Retaliation

Contreras Responds To Inside Pitching With Bat And Attitude Both

The Willson Contreras saga continues. What to make of a guy who gets hit so much and is willing to spark a benches-clearing incident over it despite leaning out over the plate like nobody’s business to the point that he led the big leagues with 14 HBPs last season?

Pertinent among those plunkings were four from the Brewers, who have hit Contreras more over the last two seasons than any team has hit any batter. The trend continued in unfortunate fashion last week, when defending NL Rookie of the Year Devin Williams fired a fastball into Contreras’ helmet. When the Brewers drilled Contreras again a day later—this time the batter all but leaned into an inside fastball—it reached the limits of the hitter’s tolerance, Contreras approaching the mound to deliver a verbal warning to the pitcher.

Yesterday it was more of the same, with Contreras being hit by the Brewers again. This time he rotated into an inside fastball from Brandon Woodruff to such a degree that Milwaukee argued he swung at the pitch. As clearly unintentional as it may have been, the Cubs were finally inspired to respond, with reliever Ryan Tepera throwing a 95-mph fastball behind Woodruff’s legs in the fifth inning. Woodruff was pissed, and benches were warned.

The real response came from Contreras himself, who in the eighth hit a key two-run homer off of reliever Brent Suter in what would be a 3-2 Chicago victory. And oh, the ensuing celebration.

There was the spin and disdainful underhanded toss of the bat toward the Cubs dugout. There was the finger raised skyward most of the way from first base to second. There was the series of finger-to-the-lips shhhhhh’s delivered to the crowd between second and third. There was the arms-wide-to-the-sky just steps past third, and then the hand clap, and then the crossing of the chest, and then literally walking the last five steps to the plate.  

In case the message wasn’t clear enough, Contreras spelled things out for reporters after the game. “It feels good to shut [the crowd] up,” he said. “We sent a message. I think they picked the wrong guy to throw at. That was a message sent.”

For a full accounting, it was also a message sent to Contreras’ teammates, who haven’t exactly been setting the basepaths aflame this season. Through their first 10 games the Cubs accumulated a total of 49 hits—their fewest over any 10 game span since 1901. Prior to Contreras’ homer on Tuesday, Chicago’s only run had scored on a sacrifice fly.

For now, things appear to be even, though with Contreras leaning over the plate and the Brewers having publicly stated their willingness to attack his weakest offensive zone—up and in—there’s a very real chance that things will ratchet up again before too long.

“There’s a lot more games coming up,” Contreras said after Tuesday’s contest. “Who knows what’s going to happen?”

The teams meet again today, and again for a three-game series in Chicago later next week.

Retaliation

Complaints Fly After Weekend Of HBPs

Tired: Dealing with an opposition’s tendency to pitch inside by having your pitchers offer warning shots of their own, risking a beanball war and cyclical escalation.

Wired: Complaining about it publicly.

On Sunday, New York’s Jordan Montgomery hit Austin Meadows. Twice. A day earlier, Yankees reliever Justin Wilson hit Joey Wendle. On Friday, Nick Nelson drilled Rays catcher Mike Zunino.

At which point, Rays manager Kevin Cash leveraged the power of the press, saying after the game that this pattern “continues to roll over,” and was “so grossly mishandled by Major League Baseball last year.”

Cash was talking about a lot of things.

Bad blood has been flowing between these teams since 2018, during which time a series of Yankees pitchers has drilled a series of Rays hitters, results of which include a fractured foot for Kevin Kiermeir. In response to it all, Tampa Bay reliever Andrew Kittredge threw a fastball at the head of New York catcher Austin Romine, and it was officially on. (Whether Kittredge was aiming for Romine’s helmet is up for debate, but the batter was a clear target.) CC Sabathia then drilled Rays catcher Jesus Sucre (costing himself $500,000 in the process), and things have tumbled downhill from there.

Most notable among those moments was when Masahiro Tanaka drilled Joey Wendle with an extra-oomph fastball last September, and Aroldis Chapman nearly hit Mike Brosseau in the head with a 101-mph fastball later in that same game. (Chapman was suspended, but not until this season, and Tanaka wasn’t disciplined at all. Thus Cash’s “mishandled” comments about MLB’s response.)

Since 2018, the Yankees have hit 24 Rays (not wildly out of line with their numbers against other AL East opposition), while Tampa Bay has drilled 16 Yankees.

“Do I personally think [Montgomery] was trying to hit [Meadows]?” said Cash. “I do not. But this continues to roll over.”

To make matters worse, Montgomery nearly hit Montgomery in the head, a pitch sketchy enough to earn immediate warnings for both dugouts from plate ump Marty Foster. (Despite the warning, Montgomery was not tossed after hitting Meadows again four innings later.) Toward the beginning of this run, it was actually the Yankees complaining that Tampa Bay was coming up and in with far too much frequency. Things change.

Give Cash credit for forcing the issue. His protestations will likely have no impact on MLB’s official position, but whoever umpires the remaining games between the teams this season will certainly be on notice.

The Yankees and Rays meet again in New York on Friday.

The Baseball Codes

Willson Contreras Would Like To Inform You, Good Sir, That He Is Tired Of Being Hit By Pitches

Sometimes things accumulate.

Willson Contreras getting plunked by Milwaukee reliever Brad Boxberger last night should not have been a big deal. It was clearly unintentional, a pitcher who had just been activated trying to protect a 4-0 lead against the leadoff hitter in the ninth. The pitch barely ran inside to a batter known for leaning over the plate, and didn’t even hurt, plunking off of Contreras’ arm guard.

It would likely have gone unnoticed had Contreras not been hit in the helmet a night earlier.

Contreras was mad, but not mad enough for a full charge. Still holding his bat, he took several steps toward the mound, I guess so that Boxberger could more clearly hear whatever it was he was shouting, but never threatened physical contact. Catcher Omar Narvaez was coolly escorting Contreras to first base when benches emptied in an entirely unnecessary fashion, resulting in a whole lot of nothing.

In a general sense, people should be upset by head-high, inside fastballs. Also in a general sense, Contreras has now been drilled six times in his last 12 games against Milwaukee.

More specifically, however, is the reality of Contreras’ approach. The guy crowds the plate and leans into pitches, which had little to do with his helmet shot from a night earlier but quite a bit to do with the triggering pitch from Boxberger. Contreras led all of baseball in HBPs last season, for good reason.

The response wasn’t great, but it is better than a Cubs pitcher taking things into his own hands and drilling a Brewer in retaliation. Then again, this dustup came in the bottom of the ninth, after Cubs pitchers were finished for the day. The teams conclude their three-game series this afternoon, then meet again in Milwaukee next week. Here’s to cooler heads prevailing.

