On Aug. 3, 2019, the Diamondbacks rolled past the Nats 18-7.
The lowlight for Washington: One of their hottest pitchers, Stephen Strasburg, was lit up to the tune of nine runs on nine hits over 4 2/3 innings. In a season with 15 wins, it was by far his worst outing to date in 2019.
Arizona crushed five extra-base hits in that game, including a two-run shot by Eduardo Escobar, a solo shot from Nick Ahmed and a three-run homer by Jake Lamb. Ketel Marte delivered a triple and David Peralta a double. The Diamondbacks scored five runs in the first three frames and five more in the fifth. The rout was on.
Prior to that start, Strasburg had been on a roll, racking up seven straight wins.
His last loss prior to Aug. 3? June 15 against the Arizona Diamondbacks. The D-backs dropped six runs on nine hits in five innings against Strasburg in a 10-3 setback, hitting four homers in that game.
On Aug. 3, the first two homers came on Strasburg’s fastball. Batters saw his curveball well. Lamb hit his shot on the curveball.
But what was most interesting was the Diamondbacks’ take on Strasburg’s changeups. He threw them 22 changeups. Arizona took 12 of them for balls. That’s a 55 percent clip. That is a significant amount for a pitch that normally gets swings and misses or wipeouts.
That’s 15 runs on 18 hits, with seven homers in two starts against Strasburg.
The right-hander told reporters after the game in Phoenix that the D-backs may have, at times, known what was coming.
In his next start, a no-decision in New York, Strasburg pitched much better, and mentioned that he and pitching coach Paul Menhart had figured out how he was tipping pitches, and had taken steps to rectify the problem.
“Well, I think I wasn’t tipping as much,” Strasburg said at the time. “That’s a step in the right direction.”
“It’s part of the game,” Strasburg told me the next day.
“It’s something we got fixed,” Menhart said.
In Part One of our series on tipping pitches, we look inside the game to see how batters spot clues to figure out what pitch is coming at what time.
Menhart said that when he pitched in the majors, his manager found he was tipping his pitches in his early starts.
“I didn’t find out until my first outing,” Menhart said. “Cito Gaston said ‘You are tipping your pitches. Every time you throw a changeup your finger is (wiggling).’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Can you put your finger in your glove?’ I said, ‘I really can’t.’ So, in between innings they tied the glove twine over my finger, and in that inning I popped it off. I go, ‘I guess I am tipping.’ It was a temporary fix because it was real uncomfortable for me to put my finger inside the glove. So Rawlings ended up making me a little sleeve outside, above the glove, so my finger was covered.”
During his career as a major league infielder, MASN broadcaster F.P. Santangelo would see pitchers tipping pitches on his off-days.
“I can tell by the way guys are taking pitches,” Santangelo said. “So, if you throw a 2-1 changeup and a guy (just stands there). I’m sitting fastball and you throw me a 2-1 changeup, I’m either swinging and missing or (I’m lunging). They were (not moving) on his changeup, 2-1. Jake Lamb hit a curveball out on a first pitch. He wasn’t out in front and pulled the curveball out of there. You can tell how guys are taking pitches if they know what’s coming. You don’t have to know what he’s doing. The hitter will tell you sometimes.
“When I wasn’t playing I was the guy that everybody came to and asked if I had him,” Santangelo said. “So, I would sit on the end of the bench. Usually, it’s out of the stretch. That’s where most guys tip. Some tip out of the windup too. So, I would just lock in on a pitcher for the first two or three innings and try to find something, and I would be like, ‘Got him!’”
Nationals catcher Yan Gomes said pitchers getting caught tipping is a sign of the times. The level of sophistication the game is at today, with digital technology and the number of eyes that are put on each pitcher’s work, lends to teams finding a tell.
Could that be what Arizona was able to do against Strasburg?
“I think that’s something that definitely needs to stay at focus more,” Gomes said. “Because with added cameras and all the added technology, I think guys are, for sure, looking at more stuff like that. If it’s something that we can either nip in the bud or get ahead of it, then that’s something we should do.
“Unless it’s something super obvious during the game, the last you want to do is like (assume) ‘Oh, Stras is getting hit so there has got to be something else going on.’ You got to somewhat give credit to the other guys too, because committing to a pitch is a lot of times very hard to do. If it is something that obvious, we do go look at it after the game and try to mention it to him. For me, it should be something that he should be aware of, our pitching coach should be aware of, or 20 (Nationals video) guys looking at cameras should be aware of.”
“Back a couple of years ago there was talk that the Braves had something on (Strasburg),” Menhart said. “So, it happens often and it’s something that we have to really try to find out what it is.
“(Former Nats infielder and current Rockies player) Daniel Murphy was really good at knowing what pitch was coming. Makes it a little easier to hit, because it’s hard to hit, still. But it’s a lot easier hitting when you know what’s coming.”
But some pitchers do not want, in the middle of a start, to be distracted by coaches or teammates pointing out the clues they are giving to opposing batters.
“I’m watching out for it all the time,” Menhart noted. “(Our) guys are like, ‘Hey, he’s doing something different when he comes set. Did you tell him?’ And then it’s just a conversation. But you don’t want to consume him, because you’re battling that particular day. Some guys can handle it and some guys say (whatever) ‘They still got to hit my pitch.’”
