games. Catchers are now wearing an earpiece that allows a coach to deliver verbal instructions during a game.

It has streamlined the game for many teams in the Daily News coverage area, although not everyone has embraced the communications update yet.

“We can actually communicate — even while a play is going on — if we want something to change to the catcher, who’s essentially going to make a lot of the decisions on the field,” Harvard-Westlake head coach Jared Halpert said. “We can actually make that happen in his ear while (the game) is happening.”

The NFHS Board of Directors approved the change at a June meeting, prompting the change to go into effect for the current baseball season.

Elliot Hopkins, NFHS Director of Sports and Education Services and liaison to the baseball rules committee explained in a statement the reasoning for adopting the new rule:

“The committee has made these changes to maintain the balance between offense and defense; increase the pace of play; and will responsibly manage technology so there is no advantage gained by schools that have more available resources than some of their contemporaries. Creating a level playing field is paramount to education-based athletics.”

How it works

The electronic communication system consists of a receiver pack that is tucked into the back of the catcher’s chest piece with an attached ear tube. A coach holds a walkie-talkie-like microphone in the dugout — the only place instructions are allowed to be delivered from.

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“Sometimes, I don’t even feel it,” Chaminade catcher Caydin Wilson said. “It’s a noise-cancellation earpiece, but it doesn’t feel like anything’s there.”

Chaminade catcher Caydin Wilson adjusts his earpiece which allows him to hear pitch calls from his coach in the dugout. This is the first year that the devices are legal in high school baseball. (Photo by Andy Holzman, Contributing Photographer)

Only one catcher is allowed to receive direct audio communication from the coach. The catcher can then communicate with the pitcher using his own hand gestures, which in turn can reduce the amount of coaches’ visits to the mound.

Previously, simple instructions were delivered by coaches through sometimes elaborate physical gestures or verbal cues, like a series of numbers, that represented a pitch or play.

“We’re still using our terminology and things through the mic,” Chaminade coach Kyle Wilkerson said. “It’s just quicker. And it’s awesome. There’s just so much communication that you can do and a sentence or two to prep the guy.”

Players have quickly embraced the new system, which also is supposed to decrease the chance of opponents figuring out visual or verbal cues.

“With everybody picking signs, it just makes it easier,” Sierra Canyon coach Tom Meusborn said.

Teams that are using one-way communication devices give their players varying amounts of feedback and instruction. Chaminade gives a great deal of information, for example, while Sierra Canyon doesn’t want to “bog down” its players with too many thoughts, according to Meusborn.

A change of pace

The rapid communication has allowed teams to fulfill their potential in terms of speed of play.

“We want to push the tempo,” Wilkerson said. “We want to get back in the dugout offensively as quickly as we can. I think that’s helped us a lot with our rhythm. I think it also helps the pitcher’s mindset of, let’s get back in the dugout in 12 or less pitches rather than 20 to 25 pitches.”

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It’s unclear if the length of games has been shortened due to a lack of concrete data from last season that could be compared to this season.

High school baseball is now allowing coaches to use a handheld device like this one to communicate with their team’s catcher through a wireless earpiece. (Photo by Steve Fryer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Harvard-Westlake’s March 27 game from this year lasted just under two and a half hours. Elsewhere, a March 15 Trinity League game between JSerra and Orange Lutheran went for two hours and 40 minutes, according to data from baseball announcer Corey Kwok.

Marmonte League games last roughly an hour and a half, said Westlake coach Wally Barnett.

Possible drawbacks

Mission League, Foothill League and Marmonte League teams have all employed one-way communication devices this season. Westlake, however, is one team that’s holding off on the change.

“I didn’t feel the urgency or need,” Barnett said. “Especially with the communication that me and the catchers and the pitchers have, it’s kind of our own communication and it’s worked. I’m just one of those people that if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”

Barnett has worked with his current catchers for four years and the team has routinely relied on a system of keywords, signs and pregame plans unique to Westlake. It’s a challenge of the game that the team enjoys.

The Warriors will likely start using a communication device next season to keep on par with opponents, which also allows the program to properly budget for the new technology. A communication device package manufactured by Coachcomm, for example, costs $1,850 but other companies like Qubit offer more affordable options.

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Preparing for the future

Communication devices have aligned the high school game more closely with the college and professional level, which both use communication technology in some form.

“In high school, you want to project your kids into college,” Wilson, a sophomore, said. “That’s your goal, is to get as many guys into college. So it kind of prepares us. Obviously, college has a difference, but the earpiece just prepares us.”

The technology is still young in the high school baseball world, which leaves plenty of time for teams to figure out how to best use it — or possibly manipulate it.

Some coaches and players are looking as far ahead as college, but others are just looking toward the next pitch. Communication technology has quickly become a part of high school baseball, and it seems it’s here to stay.

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