Intimidation, Retaliation

Flex Time In Cincy Ends In Ludicrous Suspension

Nick Castellanos dislikes getting hit by pitches, and was in especially fine form on Saturday in that regard. There are plenty of cues pointing toward why his drilling by St. Louis reliever Jake Woodford may have been intentional. It was the first pitch of an at-bat (check) that came with two outs and nobody on base (check and check) after the Cards had already been forced to dip into their bullpen in the third inning (not necessarily a check, but let’s go with it anyway). There’s also the detail that the quickest way for a rookie like Woodford to ingratiate himself with veteran teammates is to carry out retaliatory strikes on their behalf. Also, it sure looked intentional.

Why would Woodford be gunning for Castellanos? Could be that the right-hander—or some of his teammates—was ticked off about Catstellano’s home run pimping from opening day. (Are we in for another season of random pitchers throwing fits over Letting the Kids Play? Might could be.)

After being hit by a fastball, Castellanos chatted with St. Louis catcher Yadier Molina, took his time removing his PPE and went out of his way for the unnecessary step of offering the ball back to Woodford. Was that disrespectful? Some in the St. Louis dugout thought so. More on that in a moment.

Castellanos went to third on a single and scored on a wild pitch, after which he made sure to flex over Woodford, who was on the ground after covering the plate on the play. That was likely where things would have ended had everybody let it play out. Apart from the play itself, Castellanos didn’t touch Woodford, and was returning to his dugout when Molina raced over and shoved him from behind. Why? According to starting pitcher Adam Wainwright, it was all about offering the ball back to Woodford. “That’s tired,” Wainwright said after the game.

Nothing much came of Molina’s shove save for some action in the outfield that cropped up among relief pitchers. Castellanos was ejected, but Molina—despite being the one getting physical—remained in the game. Crew chief Jim Reynolds explained the decision as Castellanos having “re-engaged the pitcher in unnecessary fashion.” So he was tossed for showboating, which is either a one-off Jim Reynolds thing or a new directive from MLB.

The league’s official response—suspending Castellanos for two games—further muddies the waters. Given that neither Woodford (whose intent behind the pitch is under legitimate question) or Molina (the guy who shoved first) were similarly suspended is beyond logic. Beyond his initial flex, Castellanos was effectively a bystander for the ensuing melee. These decisions lead to questions about whether Castellanos’ actions would have been worthy of ejection or suspension had Molina not made things physical, and how this precedent all might affect similar judgement calls in the future.

Nothing further came of the incident in Sunday’s series closer, but it’s a long season. These teams face each other 16 more times, including again later this month.

Castellanos may have gotten boned by the league ruling, but at least he came up with the line of the day. In response to a question about Molina having shoved him, he said: “That guy could punch me in the face and I’d still ask him for a signed jersey.”

The Baseball Codes

It’s Opening Day, So Let’s Talk Some Unwritten Rules

abrowncoat

It’s opening day, so we’re bound to encounter a new round of gratuitous “unwritten rules are stupid” stories, swinging at low-hanging fruit while failing to make any sort of actual point.

I mean, the unwritten rules are stupid, some of them anyway, but even the dumb ones have reasons behind them that make for worthy discussion. You can tell a hack column in this category by the fact that it lists off items without thought for how they came to be, or why they may have endured over the years, or even why they might be outdated beyond an “I don’t like this therefore it sucks” mentality. These pieces are hackery to the highest degree.

Like, say what Pete Blackburn wrote for CBS yesterday, titled “Ranking the Dumbest Unwritten Rules in Baseball.”

Does he check all the boxes for questionable content in the category?

* List? Check. Seven items

* Nearly complete lack of context? Check.

* Strange inclusions that aren’t actually part of the unwritten rules? Check. (No crying in baseball? Last I checked, baseball doesn’t base its code off of Tom Hanks movies.)

* Removal of all nuance? Check. Items like “Don’t steal bases with a big lead” and “Don’t show up the opposition” are universally respected axioms. It’s the point in the game at which people begin observing them that draws differences of opinion, and is the primary reason either category holds interest.

Let’s dig in, shall we? Blackburn offers his list in inverse order, so in that order we shall examine it.

“7. Don’t yell while a defensive player is trying to make a catch”

Probably not a great strategy to come out of the box defending Alex Rodriguez in one of his shadiest moments as a ballplayer. Rodriguez, of course, shouted as he ran the bases behind Blue Jays infielder Howie Clark during a two-out popup back in 2007, leading Clark to drop the ball. Should Clark have caught it anyway? Of course. Is it a douchebag move that came to define a career of douchebaggery for Rodriguez? Yup. Blackburn calls it hilarious trolling. Others might call it outright cheating. I’ll use my own litmus on this one: If it’s something that, as a Little League coach, would inspire a talk about sportsmanship with one of my players, I sure as hell don’t want to see it in a big league game.

“6. Don’t walk in front of the catcher”

Man, Blackburn ain’t much for respect. The idea is that the space between the mound and the catcher’s box is a de facto office for the battery, the space between them dedicated to the singular task of getting the baseball from the pitcher’s hand to the catcher’s mitt. Walking between them on the way to hit, rather than around the back of the box, is a minor affair, but does display a degree of inattention that needn’t exist. Forget baseball for a moment. Across life, why not do the courteous thing for your fellow citizen when the effort required is virtually the same as the alternative? This is low-grade fuck-your-feelings culture that has undeniably left us worse off than we were before.

“5. No crying in baseball”

Doesn’t exist. That Blackburn strikes me as somebody who would gladly write a column excoriating a big leaguer for crying on the diamond shall go without further examination at this moment.

“4. Don’t rub it”

Okay, this rule is pretty dumb, but at least the rationale behind it makes sense. By refusing to acknowledge temporary pain after being drilled by a pitch, the hitter sends a subtle message to the pitcher that he can’t be hurt. Does such action ever help his cause? Who knows? Then again, a tough-guy image is certainly more appealing to most pro athletes than the alternative.

“3. Don’t steal bases with a big lead”

This is where we get into the good stuff. Virtually everybody in the sport agrees that one should not run up the score after a certain point. The disagreement arises over what that point is. The most interesting thing about the unwritten rules in general, and this rule in particular, is how they’ve evolved over the years. Once, a four-run lead in the seventh inning was considered sufficient to shut down the running game. That eventually became five, and as ballplayers got bigger and ballparks got smaller and baseballs got juicier, the number grew and grew. Is it defensible to manufacture offense with a 10-run lead late in a modern-day game? Maybe. It’s in said defense that the intrigue lies.

“2. Don’t bunt during a no-hitter/blowout”

Again, the nuance makes this rule. Having spoken to dozens of big leaguers about this topic, I can say with relative authority that it is not a prohibition against bunting per se, but that players for whom bunting is not part of their offensive repertoire should refrain from attempting it in this particular situation. If a pitcher is dealing no-hitter worthy stuff, the idea holds that he should be beaten with the best the opposition has to offer. If the best includes bunting—if Ichiro Suzuki drags one to reach base—that’s very different than if a backup catcher—say, Ben Davis—who has never bunted for a hit in his career does something similar. If the score of the game is beyond the necessity for a single baserunner, this becomes even more pronounced.