Others most certainly want to know if and how they are tipping, even in the middle of a game, like Nats ace Max Scherzer.
“Max wants to know if I see something or somebody sees something. He wants to know right now because he can handle that in the heat of battle,” said Menhart. “Tell me. I want to know now.”
Scherzer said the intel on tipping pitches can travel from team to team or player to player.
“Depends on who has played with who,” Scherzer said. “If team X has it and somebody on team Y played with somebody on team X and they know it, they’ll talk. How guys tip. Even the sequences they are so keen to.”
Batters can see a lot in the game too. With the background information on what to look for, the hitter can look for a certain tell from the pitcher in-game. There are a lot of different ways a pitcher can give away what he will throw next.
“Depends on the pitcher,” Scherzer said. “Depends on what your tip is. Depends on how you are doing it. There’s so many different ways you give away pitches. There’s some hitters that are really smart, really keen to (it). They’ll find some things on you that you had no idea what you were doing. That is real.”
When he was catching for the Indians, Gomes said, the team found out that veteran right-hander Carlos Carrasco was tipping pitches.
“I know when I was with Cleveland we had a guy that did it every time he threw an off-speed,” Gomes said. “And you knew he was doing it, so you kind of played around with throwing every off-speed at one time and see if that would mess up hitters. He’s made a pretty good career out of it.
“I think it’s just something that if it is blatant, like a team like Arizona just crushes you because they think you are tipping pitches, makes you think that other teams aren’t going to do it either? I think if it’s becoming an issue, then you need to address it.”
“I know all of us look at video after a game, so go look at videos from up front, from the back, from the side, whatever it is, and if you do see something, go take into your bullpen with you. And they’ll put a camera on you and see if you can tell what pitches you’re throwing.”
Menhart said he and his pitchers can diagnose these tells in those bullpen sessions by taking video of the pitcher throwing his fastball and off-speed pitches, then comparing the two deliveries.
“Usually, side-by-side is the best way, because you can see something subtle which is probably pretty glaring,” the coach said.
Menhart said pitchers can tip pitches by the way they hold the ball in the glove or behind the back before delivering the pitch.
“Back in the minor leagues you try to get everything out of the same window of release,” Menhart said. “Because if you drop out of it, or you pop up over it, that’s an indicator to the hitter. They can pick it up. And slow down. There’s a number of things that tip pitches, and it’s more glaring down at the lower levels. The earlier that you can fix that, then it’s a lot easier up here (to help pitchers avoid the problem).
“Some guys, it’s something basic, like always holding a changeup (grip) behind your back,” Menhart continued. “Going to your glove and always fiddling around in your glove, even though you might still be holding a changeup. It’s starts in high school. They’ll hold a curveball behind their back. They’re throwing a curveball. You hold the hardest pitch to get to ... So that’s why you see a lot of split-finger guys, they’ll dig it in, they’ll get their signs, then dig some more, but they could be holding a curveball.”
Santangelo said that when he was playing, even a pitcher’s wiggle of his finger when he comes set can be a tell.
“Guys would come down and ask me,” Santangelo recalled. “Maybe he’s going into his glove a little higher so he can change his grip on the off-speed before he comes set. Maybe he comes set higher on one pitch, lower than another pitch. Maybe his glove is straight up and down on the fastball and rounded on the curveball.
“We had a guy in Philadelphia, I can’t remember, that his finger wiggled every time that he changed his grip for the off-speed. So, all you had to do is look at his glove and finger would (wiggle). He knew off-speed was coming. And if (his finger) was still it was fastball. Now most guys have a sleeve they put their finger into, like a leather sleeve outside the glove.”
“There’s all kinds of different ways,” Santangelo said of finding a pitcher who is tipping.
“I guess anytime as a hitter you are trying to eliminate pitches. So, if I hit your fastball and the first time up I know I’m probably not going to get that same pitch again. But if you have a great changeup, plus-plus changeup, nasty, and I know when it’s coming. And I know I don’t have to swing at it until I get to two strikes. Now I’ve eliminated a pitch from you. Where if I know when you are throwing your nasty slider, you’re showing me, I’ve eliminated that pitch for you.”
As a veteran backstop, Gomes has seen it before. But he said that even if the hitter can figure out what is coming, he still will find it very difficult to hit.
“You got to think about ‘What pitches is he really tipping on?’” Gomes said. “Because if he is tipping on off-speed, Strasburg has two plus-plus off-speed pitches. So, I don’t know what you’re sitting on. But if he’s tipping his fastball every time, then that’s something you might want to look at.”
In the end, Menhart said the Nationals have a lot of eyes looking out for signs of pitches being compromised.
“It’s a collective effort, for sure,” Menhart said. “We’ve got guys on it. If it’s glaring and they’re just spitting on pitches where normally they’re going to be swinging at, and they’re doing the Statue of Liberty-type of takes? Well, whoa! What’s going on here? We dissect glove positioning, how he’s putting the ball in his glove. There’s a number of things that can happen.”
In Part Two: When the Nationals decide it’s the right time to help young prospects fix tipped pitches.