Telling signs can tip scales on mound
Pitcher's quirks weigh into batter's advantage
After a dominating season, Oakland closer Dennis Eckersley struggled in the 1992 ALCS because he was tipping his pitches to Toronto. They knew what I was throwing, he said. (AP/ File)
Retired Toronto manager Cito Gaston was relaxing in his Florida home and watching a ballgame on television when he found himself shouting out Randy Johnson's pitches as the Big Unit was winding up.
Call it force of habit. While leading the Blue Jays to World Series championships in 1992 and 1993, Gaston developed a reputation for being one of the most astute managers in the game at busting pitchers who were tipping their pitches. He happily shared his information with his own players and often received unsolicited information from opponents who, like Gaston, had made a hobby of studying the tendencies of the top hurlers in the game.
``[Barry] Bonds said he had Randy Johnson cold," reported Gaston. ``He told me, `I know what he's throwing every time.' "
Baseball has become a scientific, high-tech, number-crunching endeavor, yet there remains a thread of old-fashioned ingenuity.
Joe Carter and Robbie Alomar, who learned at the feet of Gaston in Toronto, were two of the most adept at benefiting from tipped pitches, as was the late Ken Caminiti. Alex Cora and Doug Mirabelli are the experts among current Red Sox players.
``It's fascinating, really," said Yankees star Alex Rodriguez. ``If you know how to do it, it can be a significant advantage."
When Josh Beckett went through a bad spell earlier in the season, there was speculation that he was tipping his pitches.
``He wasn't tipping," Rodriguez said. ``We were just laying off his other stuff and waiting on the fastball."
Johnson has had an uneven year for the Yankees, and there was talk in April and May that some of his struggles were related to the fact that hitters knew what was coming.
``We had some concerns about that earlier this year," confirmed manager Joe Torre. ``I talked to [Sandy] Koufax about it. He said, `It's not what he's throwing, it's where he's throwing it.' We went back and looked at the film and most of the time he got hurt with bad location."
Do the Red Sox try to determine whether Johnson is tipping his pitches?
``You try to," said manager Terry Francona. ``You know with a guy like him that he essentially has two pitches. He's either coming at 95-96 miles per hour, or he's throwing a slider. You've got to pick one pitch to hit, so if you can determine what's coming, you have a fighting chance."
Francona said he spends more time making sure his own pitchers aren't giving anything away than trying to decipher what the opponent is doing.
Mike Timlin said he discovered he was tipping his pitches when he was in the National League -- but only after the fact.
``Bobby Abreu had my slider," Timlin said. ``He told me I was tipping it after I got traded to the Phillies and became his teammate. But while I was with the Cardinals [2000-01], he had me. I had a pretty good slider in those years, but he always seemed to know to lay off that pitch."
Asked what, specifically, Abreu identified in Timlin's delivery, the veteran reliever answered, ``I'm not telling. Not until I retire."
``I was pitching as well as I ever had," he said. ``I felt great."
But in three appearances against Toronto, Eckersley gave up 8 hits and 2 runs in three innings. The A's were eliminated in six games, and their ace reliever was left shaking his head.
``I was tipping my pitches," Eckersley said. ``They knew what I was throwing. I was tapping with my glove hand, then slowing down to throw my breaking ball.
``I never thought I'd ever go from the stretch with nobody on. What a wuss. But I had to. I was giving my pitches away from my windup.
``They whacked me around pretty good. Alomar ended up taking me deep in that series."
Dave Duncan, Oakland's pitching coach, spent much of spring training the following season trying to break Eckersley of certain tendencies.
``It totally screwed me up," Eckersley said. ``I had to stop tapping, but I needed those damn taps for my rhythm. Without them, I felt so awkward. Also, pitchers tend to stick their fingers out and flare their hand when they throw the breaking ball. So you try to stuff that finger in there, but that can mess you up, too."
According to Gaston, pitchers began sewing little patches or pockets onto their gloves to hide their fingers. Today, you can buy a glove with the flap already sewn in.
``I got pretty good at telling what pitchers were going to throw by the way they held their fingers outside the glove," Gaston said. ``I could pick up the grip for a curveball, because most pitchers held their fingers tighter when they threw it.
``With other guys, it was a matter of rhythm and repetition, or the way they turned their shoulder, or their placement of the glove.
