Professional baseball has been in existence for 150 years, and for just about as long, batters have been finding ways to get an advantage at the plate. After all, one of the most difficult things in sports is to hit a fast-moving, relatively small, round ball.
Sometimes a batter can tell what pitch is coming because pitchers will accidentally tip their pitches.
What Does it Mean to Tip Your Pitches in Baseball?
A pitcher is said to have “tipped his pitches” when he unknowingly has a slight difference in the way he delivers a certain pitch, which gives cues to the keen coach, manager or batter on the type of pitch being thrown. Since batters know what pitch is coming, it gives them an advantage. The only thing is that a batter still will not know where the pitch is being thrown, and against a great pitcher, simply knowing what is coming isn’t enough to hit the ball squarely.
Almost every pitcher who plays baseball beyond the youth level has at least two pitches unless they can simply overpower hitters with a fastball, but this kind of pitcher is a rare breed. Even all-time strikeout king Nolan Ryan had a curveball to go along with his blazing fastball. Randy Johnson had a slider to go along with his heater.
Baseball is not a fast-paced game, so there are many subtle actions that go on that many casual viewers don’t pick up on. A pitcher that throws two, three, four, or even five pitches always have the hitters guessing what is coming, but tipping pitches removes the guesswork.
Players and coaches at the professional level will always be on the lookout for subtle changes in the opposing pitcher’s delivery. There is nothing in the rulebook preventing hitters from figuring out tipped pitches.
This is entirely the pitcher’s fault, who will then have to compensate and fix the slight mannerism change, so his pitches are no longer being tipped.
What are the Most Common Ways Pitchers Tip Pitches?
Different arm motions and different grips are needed to throw different pitches; therefore, pitchers could have different mannerisms before each pitch.
These are generally just habits from repeatedly throwing the pitch thousands of times in a way that makes the pitch most unhittable.
For example, suppose an opposing pitcher held his arm a certain way before throwing a fastball but altered his arm position so that his elbow points slightly outward when throwing a breaking ball. That is something that can be picked up relatively quickly to the observant eye.
Other ways that pitchers tip pitches are by using a different hand position, glove position, or arm position before delivering the pitch. In fact, there could be upwards of 20 different ways the pitches can be tipped.
Wiggling the glove, changes in head position and change in arm slot are more common ways that pitchers tip pitches.
Without a doubt, one of the most difficult things about successful pitching is to repeat the delivery the same way each time. Any slight difference could tip-off that a different type of pitch is being thrown.
Pitch tipping is not noticeable to the majority of people, and it is not something often brought up in conversation, so you may think that pitch tipping is uncommon at the Major League level, which really isn’t the case.
Notable Pitch Tipping Incidents in MLB
Andy Petitte, who won 256 Major League games in 18 seasons with the New York Yankees, was far from stellar in Game 6 of the 2001 World Series. He allowed six runs in two innings against the Arizona Diamondbacks, who noticed Petitte was coming set in different manners before delivering certain pitches.
During the 2017 World Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Houston Astros, Yu Darvish of the Dodgers started twice and got hammered both times, getting knocked out in less than three innings in each start. To put it into perspective, Darvish had a solid regular season ERA of 3.86 with 209 strikeouts in 186 1/3 innings. In game seven, which the Astros won, Darvish allowed five earned runs over the first two innings. It was later indicated that several members of the Astros knew that Darvish was tipping his pitches. However, later it was revealed that there was much more to the Astros beating of Darvish than tipping pitches. More will be said on that later.
During the second game of the 2019 NLCS, Pedro Baez of the Los Angeles Dodgers was tipping pitches against the Washington Nationals. At one point in the game, tv cameras saw Trea Turner in the Nationals’ dugout showing teammates how Baez was holding his hand lower in the glove before throwing a fastball than when he threw a slider.
How Often do MLB Pitchers Tip Pitches?
One may think that the best pitchers in the world would be extra careful not to tip their pitches, but it happens more often than most would expect. Former 14-year MLB player and coach Eduardo Perez is an expert at noticing pitch-tipping. In fact, the noted several times over the year that Hall of Famer Randy Johnson, Yu Darvish, and many others tipped his pitches.
In fact, Perez estimated that nearly half of right-handed pitchers and nearly all left-handed pitchers tip in some way.
Why would there be a huge difference in pitch tipping by throwing hand? Perez thinks it’s because left-handers, in general, rely more on deception, using off-speed pitches such as change-ups.
The grips on a change-up and a splitter, for instance, are pretty different from that of a fastball. It can be very effective to pitch against power-hitting right-handed hitters who typically thrive against left-handed pitchers.
Does Pitch Tipping Make a Difference?
The answer to this question varies from pitcher to pitcher. For some pitchers that might not have dominating pitches, it could negatively impact their performance.
Pitchers that are perennial All-Stars and Hall of Famer caliber pitchers could perhaps name the pitch and location, and the hitters would still have difficulty making solid contact.
As Perez noted, Randy Johnson often tipped off his slider, but did it matter? For the most part, nope. He won 303 games and was second only to Nolan Ryan in career strikeouts. Perez, however, had some success with four career home runs off Johnson.
It really all boils down to how well a pitcher executes his pitches. Sometimes when a pitcher gets hit around, particularly a star, there is suspicion that the pitches have been tipped. This isn’t necessarily the case. After all, even top stars have bad days, and the players at the plate get paid to perform well also.
Tipping Pitches Versus Stealing Signs
While being keenly observant the picking up on tipped pitches is helpful in obtaining an offensive edge, there is another way to get one up on the pitcher. The other major way is to steal signs.
Certainly, stealing signs and pitch-tipping are related, but there is a difference.
Stealing signs is, in some forms, illegal, whereas there is nothing illegal about figuring out how a pitcher is tipping his pitches.
As mentioned earlier, the Astros said they figured out how Darvish was tipping his pitches in the 2017 World Series, and Darvish himself was quoted saying that he believed he was tipping them.
But it came out in November 2019 that the Astros were stealing signs during the 2017 and 2018 World Series. They used center field cameras to relay the signs to the dugout, where they were relayed to the batter by beating on trash cans.
MLB absolutely forbids the use of binoculars, cameras, telescopes, buzzers, Apple Watches, and any other foreign object to steal signs. If a baserunner or first or third base coach steals signs with their eyes alone, that is legal.
The Astros were punished by MLB for their sign stealing.
There is no rule in MLB that prevents coaches, players, or any other person from figuring out pitchers tipping pitches. This is because observing a pitcher’s mannerisms really is the same as stealing signs with the naked eye. It’s not being done by any camera or binoculars.
Since it isn’t illegal, noticing when a pitcher is tipping his pitches and taking advantage of it will continue to be a common occurrence throughout baseball.
In the end, what it boils down to is whether or not the batter can take advantage of knowing a pitch is tipped by hitting the ball off the barrel of the bat.