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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- Pitch Grip Visibility: Mike 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.
- 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.