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.
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.
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.
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.
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!