As Max Scherzer came set before the first pitch of Wednesday’s ALCS Game 3 in Arlington, the voice in his ear was that of a Texan who never played pro ball. Fastball. Away. Scherzer obliged, the future Hall of Famer heeding the words of a software engineer who was working for a defense contractor back when Scherzer was winning his first of three Cy Young Awards.
Ryan Murray is the Rangers’ senior director of research and development, rendering data into baseball insights for an organization chasing its first World Series championship. He also has a one-second cameo for each Rangers pitch as the voice of the team’s PitchCom — the device catchers use to signal pitch and location to the pitcher 60 feet, 6 inches away. Murray’s role is imperceptible to most, by design, but in the biggest moments on the biggest stage, his voice relays the orders.
The PitchCom system was approved by Major League Baseball in 2022 to combat sign stealing. It is now used by all 30 teams and comes standard with tracks recorded by a voice-over artist. Teams are welcome to record their own tracks, and some immediately did upon figuring out how to work the thing, but that option grew increasingly popular after a media report revealed that then-Guardians catcher Austin Hedges had recorded a “F— yeah!” track to cue, sometimes two or three times, after a nasty pitch. Not only could Hedges call pitches without putting a finger down. He could have a mini conversation not meant for public consumption with his pitchers.
PitchCom co-founder John Hankins estimated a third of MLB teams by now have recorded their own tracks. The Athletic’s survey of ALCS and NLCS clubs determined the Diamondbacks and Astros use PitchCom’s standard tracks; the Phillies recorded two sets, with catcher J.T. Realmuto in English and interpreter Diego Ettedgui in Spanish; and the Rangers had Murray voice theirs.
Not that every player could tell. Rangers pitchers Andrew Heaney and Chris Stratton both figured they were hearing PitchCom’s voice-over guy.
“I didn’t know you could change the voice,” Stratton said.
“I’ve never thought to ask,” Heaney added.
These are the most important pitches of the year, thrown by the world’s foremost experts of their craft, and even the pitchers sometimes don’t know whose voice is inside their heads.
In the seconds before every defining play this postseason — from strikeouts to homers to all manners of baseball madness — come a couple clicks from a catcher’s nine-button keypad, a signal transmitted to devices worn by the pitcher-catcher battery and up to three fielders, and the sound in their ears of a small but clear voice engineered to rise above the roar of 40,000 faithful.
It has been asked what PitchCom sounds like in different languages. Here’s a short video I’ve filmed of a receiver with English, Japanese and Spanish tracks. #mlb, #baseball, #PitchCom, pic.twitter.com/vl0PvGKslV
— PitchCom (@PitchCom_Sports) October 13, 2023
In Game 2 of the AL Wild Card Series, Twins starter Sonny Gray awaited a full-count pitch to the Blue Jays’ Bo Bichette with two outs and runners on first and second. Catcher Ryan Jeffers took a sign from the dugout and tapped it into PitchCom. In the field, Gray and shortstop Carlos Correa heard bullpen coach Colby Suggs’ voice over PitchCom: Timing pick to second base.
With the Target Field crowd on its feet and Bichette wagging his bat, Correa crashed second base. Gray spun. Correa caught Gray’s throw and applied the tag to a diving, dead-to-rights Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Rally thwarted, the Twins went on to win their first playoff series since 2004.
Our own version of Duck, Duck, Gray Duck.
(tag, you’re out!) pic.twitter.com/jrPLVmT5zb
— Minnesota Twins (@Twins) October 4, 2023
Hankins, speaking generally and not about specific MLB clubs, said teams regularly ask him prior to the postseason for a few new tracks. “They’ll say, for example, ‘We’re facing a team that might bunt a lot, so we want some bunt plays. Can you have these recorded?’” Hankins said. The voice-over artist will record the tracks, which Hankins then sends to a sound engineer in Nashville to enhance them. The teams typically have the requested tracks within 24 hours.
Because Hankins kept getting other teams asking for the same tracks later, he decided to build a PitchCom library for teams to pull from. The library now has more than 200 tracks — pitch types, locations, pick-off moves, bunt plays and even a few exhortations.
Still, some teams prefer to customize further — if they can figure out how to do it.
In the spring of 2022, Charlie Madden just wanted to be useful.
A 24th-round pick out of Mercer, Madden reached Double A as a player before transitioning to Red Sox bullpen catcher. His first official assignment to a staff locker room just happened to be the same spring when PitchCom was introduced as a possibility at the major league level.
“I was just always looking to be more a part of the team and add value anywhere,” Madden said. “So, I just grabbed the manual.”
Want to avoid calling PitchCom headquarters for customization? Have a 26-year-old pro catcher figure it out. Madden tinkered with the device enough that when manager Alex Cora decided in April 2022 he wanted to start using it in games, Madden was ready. The Red Sox were on the road, so Madden sat pregame in the left-field pavilion of St. Petersburg’s Tropicana Field and recorded tracks using downloaded software and a set of headphones with an attached microphone. PitchCom recommends each track be less than a second.
“You have to kind of play with being clear, while being loud, while being short and concise,” Madden said. “It’s not hard, but it takes a little feel for it.”
PitchCom has four modes, each essentially a playlist offering between 18 and 27 signals, but the most basic setup is this: there are nine buttons arranged in a three-by-three grid. Each button can give two different signals. Press 1, and it might signal “fastball.” Press and hold 1, and it might signal “inside.” Through various combinations of presses and buttons, catchers can signal pitch type and location, call a pickoff play, or simply send a message. Once Hedges got some press, others followed suit. Other teams asked Hankins for their own “F— yeah” track. That was an interesting ask for the voice-over guy. (That track is now available in the library.) One team requested something to the effect of: Throw it over the plate, you [expletive].”
