Nationals Arm Race

"… the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same – pitching.” — Earl Weaver

How do Pitchers “tip” their pitches to opposing hitters?

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Zack Wheeler's mechanics are apparently a mess right now.  Photo cnnsi.com

Zack Wheeler’s mechanics are apparently a mess right now. Photo cnnsi.com

I’ve taken an interest in Mets rookie right hander Zack Wheeler since his call-up.  I nabbed him for my fantasy team and have watched his starts when I could.   His name has been in the news for quite a while, ever since he was traded by the Giants for a 2-month rental of Carlos Beltran (a trade that had Giants prospect-watching fans howling).  Moreso because of Wheeler’s pedigree; 100mph heat, #1 starter ceiling.  There’s nothing more exciting than seeing a prospect for the first time, even if he could be the bane of your team’s existance for the next 10 years.

His first few starts have been up and down; now we may know why: reports are coming out of the Mets camp that say that Wheeler’s been tipping his pitches.  Of course, it apparently wasn’t an issue when he threw 6 shutout innings in his debut, but its still something worth looking into.  The team plans on working with Wheeler in the bullpen to make some adjustments (he apparently is doing several things wrong right now; see below for all the different ways he’s tipping).  However, apparently not enough was fixed prior to his last start against the Nationals, who teed off on him as if they knew what was coming.  And you know what?  They probably did.

But this got me wondering: how exactly to pitchers “tip” their pitches?  I’ve played an awful long time and have always been a “feel” hitter at the plate; I look fastball, adjust to the curve, never really give much thought to trying to think along with the pitcher, and generally “feel” my way through at-bats.  I’ve never in my life specifically looked for or noticed a pitcher tipping his pitches or tried to take advantage of it; frankly when a guy’s fastball is only in the upper 70s or low 80s as it generally is in amateur leagues, you don’t really need to get that kind of advantage.

After doing a bit of research, here’s what I’ve found.  Pitchers can “tip” their pitches a number of different ways.

  1. Differing Arm Angles for different pitches.  This (according to the above link) is one current Wheeler issue.  I have seen this personally; usually a curveball comes in at a slightly lower arm angle if the pitcher wants to get more side-to-side action.  Pitch F/X data tracks release points and this type of tip can be worked on.
  2. Differing Arm Action: A common tip is when a pitcher specificically slows their arm when an off-speed pitch comes, especially a change-up.  This is an amateur tip though; professionals throwing change-ups hone their craft to be as deceptive as possible.
  3. Glove Positioning: another apparent Wheeler issue; he was holding his glove in different spots (as pointed out by this fangraphs.com link and as noticed in the video in this article here) depending on the pitch.  This has to be something done unconsciously; there’s no reason to hold your glove in different spots or to hold your body in different positions based on the pitch you’re going to throw.   Others have noted that pitchers will have different “glove widths” depending on the grip; a “12-6″ grip (like on a fastball) allows the glove to be slightly more closed than a “3-9″ grip, like you’d have on a curve ball.  Another glove tip-off may be the way the glove is held in the set position; some pitchers have a tendency to hold the glove more straight up and down when throwing fastballs.
  4. Differing Motion Mechanics: I’ve often wondered if our own Drew Storen, who uses two different leg kicks, has any sort of telegraphing of his pitch selection by virtue of this mechanical difference.  Andy Pettitte unconsiously was once found to bring his arms together in slightly different ways from the stretch depending on the pitch he was to throw.  Dennis Eckersley admitted (after he retired of course) that he went through a tipping period where batters could tell he was throwing off-speed stuff because he unconsiously was “tapping” his leg with his hand.
  5. Differing Motion Speeds: do you speed up  your motion for one pitch but not another?  Apparently Wheeler may be doing it now.  Conventional wisdom states that a pitcher will take a nice leisurly motion for a fastball to gain natural physical momentum but may forget that momentum when he’s throwing a curve.
  6. Pitch Gripping in the Glove: If a pitcher throws an unconventional pitch that takes a moment to get a grip on, a batter can pickup on different timings or different mannerisms and get a read on the pitch.  I’ve noticed this with pitchers who throw specifically the split-fingered fastball, one of the more difficult pitches to properly grip.  I once watched a guy on the hill who would pre-jam the ball in-between his fingers as he took the sign; it became pretty easy to know what was coming because if he did NOT fiddle with his glove you knew it was a splitter.  Some pitchers have to look down at their grip to get it right after accepting the call; can you glean anything from this fiddling in the glove?
  7. Pitch Grip VisibilityMike Mussina found out from a teammate (Jorge Posada) during spring training one year that his unique change-up grip telegraphed the pitch to opposing hitters.  Posada watched him pitch and called out every pitch in what must have been a rather disheartening bullpen session.  He made a slight adjustment with his finger positioning and eliminated the tell.  This problem is somewhat related to a pitcher’s overall ability to “hide the ball” during his wind-up; if you’re an over-the-top thrower and you throw a pitch that shows a lot of the ball … batters can see it.  Knuckleballers especially are plagued by this, but they don’t much care since everyone knows what pitch is coming anyway.
  8. Poker-face tells: sometimes pitchers just flat out have a Poker table-esque tell that they unconsiously perform on certain pitchers.  They’ll grimace, or puff up cheeks, or stick out their tongue on some pitches but not others.