“1. Don’t show up your opponent”

Oh man, Pete, did you miss the big picture on this one. This is what you gave us:

“The most common examples of ‘showing up an opponent’ include bat flipping, admiring a home run or taunting a batter/pitcher.”

This is what you should have given us:

“That baseball has come to accept on-field celebrations is a remarkable embrace of foreign customs, the likes of which would have been unimaginable a generation ago. MLB’s decision to base an entire marketing campaign—Let the Kids Play—around the concept speaks to the undeniable influence of players from Latin America and elsewhere. The history of how this came to be is fascinating. Let’s start with the World Baseball Classic …”

Ultimately, Blackburn said that he ranked his list based on stupidity. So then, shall I conclude with a list of my own. It contains but a single point:

No. 1: Pete Blackburn’s column about the unwritten rules.

The Baseball Codes

RIP Stan Williams

Stan Williams passed away over the weekend at age 84. I became fully aware of his career while researching the Intimidation chapter of The Baseball Codes, after ex-players of a certain vintage kept talking about the scariest guy they’d ever faced: an enormous Dodgers right-hander who somehow wasn’t Don Drysdale. That was when I began to compile a dossier on Williams, and began to consider him as a vital interview for the book.

As it happened, connecting with the guy was easy. Williams was scouting for the Devil Rays at the time, and came to San Francisco on assignment. He was more than happy to chat.

By that point, the person who scared the bejeezus out of a generation of big league hitters was no longer evident. Instead, I found a jovial baseball lifer who embraced his reputation with levity. He described his approach to me as “tongue-in-cheek intimidation.”

“What really inspired me to throw at a batter was if he came up to home plate with a bat in his hand,” he grinned. “I never threw at anybody that wasn’t in my zone. All I wanted was one yard on each side of the plate. You get in my zone, you’re fair game.”

That was a joke, but it was also a learned trait, taught to Williams when he turned pro.

“It was pretty well known among the Dodgers that if you didn’t knock the hitters on their butts, you wouldn’t be around very long,” he said. “When I came out of high school, I didn’t know what a knockdown pitch was. I dropped a few people, but it was because I was wild. Finally, I learned the hard way. They told me that every time I went two strikes and no balls on a hitter, I had to throw high and inside. I guided the first two or three in there, and they got tattooed for home runs or long doubles. I got fed up with that, so I started throwing as hard as I could, right at their chin. And that became a very good knockdown pitch.”

As his reputation grew, Williams took to throwing breaking balls that started at hitters’ shoulders, and yelling “Watch out!” as the pitch left his hand. “The guy would lean back and the pitch would break over the plate,” he said.

It was a different era.

Williams left such an impression that I wrote an entire passage about him in the first draft of The Baseball Codes, only a small portion of which made it into the final copy. Today it seems appropriate day to share the whole thing. Rest in peace, Mr. Williams.

***

The Los Angeles Dodgers of the 1960s employed one of the most intimidating pitching staffs in major-league history. Batters feared Sandy Koufax because he was better than them. They feared Don Drysdale because he was better than them, and he might also plant a fastball into their ribs.

But the guy they really feared was Stan Williams.

Williams was not nearly the equal of Koufax or Drysdale, although he had decent success over a 14-year, injury-marred big league career, winning as many as 15 games and making an All-Star team. That was not why hitters feared him.

They feared him because he was scary.

At 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, Williams was not only willing to throw baseballs at batters, but seemed to enjoy it. The right-hander was intimidating because he was big, he was intimidating because he threw extremely hard, and he was intimidating because, as far as hitters were concerned, he may well have been crazy.

“You try to get them out legitimately the first time around, and if that doesn’t work, then you drill them in the ribs and start over again,” Williams said, describing his pitching philosophy. “You try everything at your disposal first, and if a guy just keeps wearing you out—well, it’s either him or me, and I’m going to do my share to make it him. That’s what it was all about.”

Williams was wild when he first came up, itself an intimidating characteristic in a pitcher who threw as hard as he did. He was so wild, in fact, that the Dodgers tied his bonus money to walks allowed, giving him financial incentive to issue fewer free passes. The team’s mistake, at least according to hitters around the league, was failing to draft a similar clause for hit batsmen. His Dodgers teammate, Ron Fairly, described the situation like this: “Keep in mind, Stan Williams could throw the ball as hard as Sandy Koufax. Well, Stan would find himself in a particular game with a 3-0 count, we’re up by five runs, the pitcher’s coming up next. Whack—right in the ribs.”

Fairly said that he once saw Williams tack up a photo of Hank Aaron in the back of his locker and set to firing baseballs at it. When asked what he was doing, Williams’ answer was concise: “Practicing.”

Even after his playing career, the pitcher made little effort to alter his reputation, plying his unique brand of intimidation as pitching coach for the Red Sox, Yankees, White Sox and Reds over a dozen seasons. He never felt much need to adjust people’s preconceptions about him.

Williams recalled a time while coaching with New York in 1979, when he was approached before batting practice by Yankees catcher Cliff Johnson—himself 6-foot-4 and 225 lbs., and known as an intimidator in his own right. By way of conversation, Johnson mentioned that, had their career paths intersected, a knockdown from Williams would have resulted in a less-than-friendly visit to the pitcher’s mound.

“Let me tell you two things,” Williams said. “Number one, you wouldn’t have made it to the mound because I’d have met you halfway. And number two, number one isn’t going to change number two.”

This stopped Johnson cold, mainly because he had no idea what Williams was talking about. He asked what “number two” was.

“It didn’t matter whether you kicked my ass or I kicked yours,” Williams said. “The next time you came up, I’d have hit you right in the neck.”

The sentiment was partly bravado—although Williams hit 71 batters over the course of his career, he never once led his league in the category—but there was more to it than that. Williams threw batting practice that day, and when Johnson stepped into the cage, he found himself facing a succession of inside fastballs that eventually backed him up into the screen. It was good-natured intimidation between members of the same team, but it was intimidation nonetheless.

Williams’ most lasting legacy, however, might be the List.

The List was compiled in a small notebook that Williams carried with him everywhere, on and off the field. Inside was written the name of anyone who had ever offended Williams’ baseball sensibilities, through action or ability. Guys who hit him hard were noted next to those who showed him up. Accompanying the names were stars, added for ensuing transgressions. Should a player collect three stars, Williams explained, he effectively became a dental patient—due for a drilling.

There are countless List-inspired stories. The most interesting of them concerns the last man on it. His name was Barry Latman, and his name was inscribed into the book early in 1961.