This spring, the Red Sox pranked one of their pitchers by customizing PitchCom to make every button say: Are you mad?
Hankins, PitchCom’s co-founder and co-inventor, admits the device isn’t all that complicated. The receiver, he said, “is just a glorified mp3 player.” Plug it into a computer. Drag and drop tracks to align with specific buttons. Done.
But there are a bunch of buttons — the keypads have nine, and the receivers have volume buttons, a power button and a button to shift between modes — and it all has occasionally led to some confusion. Blue Jays starter Chris Bassitt was calling his own pitches until midway through this season, using a keypad affixed to his belt. In his April 7 start, Bassitt committed a pitch-clock violation before his first pitch, then asked for a new PitchCom device, then started the game with a walk and a homer. The issue: He’d put his PitchCom on the wrong mode.
Other pitchers have accidentally switched modes or turned off their receivers. They are particularly prone to this during sticky-stuff checks, as PitchCom devices can fall out of caps and into hands that can expertly manipulate curveballs yet often clumsily disrupt a tiny bit of technology.
A common request Hankins has heard — mostly from fans, but sometimes from teams — is to have a more authoritative voice for PitchCom’s standard tracks. He gets tweets about James Earl Jones a lot. (That one’s not in the budget.) A couple teams tried a voice changer, but in action it always sounded a little off. The Giants had minor league coach Craig Albernaz, who has a thick Boston accent, voice their PitchCom tracks for spring training. “SLYDAH, SLYDAH, BACKFOOT,” catcher Blake Sabol told MLB.com, mimicking Albernaz. “When I was getting quizzed by my fiancée, she was like, ‘Did you change the accent on this thing?’ And I was like, ‘No, that’s my catching coach.’” The Giants switched to Fernando Perez, their director of video coaching, for the regular season so they’d have the same voice for English and Spanish tracks.
Orioles reliever Danny Coulombe, whose team used the stock PitchCom tracks this season, suggested a British accent. Or Siri. “That might get annoying,” he said. Or, better yet, “Why can’t we choose our own voice? That would be pretty cool.” Good news for Coulombe: he can.
Padres closer Josh Hader voiced his own mode this season, recording his pitch types and locations on the Voice Memos app on his iPhone. So, while the rest of the Padres pitchers heard catcher Austin Nola’s commands, Hader heard himself.
“It’s self-talk for whatever you’re going to do,” Hader said. “If you keep telling yourself what you’re going to do, your mind is going to tell your body that’s what you’re going to do. Whether you do it or not, I mean, that’s after the fact. But when you only have that one thought on what you got to do, you’re not putting thoughts elsewhere and losing focus on what the goal is.”
Hankins said teams can get as creative as they like. The guidance he offers is that each term should be quick and clear. He said some ballparks during the postseason can reach 125 decibels, which is somewhere in between a motorcycle and a jet engine. It’s loud. PitchCom has to be louder.
Which is odd for a device specifically designed for secrecy.
“It feels like it’s screaming in my ear,” Red Sox pitcher Garrett Whitlock said. “Can the hitter hear this?”
Paranoid pitchers have been known to check in with their infielders to make sure no one else can detect the PitchCom calls. But that’s not the only adjustment. With the pitch clock limiting the battery to 15 or 20 seconds between pitches, depending on whether there’s a runner on base, there’s no time for a protracted negotiation between pitcher and catcher. There’s sometimes a slight delay between the pitch type and the pitch location — catchers might take a second to make sure they initially hit the right button — and shaking off a pitch means starting over again.
“With 15 seconds, you only get two or three shakes before you’re like, I gotta throw whatever they call,” Whitlock said.
Hedges, the voice that launched a thousand f— yeahs, was traded to the Rangers this summer. After recording PitchCom tracks for the Guardians in 2022 and the Pirates in 2023, Hedges arrived in Texas at the trade deadline and discovered they were all set. He wasn’t sure who had recorded the Rangers’ tracks this season. Hedges knew it wasn’t the stock PitchCom voice, and it wasn’t one of the other catchers, Jonah Heim or Mitch Garver, but he couldn’t place it.
Hedges went about his business, punching buttons and framing pitches. He was an effective, defense-first catcher back in the days when catchers called pitches with their fingers. But he thinks PitchCom has made his communication with pitchers even better.
“It makes it personal,” he said. “It just makes it specific so there’s no questions about what you wanted. If you just put a pinkie down, that doesn’t say a whole lot. There’s a lot inferred. There’s a lot to wonder. Ideally, you need to be on the same page before that. With PitchCom, it’s specific.”
And it didn’t take long for Hedges to discover that the “F— yeah” button, the one he’d created two stops prior in Cleveland, had beaten him to Texas. His exclamation preceded him.
Only, Stratton, traded over from St. Louis at the trade deadline, said he’s still never heard it.
“Maybe I haven’t thrown a good enough pitch,” he said.
— The Athletic‘s Cody Stavenhagen and Levi Weaver contributed to this report.
(Illustration: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic. Photos: Brandon Sloter/Image Of Sport / Getty Images, Megan Briggs / Getty Images, Duane Burleson / Getty Images, Sam Hodde / Getty Images)