Ben Sheets, Pitch Tipping

Pitch Tipping, Real or Imagined, No Longer Plaguing Sheets

In the current issue of ESPN the Magazine, Buster Olney has a terrific column about pitch tipping, or 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.

Other tells have nothing to do with preparation. From The Baseball Codes:

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 in L.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.”

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.

– Jason

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