At that point, Williams was 24 years old and a three-year vet, and was pitching for Los Angeles against Cleveland in a spring exhibition game in Las Vegas. Williams started, but because it was spring training, and because it was Las Vegas, and because he had stayed up until dawn, and because the first pitch was scheduled before noon, he wasn’t exactly in mid-season form. This is where his reputation proved to be counter-productive.

Williams ended up bouncing a pitch off the helmet of Cleveland’s Bubba Phillips, which might have pleased the pitcher greatly had that been his goal. As it was, not only was it a mistake, but Williams was throwing so softly, he said, that “I wouldn’t have hurt him if I’d hit him in the neck.”

Nonetheless, teammates are expected to protect each other, and the next time Williams stepped to the plate he was drilled in the ribs by Cleveland pitcher Barry Latman.

“Stan never moved,” said Fairly. “He didn’t even try to get out of the way of it. Didn’t flinch. The ball hit him and he stood there for three or four seconds.” Before Williams started toward first, he glared toward the mound and offered a concise warning: “Hey Barry, now it’s my turn.”

Dodgers manager Walter Alston, wanting to avoid needless escalation in a meaningless game, promptly pulled Williams. “Stan was going to hit every batter that came up there,” recalled Fairly. “You don’t fool around with a guy like that.”

Denied immediate revenge, Williams added Latman’s name to the List. The problem was, the only time they faced each other over the coming years—in 1963, when Williams was pitching for the Yankees—the score was too close to exact revenge.

Things changed in 1965. Battling injuries, Williams found himself with the Triple-A Seattle Angels, where he shared a clubhouse with another veteran struggling to make it back to the big leagues: Barry Latman. When Williams realized who he’d be teaming with, he laughed out loud. The two talked, sharing war stories as the old men in a clubhouse full of kids, and quickly developed a tight bond.

One day, Williams was assigned to pitch batting practice, and didn’t offer a moment of hesitation when his old foe stepped in against him. The surprised Latman quickly found himself in the way of a fastball.

“That’s for Vegas!” Williams yelled toward the plate. “If you don’t like it, come on out.”

Latman stayed put. Mission finally accomplished, Williams retired the List on the spot.

Web Help

On Trying To Work Smarter

After a decade spent blogging about baseball’s unwritten rules, I was at a bit of a crossroads. My book, The Baseball Codes, was long since a bestseller and continues to move copies at a reasonable pace. Still, I was only at 1,500 Twitter followers and driving less traffic on my website than I felt my efforts deserved. I’m confident in the quality of the writing, and the topics are timely. That much I know. What I don’t know is what else I can be doing.

Enter Dan Blewett.

Actually, I knew him first as Coach Dan, former minor league pitcher and purveyor of some of the finest baseball instruction I’ve found on the Internet. That’s how I found him. I’m a youth baseball coach, my 12-year-old son is a pitcher, and I have turned to dozens of Dan’s YouTube clips for all sorts of insight about the form and function of baseball.

A comment on one of his tweets led to an email exchange, which led me to guest on his podcast, which led to an offline discussion about how Dan is undergoing a career transition into the web-optimization realm. He still makes coaching videos—you better believe he’ll hear it from me if he ever stops—but now he’s also in the business of helping people get the most out of their online presence.

When I suggested to Dan that I would be a willing subject and will gladly document every step of our process, he took right to it. Now we’re partners. Over the coming months, Dan is going to help me position myself online in ways that I could scarcely have imagined, and we’ll catalog the results. More web traffic will be terrific, as will more Twitter followers.

The metric that means the most to me, of course, is book sales, and we’re hoping that increases in the former will, with some strategic thinking, lead to the latter.

There are many steps along the way. Dan has already assessed my blog and my Twitter feed and is making assorted upgrade recommendations. (I’ll detail those as they develop.) He also insisted that the primo forum for developing a baseball-based community is Facebook. Unfortunately for this sensibility, I iced my Facebook account a couple of years ago, unable to stomach what I felt were toxic corporate stances, which have only grown worse over time. I include that detail less to bash Facebook (deserving as it may be) than to offer a full accounting of what we’ve been discussing, in case anybody is looking for tips.

***

Over the coming weeks I will write about processes and collaboration and organization and numerous other items that crop up, but let’s start with Google. Because if your website appears at the top of a given Google search—or anyplace close—that’s as good as gold.

One of Dan’s first tasks was to figure out which topics from baseballcodes.com ranked well, and then help me improve them. The one on which he settled was “pitch tipping.”

That subject, he told me, could be leveraged with a minimum of effort. I have written about it numerous times over the years, each post tied to a news peg. If I could combine them, Dan said, their cumulative links have a chance to rank near the top of a Google search for the term.

His instruction: Write a compendium of my previous posts, with an introduction and a conclusion. Call it Guide to Pitch Tipping.

Because the phrase “tipping pitches” has four times the search volume of “pitch tipping,” he said, utilizing each term roughly half of the time throughout the piece will maximize reach.

Here are the basics he gave me. Really, it’s Web Optimization 101. I offer it up here in case anyone out there is in a boat similar to my own.

Dan says that every article in this format should include:

  • Three to four common questions answered: Ask the question as a heading and answer it succinctly but thoroughly. Google is searching for the most common answers for every subject, and it looks through your article for the question and the answer. So make Google’s job easy.
  • Break up the article with headings wherever you can—this helps readability, and longer read times improve ranking. It’s also important to put keywords in headings. In this case, make one heading with “Pitch Tipping” in it, and another with “Tipping Pitches.”
  • Chop up long paragraphs for the same reason above. People start skimming when they see big blocks of text. Blog posts are fundamentally different than books or longform journalism. Break into a new paragraph every three to six lines, if you can.
  • Add two photos and be sure to add keywords in the alt-text attribute. “Pitcher tipping pitches” would be a great alt text, as would “tipping pitches in baseball” or “MLB pitcher tipping his pitches.” Every photo should have a slightly different alt text that still includes some keyphrase related to the article.
  • Include external media whenever it’s relevant. YouTube embeds work well. Twitter, too. Embedded media in general is helpful to a ranking.
  • If updating an old post, be sure to change the date to today’s date when you republish the update.
  • Link to anything you can. Links tell Google that the article has lots of helpful information, and linking over keywords (like “tipping pitches” hyperlinked to an external piece of content) tells Google that those are important. Internal links to your own content is also very helpful.
  • Always link to your books. If you mention The Baseball Codes. Link to it.

Those are my marching orders. Next up: Pitch Tipping. I’ll check back in with results, once results are there to be had.

The Baseball Codes

The Complete Guide To Tipping Pitches In Baseball

Although sign stealing has dominated headlines over recent years, just as prevalent for hitters—and far less discussed—is the concept of pitch tipping. What does it mean when a pitcher is tipping pitches? Simply put, it’s when a pitcher unknowingly telegraphs information about the type of pitch he’s about to deliver.

