How Giants pitchers can call their own games this season

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Giants pitcher Alex Cobb toed the rubber at Scottsdale Stadium one day early in camp and then reached down to his belt. Before the ensuing pitch had even gotten back to him from his catcher, Cobb was again reaching down to his belt.

In 2022, that sequence might have led to an umpire paying a bit more attention to Cobb's fingers at the end of the inning. In 2023, it'll be another new part of the game, and another step forward for a sport that's trying to embrace technological advances and speed up the pace of play.

A year after PitchCom was introduced for catchers, pitchers will have the option of wearing their own device and calling their own games. Cobb has been the starter most enthusiastic about doing it and he seemed to be making it look easy during that live BP session. But he felt that wasn't the case. 

"It's an adjustment, a big adjustment," he said afterward, smiling. "But everybody has said that it's an adjustment and that it's fast and it's going to take some getting used to. They were right about it being fast and hopefully they're right about getting used to it. But it was quick."

Cobb got a reminder of how quickly everything can happen when he made his spring debut on Tuesday. He gave up four runs in his first inning of 2023 and afterward told reporters that it didn't feel like it was pitching with how much was going on. In addition to trying PitchCom, Cobb was operating with a pitch clock for the first time. 

The outing was a reminder of just how much will be new this year, and the Giants are still undecided on how much of it they will embrace. They have no choice with the pitch clock, but the early returns on PitchCom have been mixed. 

After using it for the first time in camp, Cobb compared it to learning how to send text messages years ago. It took a while to get a feel for something new, but eventually texting became second nature to just about all of society. If Cobb and other Giants can get used to calling their own pitches and doing so with much less time to operate than in the past, they believe there will be some tangible benefits. 

"With some of the younger (catchers), I think it helps them get their mind off of pitch-calling and they really can focus on some other things that are important: Pitch-framing, the running game is going to be hectic this year, we anticipate. They can kind of shift their focus to that," Cobb said on Thursday's Giants Talk Podcast. "I always tell them that if they feel adamant about a pitch, shake me off, and they still have the ability to call pitches. Shake me off and go to a pitch and I'll listen to it and we'll go that way. But for the most part, let's just try to let me get into a flow and get the pace going."

What the Giants may ultimately settle into is a hybrid system. Pitchers will be able to use PitchCom when they're in a good rhythm, or rely on their catcher when they want to. Most Giants pitchers figure they will mostly stick with the catcher punching in the calls -- something that was done for the first time last year -- but that might change over time. Alex Wood said he'll try it out this spring and see how it goes, but he likes the traditional method of thinking along with a catcher and following his partner's lead at times. 

"I usually know what I want to throw every time, but 15 or 20 percent of the time I'm in-between or don't know what I want to throw," he said. "I'm the one that's pressing the button now. That 20 percent of the time that I'm maybe in-between two pitches, I'm waiting to see what the catcher is going to put down."

There are ways around that, of course. A catcher can shake and wait for the pitcher to input a different option, but with just 15 seconds on the clock with no runners, it may be hard to pull off. Cobb said the clock will ultimately dictate a lot of what he'll decide to do with PitchCom. 

Logan Webb plans to try the system out but doesn't anticipate using it much. He doesn't shake his catcher often anyway, but there might be a few times in a game when he's really convicted and wants to make his own call. The rest of the time, Webb might just get himself in trouble with pitching coach Andrew Bailey. 

"I would just call a bunch of four-seamers," the man with one of the game's best sinkers said, laughing. "I like throwing them but I probably shouldn't throw them."

The biggest adjustment might be for catchers, who spend hours a day going over game plans and formulating sequences in their heads. Buster Posey would often stare up a hitter, seemingly thinking along with him, before putting signs down. Joey Bart used PitchCom last year but said he's ready to give some of that responsibility away if that's what his pitchers want. Bart feels that if a pitcher wants to call his own pitch, that shows him something. 

"I love that. It just tells me that they're convicted in what they're doing," he said. "If it helps them get over the stress and anxiety of the clock, let's do it. I'll still have my information ready on my side and my game plan. But at the end of the day, if they want to do that, I'm totally supportive."

Asked if he would turn the tables and shake to his pitcher, Bart smiled and shook his head.

"The pitcher always wins," he said.

While Cobb was disappointed with his first time testing the device, people around the game expect it to become the norm over the years. There were occasional issues with PitchCom last year -- most notably when the device wasn't working and had to be swapped out during games -- but pitcher and catchers adjusted and ultimately it just became another part of the game. It was hardly noticeable after the initial surprise of catchers wearing a device. 

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It is a game that's changing fast and trying to keep up with the times, and this year's advancement won't be the end of it. Giants coaches are already talking about where this might all go one day. Will the game soon mimic football, with PitchCom devices and headsets in the dugout and calls coming from Gabe Kapler or Bailey? It's possible. 

Cobb is 35 and entering his 12th season in the Majors. He's seen a lot change over that time, but has learned to embrace it.

"I was playing before instant replay back in '11 and '12 and had to get used to all sorts of changes that have come around," he said. "As a competitor, you can either mope and be upset about it and complain about it, or you try to find ways to use it to your advantage. The rules are going to be what they're going to be, we don't have any say in that. When I heard that this was going to be the case and the pitch clock and the ability to call our pitches, I embraced it and tried to figure out a way that I can benefit from it and make the team benefit from it."

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