The best way to find out about any of these tells is to have a former rival hitter get traded to your team.  But even then sometimes players can be secretive.  So video tape work is key, as is 3rd party eyes looking for predictive tells in your body language and motion.

 

Written by Todd Boss

July 2nd, 2013 at 1:31 pm

7 Responses to 'How do Pitchers “tip” their pitches to opposing hitters?'

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  1. On the flip side, weren’t we told at the beginning of last season that the Nats had discovered a flaw in Edwin Jackson’s delivery causing him to tip his pitches and that from now on he was FINALLY going to live up to natural talent as a pitcher? How’d that work out?

    It sounds to me like the Mets are making excuses for having called Wheeler up too early when he isn’t quite ready. Wheeler himself showed an appalling lack of maturity earlier this year when he whined about having to pitch in the thin air in Las Vegas.

    Maybe he’s tipping his pitches, maybe he isn’t. Seems to me that if he truly has “unhittable” stuff it shouldn’t matter much. If I were a Mets fan, I’d be more worried about whether Wheeler has that proverbial “10 cent head” that prevents him from ever becoming a great or even good pitcher.

    bdrube

    2 Jul 13 at 2:59 pm

  2. Jackson’s flaw was related to his windup/stretch splits. A quick glance at his 2012 splits shows this: With nobody on base he held batters to this slash line: .220/.278/.403. Once runners were on base? .280/.331/.451. Compare those splits to his 2011 lines: .339/.390/.478 with nobody on base and then .239/.292/.373. So to me it looks like the Nats DID fix whatever flaw they found in his mechanics related to his really poor stats when pitching from the windup. What’s surprising is how little this ended up helping him at a macro level; his ERA+ was lower in 2012 than it was in 2011 despite his WHIP being two tenth’s of a point lower.

    On Wheeler, here’s a scathing article I found on twitter related to the Mets not catching this earlier. And you cannot disagree; if it was that blatantly obvious that he’s tipping pitchers, and still is apparently, you really have to question what the player development staff is doing in New York.

    I’ll completely disagree with you on your statement that “it doesn’t matter” if he’s tipping. Unless a guy is throwing stuff with so much movement that he doesn’t even need to hide what he’s throwing, then MLB hitters are going to destroy a guy if they know what’s coming.

    As for him “complaining” about pitching in Las vegas, well, i guess its all dependent on your bias towards the guy in the first place. I read this story as a player explaining some of the challenges about pitching in a place like Las Vegas. Other rabble rousers on the internet then title the article “Wheeler whining about pitching in the PCL.” Its a wonder anyone talks to anyone in the media sometimes, knowing how their words are going to get spun to support whatever bias the blogger-looking-for-a-reaction is looking to support. It reminds me of the whole “Bryce Harper is immature” narrative …

    A related story: i once read how R.A. Dickey won’t pitch in Colorado (indeed; he’s never thrown a game at Coors field). Why? Because there’s less air, therefore less movement on his knuckler, therefore would get pummled there. He’s open and honest about it. Is this Dickey “whining” about pitching in Colorado or intelligently explaining why he struggles there? Because Colorado and Las Vegas share a lot of the same issues for pitchers, all highlighted in the above link.

    Todd Boss

    2 Jul 13 at 3:29 pm

  3. I actually saw that article you linked not long after reading your post. Okay, it sounds like the Mets have really dropped the ball on player development here–which is completely unforgivable with a prime asset like Wheeler and why I was so skeptical initially.

    I also understand your point about unfair media narratives, but Dickey has the stature of being an established major leaguer going for him, plus as a knuckleballer and not a fireballer he is more subject to having thin air affect his pitches than anyone. Half of all AAA pitchers have to endure the PCL and its notorious hitter-advantage climate. Wheeler should have been mature enough to recognize that and not say anything all publicly.

    bdrube

    2 Jul 13 at 4:35 pm

  4. As far as Wheeler tipping his pitches, F.P. mentioned it at the top of the broadcast that he was throwing from a different arm slot for breaking balls in his 2nd start and the Cardinals (I think that is who it was against) picked up on it and hammered him. I couldn’t tell much but I also wasn’t playing incredibly close attention.

    A side not. I just saw where Giolito is starting tomorrow in the GCL. That was even faster than I was guessing. We are 2 for 2 here with your Purke article and his promotion and our speculation about Giolito lol.

    PDowdy

    2 Jul 13 at 4:46 pm

  5. What’s really odd is this: the Mets manager openly discussed his tipping with the media, giving the excuse, “its so blatant that everyone knows it.” He said he received 10 texts from scouts and his staff during his first home start.

    … and then they didn’t fix any of the issues before his start against Washington?? The video in one of those links was in the Washington game and it showed his glove positioning still being different. Can you say, “Duh?”

    Todd Boss

    3 Jul 13 at 8:58 am

  6. Giolito: yeah very excited to see him back on the field. Fast turnaround from his TJ surgery; At least he gets two full months of rotational turns to start building up some arm strength. Maybe by the end of the GCL season he’ll be at full starter/100 pitch stints….

    Todd Boss

    3 Jul 13 at 8:59 am

  7. Todd Boss

    4 Jul 13 at 3:17 pm

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