Nothing can send a pitcher fleeing toward the video room quicker than the specter of tipping pitches, and nothing raises that specter faster than making quality pitches, and watching those pitches get hammered all over the yard.

Pitch tipping is distinct from sign stealing in that no espionage is necessary, no teammates or coaches required to decode a catcher’s signals and subsequently relay them to the hitter.

The pitcher handles that part all by himself.

Tipping pitches is entirely a function of a pitcher getting careless, and doing something in his delivery for one type of pitch that he does not do for others. It could involve flaring a glove when gripping a changeup (this is common, as the hand must wrap around the ball in ways it does not do for a fastball or curveball, which can necessitate extra space in the pocket), or coming set with elbows wide for one type of pitch but against the body for another type of pitch.

If there is a tell to be found on a big league mound, hitters will find it—and news spreads quickly across the league. Until the pitcher adjusts, things will not be comfortable for him.

This happens more frequently than one might assume. The Baseball Codes blog has documented numerous instances of pitch tipping across Major League Baseball over recent years. In this Guide, we’ll answer some common questions and then go through seven specific examples in which tipped pitches played a major role in the outcome of an MLB game.

Tipping Pitches: Frequently Asked Questions

Below you’ll find some of the most common questions about pitch tipping.

What are the most common ways pitchers tip pitches?

Any behavior that distinguishes one type of pitch from another qualifies. It can be as simple as positioning one’s hands at the belt when coming set for one type of pitch, and at the chest for another. Numerous examples are discussed below.

Does picking up tipped pitches break any written or unwritten rules?

No. Successful ballplayers are observant of their surroundings, and this is an outreach of that. They are neither stealing nor relaying signs, or even looking anyplace that they should not. If a hitter (or, more likely, a team full of hitters) is found to be taking advantage of a pitcher’s tell, the pitcher’s only proper response is to correct whatever it is he’s doing.

Who typically discovers that a pitcher is tipping his pitches?

Until hitters start taking advantage of them, tells usually go unnoticed. Once a pitcher starts taking a hit to his ERA despite making quality pitches, however, he begins looking for explanations. Frequently, video review will pinpoint the problem.

When a team picks up a pitcher’s “tell,” do hitters want to be told what’s coming?

This is the same dilemma faced by hitters on teams proficient in sign stealing. While knowing what type of pitch is coming is a boon to many hitters, this is not universally true. Some hitters feel more comfortable reacting to pitches rather than anticipating them, and feel that advance knowledge hinders that process.

In the case of Nellie Fox, the slap-hitting Hall of Fame second baseman for the White Sox in the 1950s and early ’60s, he steadfastly did not want to know what was coming, despite the elaborate sign-stealing system in his team’s home ballpark. Fox, all of 5-foot-10 and 160 pounds, feared that being signaled would inspire him to muscle up … and lead to a spate of warning-track flyballs.

Pitch-Tipping Over Time, From the Annals of The Baseball Codes

Below you’ll find some of my work over the years – examples of MLB hurlers tipping their pitches even at the highest level of baseball. If you’re new here and interested in the unwritten rules of baseball, be sure to check out my first book, The Baseball Codes, with tons of stories about pitch tipping, sign stealing, bean balls and more.

The unwritten rules of America’s pastime continue to evolve, so stay tuned for more articles from me whenever new violations occur.

Houston Astros Discover Tyler Glasnow’s Tell (and Tee Off)
Oct. 11, 2019

The Astros are moving on to the ALCS, and a lot of people are pinning at least some of their success Thursday on the way Rays starter Tyler Glasnow held his glove upon coming set. Above the letters, Houston hitters seemed to figure out, meant that a fastball was on the way; somewhat lower indicated curveball. This might be how a pitcher who topped 98 mph against every hitter he faced, and supplemented his heater with one of the sport’s better curveballs, nonetheless managed to serve up four first-inning runs.

The 15-mph differential between Glasnow’s fastball and his breaking pitches should have been more than enough to throw off the timing of Houston’s hitters. For most of that first inning, he didn’t come close.

Sure enough, various Astros were seen prepping each other for what was to come, with Alex Bregman going so far as to inform Carlos Correa that “if it’s down, it’s a curveball; if it’s up, it’s a fastball.”

Judge for yourself, courtesy of @Jomboy_:

In the postgame studio, Alex Rodriguez, breaking down film, posited that he was “99 percent” sure the pitcher displayed a tell.

Whatever advantage the Astros got from Glasnow’s miscues, their tactics were not only legal, but are a goal in every clubhouse across the land. Houston has recent history with this sort of strategy, winning the 2017 World Series after Carlos Beltran noticed that when Dodgers starter Yu Darvish re-gripped the ball while bringing it to his glove, he gave away whether he was about to throw a fastball or a breaking pitch. Darvish faced the Astros twice in the Series, throwing a total of 48 sliders and cutters, against which Houston batted .556. He didn’t make it out of the second inning either time, giving up five runs over 1.2 innings in the deciding Game 7. [Since this was first published, we have learned that some other stuff happened that was detrimental to Darvish’s performance in the 2017 World Series.]

The Baseball Codes explored the history about the phenomenon. One particularly potent passage, which was edited out of the final copy, lends further detail to the phenomenon:

Although Hall of Fame spitball pitcher Burleigh Grimes shielded the ball with his glove to keep hitters from knowing whether or not he was preparing for a spitter, members of the Phillies realized that his hat brim—visible above the top of his glove—would rise when he opened his mouth to spit, then laid off the ensuing pitches. It worked beautifully, at least until the pitcher wised up and got a bigger cap.

Picking up tells can be a veritable art form, with master practitioners noticing things about a player that escape even the most astute observer. Bob Turley, for example, in addition to being a great sign thief, could also pick up tells better than almost anybody in the game.

“When (Connie Johnson) starts his windup, he’ll move his foot to the other end of the rubber if he’s going to throw his screwball,” he once told Mickey Mantle, as reported in Baseball Digest. “Billy Pierce always wore a long, heavy sweatshirt, no matter how hot it was. When he went into his glove to grip a fastball, you would see the back of his wrist. When he was going to throw a curve, he would get deeper in there and you would not see his wrist. Early Wynn, when he pitched from the stretch, where were his hands before he threw? If he was going to throw a knuckleball, they were at his belt. For a fastball, he’d come up under his chin. Slider, around his nose. Curve, up at his forehead. Jim Bunning altered his windup a little depending on what he was going to throw.”

As for Glasnow, he himself admitted that “it was pretty obvious, as far as the tips go.” That was more than the Astros would say, possibly out of professional courtesy, and possibly out of the understanding that the less they give away, the more likely that they’ll be able to continue taking advantage again next season.

Glasnow seemed to correct course, maybe as soon as mid-inning. He struck out Correa and Josh Reddick to end the first, then set down the next five straight hitters before being removed in the third.