``We got so good at it other teams started clamping down on their pitchers, forcing them to mix it up. When you get inside their heads like that, it can be a tremendous advantage."
Timlin, who was a member of the 1992 championship team, said the Blue Jays knew what Eckersley was going to throw ``on every single pitch."
``Eck had this tendency to break his hands one certain way," Timlin said. ``Once you caught it, it became easy to detect."
``He was tipping," Torre said. ``We knew [Arizona] had picked up on something, but when we looked at our video, we weren't seeing it. We realized later it was because he was tipping in the early part of his windup, and our guys were only filming his delivery. We changed the way we did our video after that."
Carter, who played 16 seasons in the big leagues, once claimed that his ability to identify pitchers who were tipping was worth at least 30 points on his batting average.
``He was so great at it," said Francona. ``If you threw a slider way off the plate, he could still hit it out, because he knew it was coming and he'd make the adjustment."
Francona and Carter were teammates in Cleveland in 1988, a season in which Francona hit .311.
``I was seeing the ball real well that season," Francona recalled. ``So I'm up at the plate, and Joe starts whistling to let me know a slider is coming. It got me all messed up. I think I swung off the wrong foot. I finally said to him, `Hey Joe, just leave me alone.' "
But Francona saw the benefits of the practice when he played with the Cubs in 1986.
``In that case, you are talking about a veteran team that was a little past [its prime], looking for an edge," Francona said. ``Guys like Ron Cey, Jody Davis . . . they were good at it. They knew what to look for. I didn't so much."
Torre said former Braves first baseman Joe Adcock was the best he's ever seen at identifying pitchers who were tipping, but he never shared his information, not even with teammates.
``I guess he was afraid one of them might get traded someday and let everyone else in on it," Torre said.
``Sometimes, pitchers turn their hands different ways," Gaston said. ``Sometimes, it's as simple as leaving their glove open for a curve and closed for a fastball. In the case of Doyle Alexander, it was all in his taps. He had to change signs every other week."
In other cases, there is no distinct movement that tips the pitch, just a general hitch or motion that resonates with the hitter. Torre said that's why he had such tremendous success against former Red Sox righthander Ray Culp.
``Guys would say to me, `Is he tipping?' " Torre said. ``I'd tell them, `No, not really. It's just something in how he lets the ball go.' I knew what was coming. There was something about his body language that allowed me to pick it up."
Both Torre and Francona believe tipping pitches can be overrated, particularly when a pitcher is in a groove.
``Jim Bunning threw a no-hitter against the Red Sox and they called every pitch he threw," Torre said.
``When [Curt Schilling] was in his prime, he didn't tip his pitches, but if he was locating his fastball, it wouldn't matter whether you knew it was coming or not," Francona maintained. ``You still couldn't hit it."
Today's hitters benefit from expensive video equipment that enables them to examine the windup and delivery of every major league pitcher, all in the clubhouse two hours before the first pitch.
Cora looks for pitchers who are tipping, but he is cautious when sharing what he thinks he has seen.
``The important thing is you don't want to guess wrong," he said. ``You don't want to be leaning in on a curveball and have a fastball coming at 95 miles per hour at your head. That's why some guys don't want any part of it."
Cleveland leadoff hitter Grady Sizemore said he no longer looks for pitchers who are tipping.
``I tend to guess wrong," said Sizemore, ``and then it gets in my head a little bit. It's almost to the point where I don't want to know, because then I'm concentrating so much on that, I forget to swing."
``I'm not a big fan," concurred David Ortiz. ``I like doing it my way, the natural way. I've had guys tell me, `OK, if this guy does this, it means he's going to throw a slider.' So the pitcher throws a slider, and I know it's coming, but I don't like the pitch, so I don't swing.
``I just see the ball and hit it. Don't bother me with that other stuff."
Gaston appreciates all the new technology that aids hitters, but he believes nothing can take the place of a trained eye -- even from a living room in Florida. He said plenty of hitters continue to benefit from pitchers tipping, with Carlos Delgado among the best at exploiting it.
``I still pick things up at home, but I don't tell anybody," Gaston said.
He paused for a moment before amending his statement.
``Once in a while [Blue Jays outfielder] Vernon Wells will ask me, `Is so-and-so tipping?' " Gaston said. ``I just smile, and then I tell him what I know."