Why tipping pitches can happen more often in the playoffs

There's a lot going on that casual fans might miss...

This past Thursday night the Houston Astros played the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 5 of the NLDS and scored four runs in the bottom of the first inning.

Since the Rays were only going to score one, it was pretty much game over by the top of the second.

After the first three batters singled and Jose Altuve made it to first base, turned and communicated with the guys in his dugout, I thought something might be up.

After Alex Bregman scored and stopped to say something to the on-deck hitter, it was pretty obvious the Astros had something on Rays starting pitcher Tyler Glasnow and were passing that information along to their teammates.

Lots of people noticed the same thing and have written about it elsewhere, but let’s see what we can add to what we already know.

Reading swings

Smart pitchers – and baseball fans – read swings.

A pitch pulled foul means the hitter was early, a pitch sliced foul to the opposite field means the hitter was late and pitch fouled straight back means the hitter was right on time, but just under the ball.  

Reading a swing gives the pitcher a clue as to what he ought to throw next.

If a hitter is late on a fastball don’t fix his problem for him by throwing something off-speed, if a hitter is early on off-speed don’t fix his problem by throwing a fastball and if a hitter fouls a pitch straight back, don’t fix his problem by throwing the same pitch, but lower.

(There are exceptions to everything I just said, but to avoid writing the first chapter of a baseball version of War and Peace, let’s ignore those exceptions and move on.)

Smart pitchers read takes as well; what does a hitter do when he doesn’t swing?

If a hitter shifts his weight forward, winds up out on his front foot and barely check his swing in time on a curve, the pitcher almost fooled him.

Experienced observers knew something was up based on the Astros swings and takes.  

Houston hitters were taking good curves just off the plate without much body movement at all which indicated they knew those curves were coming and decided not to swing before the pitch was ever thrown.

In Bregman’s first AB he was right on a 98-mph fastball, fouled it straight back and one pitch later he was right on an 86-mph curve and doubled to the opposite field-gap. Being right on those two pitches with two different trajectories and velocity 12 mph apart was suspicious.

Afterwards, MLB’s Dan Plesac showed video that suggested that Glasnow was reaching the set position with his hands up by his neck when he threw a fastball and down by the Rays logo when he threw a curve.

Apparently Glasnow has had that problem in the past and it showed up again at a very bad time for the Tampa Bay Rays.

Tells

In poker a “tell” is a change in a player’s behavior that indicates what cards he or she is holding and it works the same way in baseball. Some tells are subtle and some tells are as obvious as yelling “thank you Jesus” every time you get three-of-a-kind.

During the 2015 ALCS, then-Royal Johnny Cueto decided it was a good idea to call his own pitches from the mound used the fingers holding the ball to do it. Cueto gave up eight earned runs in two innings so that right there is a pretty good indication that the Toronto Blue Jays caught on.

In our book “Throwback” – which must still be available somewhere even if it’s a neighbor’s garage sale – Jason Kendall talked about Jose Valverde’s habit of pausing longer in the set position when he threw a splitter.

Those tells could be spotted from an orbiting space station, so what about tells that are more subtle?

Tells include stuff like where the hands are set – like with Glasnow – how long the set is held, how high the pitcher lifts his front leg or how the ball is taken out of the glove. The list of possible tells is long and this is why coaches who can spot this stuff – live or on video – stay employed.

Somebody you never heard of watching video at 1AM might be the guy who put his team over the top by letting the hitters know the opposing pitcher is “fanning” the glove.

That’s when a pitcher changes grips in his glove and the glove widens because his fingers go from being on top of the ball (fastball) to being on the side of the ball (breaking pitch) which makes the glove fan.

Avoiding that tell is why pitchers hold the ball in their most difficult grip to start with and then move to their easier grips once they have the ball in their glove.

It’s also why some pitchers do that weird shit of moving their gloves around in the set position on every pitch; if it happens on every pitch, hitters can’t tell when the pitcher changes grips.

Tipping in the playoffs

During the regular season teams have scouts scattered hither and yon, but during the playoffs teams will ask those scouts to forget hither and focus on yon.

More eyes on fewer games mean a better chance somebody is going to spot something.

The best stories are the ones you can’t tell or have to tell vaguely so you don’t throw somebody under the bus and here’s a pretty good example:

There was a World Series – not involving the Royals – where someone watching TV figured out that the signs were actually being given by a coach leaning on the dugout railing and not the manager.

So when that guy told someone on the other team what he spotted, that team had an advantage and went on to win the Series. It’s not the only reason they won, but it sure as hell didn’t hurt.

When you hear the behind-the-scenes stuff that goes on you become a lot less confident that everything can be explained by spin rates, launch angles and exit velocity. Every day in every game there’s tons of stuff happening that we know nothing about.

Stealing the catcher’s signs

With a runner on second base catchers use a more complicated series of signs so the runner can’t steal signs and pass them along to the hitter.

Not exactly breaking news for serious baseball fans.

But in these playoffs we’re sometimes seeing catchers use multiple signals without a runner on second base, which indicates they think somebody in the park is stealing signs and sometimes those signs are stolen by people not in uniform.

I once heard a story about a suspicious beer vendor, which makes me wonder if that guy would get a ring if and when his team won a World Series which would pretty damn suspicious but ought to put the guy in the beer vendor Hall of Fame and if there isn’t one of those already, there damn well should be.

So if you see a catcher use more than one sign with nobody on second base, you know somebody smells a rat.

Why Bregman wouldn’t admit Glasnow was tipping

If it was clear that Glasnow was tipping – and after watching video Glasnow himself said it was pretty obvious – why didn’t Alex Bregman admit it after the game?

Couple reasons come to mind.

At that point Bregman might not have known MLB was already showing video of Glasnow’s tell and if a pitcher is tipping you don’t want to let him know what he’s doing wrong because you hope he keeps doing it wrong next time you face him.

And tipping falls under the same category as hitting a batter on purpose; even when it’s obvious, you don’t admit it publicly. You’ll see that pitcher down the road and you don’t want to face payback — like a fastball in the ribs — if you can help it.

So next playoff game you watch, keep an eye on all this stuff and you might spot a pitcher tipping his pitches, but be a professional about it.

Don’t admit it on camera.