By then, of course, it was far too late. The Astros won, 6-1, to secure their spot against the Yankees in the ALCS. They get to figure out if Severino is still tipping, while Glasnow has the winter to work this particular kink out of his delivery.

***

Luis Severino Struggles in ALDS; Yankees Wonder If Pitch Tipping Was To Blame
Oct. 12, 2018

They’re saying now that Luis Severino’s dismal start against the Red Sox in Game 3 of the ALCS—you know, the one that Boston ended up winning, 16-1—may have been compromised by tipped pitches.

According to Fancred’s John Heyman, various Yankees heard “chatter” about it from folks around the Red Sox. (Important to note that Heyman used the word “people,” not “players.”) The possibility was noted on the Red Sox broadcast by Lou Merloni, and Jackie Bradley Jr. was caught on camera, in the dugout, calling for a fastball moments before Severino delivered one.

The idea is that Severino did something in his pre-pitch setup, or even during the course of his delivery, that gave Red Sox hitters advance notice of what he was about to throw. If this is true, it gave the Red Sox a huge advantage, allowing them to lay off as Severino’s devastating slider sailed outside the strike zone.

On one hand, this is supported by fact: According to CBS Sports, Boston hitters offered at only six of the pitcher’s 15 sliders on the day, a 40-percent rate that’s lower than the 47.2-percent rate he posted during the regular season. On the other hand, if one Red Sox hitter had swung just once more at any one of those pitches, the offer rate against him would have been effectively the same as it had all season.

Still, Severino virtually abandoned the pitch toward the end of his outing, throwing only two sliders across the final nine hitters he faced. That left him with only a fastball and a changeup, and as we’ve long since learned, fastball pitchers—no matter how potent the fastball—have a difficult time surviving in the big leagues without a potent breaking pitch to accompany it.

Whether the right-hander was actually tipping is up for debate. Severino’s splendid first half of the season—a 2.10 ERA with 132 strikeouts against only 26 walks, and six homers allowed with a 15-2 record over 17 starts in the season’s first three months—contrasts starkly with his final three months: 5.20 ERA, 88 whiffs and 20 walks, 13 homers over 15 starts, a 9-6 record.

But here’s the thing: Hitters were waving at his slider at almost exactly the same rate all season. By this metric, anyway, Severino’s late-season failures had nothing to do with him fooling them less. The fact that he lost nearly a mile-per-hour off his fastball between his June peak and October might have more to do with it, or that his slider’s movement across the strike zone steadily decreased as the season wore on.

The Yankees, of course, aren’t talking. Neither are the Red Sox. Trade secrets like this are valuable commodities, after all. One thing to be certain of is that if Severino was tipping, the Yankees will be all over it this off-season, and come spring training the righty will have something to work on in addition to his regular regimen.

***

Hard-Lesson on Tipping Pitches From the Cactus League: Tip Your Waitstaff, Not Your Pitches
March 24, 2016

John Danks wasn’t much good for the White Sox last year … or in 2014 … or in 2013, for that matter. His new catcher thinks he knows why.

Early in spring training, Dioner Navarro told the lefthander that he’d been holding his glove in different positions during his delivery, depending upon whether he was throwing a fastball or a breaking ball, according to a report from CBS Chicago. Hitters noticed. “We fixed it,” Danks said, “and it has not been an issue since.”

Prior to this season, when Navarro was a member of the Rays, Cubs and Blue Jays, he was 11-for-26 against Danks, including three home runs. Seems like he’s noticed something in the southpaw’s delivery for a while.

Pitch-tipping, of course, is a fairly common occurrence. Should a player notice a hitch in a pitcher’s delivery, word quickly spreads around the league. Navarro was hardly the only hitter to benefit from Danks’ mistakes.

Should Danks continues to improve, it’ll be nothing but good for the White Sox and his career. He’ll always have to ask himself, however, why nobody said anything to him sooner.

***

Big Tipper: Rays Worry About Matt Moore Tipping Pitches & Giving Away Too Much Information
April 20, 2012

In Tampa, hopes are high for pitcher Matt Moore. The 22-year-old is one of the top prospects in all of baseball, and a rotation anchor—they hope—for years to come.

Which is why, when things started to go wrong for him early this season—especially after Sunday’s 6-4 loss to Boston, in which Moore gave up six runs and eight hits in 6.1 innings—alarm bells started to ring. Even as that game unfolded, team brass tried to figure out what was happening.

Their first thought: Tipping. As in, Moore was telegraphing the type of pitch he was about to throw, just before he threw it. From the Tampa Bay Times:

In acknowledging how “locked-in” [the Red Sox] were, Rays manager Joe Maddon mentioned, open-endedly, that “it’s like they know what’s coming almost.” He noted how “they’re on everything right now,” no matter what type of pitch it was, and how they were “spitting on”—taking—certain borderline pitches.

What raised the specific pitch-tipping concerns about Moore were the aggressive swings the Red Sox were taking, particularly unexpected given their limited previous exposure to him. By the fifth inning, pitching coach Jim Hickey was meeting with Moore and catcher Chris Gimenez to try to figure things out. Gimenez said they thought that Moore might be “tapping his glove on his fastball.”

To guard against the possibility that it was something else, like Boston hitters peeking at signs, Gimenez began setting up as late as possible, just before Moore was ready to pitch.

Boston’s concerns were assuaged after reviewing video of the game, which showed that the hammered pitches were all out over the plate—hittable because they were bad, not tipped. Moore seemed all too relieved to eliminate tipping as a cause of his woes.

“Maybe [I tipped some pitches] years ago when I was in rookie ball or something like that,” he said in the Times. “But not as far as I can remember.”

The thing is, such frailties can manifest even in veteran pitchers with no such history. In the last couple of seasons alone, we’ve seen similar issues with Tim Lincecum (who quickly corrected things), Johan Santana and Ben Sheets

From The Baseball Codes:

Tells can be as simple as a pitcher keeping his glove snapped tight when throwing a fastball but flaring it out for a breaking ball, or coming set with his glove at his belt for one type of pitch but at his chest for another. Matt Morris, for example, was lit up by the Braves during his rookie season in St. Louis after they noticed that the exposed index finger on his glove hand pointed upward whenever he threw a fastball, but lay flat for curves. Once he pinpointed the trouble, Morris quickly fixed it by attaching a flap to his glove that covered the finger.

Examples like this litter the game’s history. When Babe Ruth first came to the American League as a pitcher with the Red Sox, he curled his tongue in the corner of his mouth whenever he threw a curveball—a habit he was forced to break once enough hitters became aware of it. Kansas City’s Mark Gubicza was cured of his tendency to stick out his tongue when throwing a breaking ball under similar circumstances. Ty Cobb reg­ularly stole bases against Cy Young, abetted, said the outfielder, by the fact that Young’s arms drifted away from his body when he came set before throwing to first; when he was preparing to pitch, he pulled his arms in.

Pitcher Todd Jones dished similar dirt on several competitors in an article he wrote for Sporting News in 2004: “When Andy Benes pitched, he always would grind his teeth when throwing a slider. In Hideo Nomo’s first stint inL.A., he’d grip his split-finger fastball differently than his fastball. Randy Johnson would angle his glove differently on his slider than on his fastball. I’ve been guilty of looking at the third-base coach as I come set when gripping my curveball. When hitters see this, word gets around the league. In fact, my old teammate Larry Walker was the one who told me what I was doing. He said he could call my pitches from the outfield.”

We’ll see tonight if all this deliberation has made a difference, when Moore makes his first start since Boston, against the Twins.

***

Are Johan Santana’s Struggles Due to Tipped Pitches? It’s a Moot Point, Now
July 8, 2010

It seems so obvious for pitchers: Don’t telegraph what type of pitch you’re about to throw, or hitters will jump all over it. (Matt Morris, for example, once had the habit of pointing the exposed index finger on his glove hand straight up when delivering fastballs, which allowed the opposition to pounce . . . until he affixed a flap to cover the finger.)

This week, another tale of a tell has surfaced, this time with Johan Santana. According to Bob Klapich in the Bergen Record, the Mets’ ace was unknowingly tipping his devastating changeup, which cost him dearly against the Twins, who elicited 41 first-inning pitches while swinging and missing at exactly one pitch. They scored five runs in six innings against him.

Writes Klapich: “Turns out the giveaway was the action of Santana’s glove as he began his windup: the fingers would flare as Santana dug into the leather to grip the change, which required him to make an A-OK configuration with his hand. The glove, however, remained still as Santana prepared to throw the fastball.”

Once they caught on, the Mets instructed Santana to lower his glove to belt level, which better hid his pre-pitch mechanics.

The results: In Santana’s most recent start he threw a complete-game, three-hit shutout against the powerful Reds, and has given up only one run given up over his last 16 innings.

Pitchers don’t generally like to talk about (or admit to) any tells they might suffer, but even though Santana’s silence, it’s incredible how much difference one small adjustment can make.

***

Pitch Tipping, Real or Imagined, No Longer Plaguing Sheets
June 9, 2010

In the current issue of ESPN the Magazine, Buster Olney has a terrific column about tipping pitches—the mannerisms a pitcher unknowingly exhibits that show the hitter exactly what type of pitch is about to be delivered.

For example, explains Olney, a splayed glove on a right-handed pitcher can be a giveaway for a changeup, because a pitcher usually has to dig his hand into the glove to get a proper grip on the ball. Similarly, some pitchers come set with their glove farther away from their bodies when preparing to throw a curve, to better articulate the proper wrist angle.

The problem with Olney’s article is that it’s centered on A’s pitcher Ben Sheets, who at the end of a strong April encountered consecutive rocky starts—eight earned runs in four innings against Tampa Bay on April 27, and nine earned runs in three-and-a-third against Toronto on May 2.

Speculation at the time said that Sheets was tipping his pitches, something Olney corroborates both circumstantially—Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston is a master at pitch-tip recognition—and actually—unnamed members of the “Oakland staff” determined via video that Sheets was tipping his curve by holding it differently than his fastball.

All of which sounds great, and might be true. Only Olney didn’t talk to Sheets (or if he did, he didn’t reference the conversation in his story).

When the rumors surfaced a few weeks ago, I asked Sheets if there was anything to them. He insisted that his pitching problems had far more to do with faulty mechanics than with any sort of tipping problem.

“I wish I could blame it on something that easy, but I don’t believe that was the reason I got hammered in two starts, by any means,” he said. “What I corrected wasn’t that. That was the big theory, but I made some mechanical adjustments that I think helped me get more outs than worrying whether I was tipping or not.” (He declined to provide specifics for his issues, or the adjustments he made.)

This could be a smokescreen, except for the fact that there’s not much need for one. By the time I spoke to Sheets, the problem—be it mechanical or tipping—had already been corrected, and the right-hander didn’t have much (if anything) to lose by copping to tipping, were that the case. (He faced Tampa Bay again on May 8, and held them to four hits over six-and-a-third innings.)

“Trust me, there was a lot more than tipping going on with my stuff,” he said. “It was just not good pitching. I wasn’t throwing the ball well. It had nothing to do with the hitter—it had to do with making a good pitch.”

Interestingly, Sheets did admit to having suffered from tipping problems in the past, although he wouldn’t specifically identify his tells, or when they happened.

Either way, he’s recovered at least part of his mojo. Since his disastrous outing on May 2, he’s thrown at least six innings in each of his seven starts, with a 3.56 ERA. During that time he’s lowered his overall ERA from 7.12 to 4.96.

Pitchers across the league suffer from any variety of tells, but this facet of the game is infrequently brought to the public’s attention. Sheets’ problem appears to have been fixed; all that’s left is to enjoy the discussion.

***

Will Tipping Pitches Continue to be a Problem for Pitchers in the MLB?

Until baseball transitions to robotic pitchers, pitch tipping will continue to exist. In one sense, it might be more of a problem than ever; as intensive video review becomes the norm, details about pitchers habits and mannerisms will drift ever closer to common knowledge. Then again, as baseball shifts toward rosters filled with fireballing relievers, tipping pitches might becomes less relevant. After all, it doesn’t take a detective to know when a fastball is coming, if that’s pretty much all a guy throws.

If you want to learn more about baseball’s unwritten rules, check out my book, The Baseball Codes. It’s available on audiobook, Kindle and paperback from your favorite bookseller. Grab a copy, and check out my other baseball titles, by clicking below. Thanks for reading!

– Jason

jason turbow books

The Baseball Codes

RIP Hank Aaron

“The best thing I could have done is play with Hank Aaron, and be with Hank every day.”
—Dusty Baker

The first person I thought of when I heard that Hank Aaron died was Dusty Baker. I never met Aaron, but I’ve spent significant time around Dusty, and it was obvious from the beginning how much reverence Baker holds for the man.

Here’s the thing about that. Dusty is among the most charismatic figures I’ve ever interviewed, a man who commands the attention of a room simply by being in it. He would drop life lessons as a matter of course during his pregame press conferences while managing the Giants. I found myself in a constant state of wonder around him.

So to see a man like that in such obvious awe of somebody else—even a peer, which is what Aaron was to Baker, in addition to being a mentor—speaks volumes about the nature of Hank Aaron’s character. The sheer number of times that Dusty refers to lessons that Aaron taught him can be overwhelming.

Going through interviews I did with Baker for They Bled Blue and The Baseball Codes, a pattern quickly emerges:

  • “Hank Aaron always used to tell me to go out in the elements get used to them …”
  • “Hank told us no matter what you do, stay together …”
  • “Hank told me don’t bunt on Drysdale, don’t showboat, don’t dig in against him …” 
  • “Hank taught us not to clown or showboat …”
  • “Hank told me and Ralph Garr to work out during the strike …”
  • “Hank taught us to walk behind the umpire on your way to the plate …”
  • “Hank used to tell me Don Newcombe didn’t like you hitting the ball up the middle on him …” 
  • “Hank would to tell us all the time to keep the umpire in the equation.  If he was a shorter umpire, he was gonna be a low-ball umpire.  A taller guy would be a high-strike umpire …”
  • “I came from the Hank Aaron school, where you just run around the bases …”

See a pattern?

I’ve long harbored a deep admiration of Aaron, aided Baker’s unyielding appreciation. Baseball lost one of its brightest lights, now or ever, today.

I’ll close with something Dusty told me one spring training many years ago:

“I say ‘Hank Aaron taught me this,’ or ‘Hank Aaron taught me that,’ because it’s not right for me to say I thought something up when I didn’t.  People are always saying, ‘Dusty, what do you know on your own? You’re always using other people’s names.’  Well, I can’t act like the genius expert who invented all this stuff.  There’s not a whole lot of new knowledge—there’s just a lot of old stuff that people are trying to make new.”

Aaron had the good stuff, and Dusty knew it. He’s spent a lot of years making sure that we know it, too.

Rest in peace, Hammer.

The Baseball Codes

RIP Don Sutton

Don Sutton, who passed away yesterday at age 75, has a unique place in each of my three books. In Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic, he faced the A’s as a member of the Dodgers. In They Bled Blue, he faced the Dodgers as a member of the Astros. And in The Baseball Codes, he appeared as a ball scuffer par excellence.

Sutton spent 16 of his 23 big league seasons with the Dodgers—his first 15 and his last one—and his time in LA came not only to define him as a pitcher, but to materially influence the players he left upon his departure, who would win the World Series the following season.

LA is where Sutton enjoyed the six-year stretch from 1972 to 1977 that opened the doors to the Hall of Fame to him. During those seasons, the right-hander made his only four All-Star teams and posted five top-5 Cy Young finishes (one third, one fourth and three fifths).

“If I had to pitch one guy in a game seven, it would be Don Sutton,” Tommy Lasorda wrote in his autobiography, I Live for This. “I loved him. But sometimes I was one of the only ones.”

Sure enough, Sutton was not known for cozy relationships with his teammates, a detail noteworthy in his 1978 clubhouse fistfight with Steve Garvey. He frequently extend a similar mindframe to his manager. Sutton was the rare star on those late-1970s Dodgers to not have played for Lasorda in the minor leagues, a detail that helps explain why the two were frequently at odds. After 11 years playing for the staid Walter Alston in Los Angeles, Sutton bristled when Lasorda was installed.

“With Walt, there wasn’t a whole lot of rah-rah,” the pitcher explained to the Los Angeles Times in 1981. “I wasn’t mentally equipped to make the adjustment.” (Sutton once told a reporter who was furiously scribbling to keep up with one of Lasorda’s Great Dodger in the Sky monologues: “You know what you can do with those notes you’re making? Shred ’em and put ’em around your shrubbery at home and watch it grow.”)

From They Bled Blue:

When the Astros snatched Sutton up [in December 1980] with a four-year, $3.1 million offer, it was impossible for Lasorda not to take it personally. The right-hander had been an Alston man, publicly lobbying for coach Jeff Torborg to replace the storied manager in 1976, even when Lasorda was all but a lock for the position. “I just don’t believe that I could play for a manager who’s a headline grabber, who isn’t honest,” Sutton said at the time, later refusing to become “one of [Lasorda’s] bobos.” Things grew so heated that Lasorda challenged Sutton to settle their differences with fists. The pitcher declined. Their differences remained.

Sure enough, Sutton never garnered a single Cy Young vote in four years under Lasorda during his prime, though the two reached enough of a détente for Sutton to return to LA for his final season, in 1988.

More than that—during that—was a fascinating aspect of Sutton’s success: an ability to scuff baseballs that lent his pitches the type of movement that few of his peers possessed. He was said to adhere a piece of sandpaper on a finger of his glove hand, which he would use to mar the ball to wondrous effect.

No less than Nolan Ryan confirmed as much after hitting a home run off of Sutton during the first week of the 1980 season. It was the first of Ryan’s career, and he managed to get the ball returned to him … at which point, he said later, “that thing was all scuffed up.”

When Sutton joined the Astros, a chorus of opinions held that Lasorda, who knew all of his secrets, would have him all but undressed on the mound. Sutton’s pitch-perfect response was to question the source. What else would Lasorda say he wondered in the Los Angeles Times: “Those other years I lied?” (Lasorda never did have him checked.)

From They Bled Blue:

During the 1981 season, Sutton agreed to secretly film an instructional video for NBC-TV about how to cheat in baseball, wearing a ski mask to protect his identity, with the film reversed to make him look like a southpaw. (He ended up scrapping the project when a newspaper reporter and photographer showed up at the shoot.) “I keep telling you guys, I don’t use sandpaper,” he informed reporters before the season opener in Los Angeles. “Sandpaper gets wet and crumbles. [I use a] sanding wheel. I already checked to see if there was an outlet there on the mound, but they removed it.” Once, when an umpire searched Sutton for abrasive surfaces, he instead found a note reading, “It’s not here, but you’re getting warm.”

I recounted my favorite story about Sutton’s scuffing in The Baseball Codes. It involves a game from 1987, in which Sutton, by that point pitching for the Angels, was carving up the Yankees:

George Steinbrenner was watching the game on television, and was shocked when the camera zoomed in to show close-ups of what appeared to be a small patch, or even a bandage, on the palm of Sutton’s left hand. The WPIX broadcasters brought it up whenever the pitcher appeared to grind the ball into his palm between pitches. It was, they said, probably why Sutton’s pitches possessed such extraordinary movement that day. He was in all likelihood scuffing the baseball.

Outraged, Steinbrenner called the visitors’ dugout at Anaheim Sta­dium and lit into Yankees manager Lou Piniella. Was he aware, asked the owner, that Sutton was cheating? “Our television announcers are aware of it,” yelled Steinbrenner. “I’m sure the Angels are aware of it. You’re prob­ably the only guy there who doesn’t know it. Now, I want you to go out there and make the umpires check Don Sutton!”

“George,” Piniella responded, “do you know who taught him how to cheat?”

Steinbrenner confessed that, in fact, he did not.

“The guy who taught Don Sutton everything he knows about cheating is the guy pitch­ing for us tonight,” Piniella said. “Do you want me to go out there and get Tommy John thrown out, too?”

Don Sutton pitched 23 seasons and won 324 games while striking out 3,574 batters, seventh all-time. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1998. He passed away less than two weeks after his former manager, Lasorda, in much less expected fashion, another Hall of Famer felled in a string that has seen too many pass too soon.