To the uninitiated, baseball may seem like a fairly simple game--throw the ball, hit the ball, catch the ball.
The truth of the matter, however, is that there is plenty of strategy and gamesmanship going on behind the scenes, and the average fan is completely unaware of much of it. Managers are often thinking an inning or two down the line, mulling potential matchups; pitchers are running through data on hitters they'll likely be facing; outfielders and infielders are constantly being repositioned based on hitters' tendencies.
Ever wonder why some catchers wear bright nail polish on the fingers of their right hands? No, it's not because they are planning on a big night out on the town. It's so pitchers can pick up their signals more easily. Notice how sometimes pitchers--particularly those with a sidearm delivery--like to drop the rosin bag on the side of the mound? All the better to confuse a hitter who has now got two white objects in his field of vision as he tries to pick up the baseball. Other pitchers, like Nippon-Ham Fighters ace Yu Darvish, like to load up on rosin nearly every pitch, making it that much more difficult for a hitter to pick up the ball as it emerges from a puffy white backdrop.
A .300 hitter in baseball may fail 70 percent of the time, but he is still considered successful. Obviously, hitting a small round ball moving at speeds of up to 160 kph with a round wooden bat is one of the most difficult things to do in sports, to paraphrase one of the greatest hitters in baseball history, former Boston Red Sox star Ted Williams.
To that end, hitters--and pitchers too, of course--will do almost anything they can to increase their chances for success. There have been scandals where teams have been accused of having spotters in the stands "stealing" signs from opposing catchers, which were relayed to the dugout and then quickly passed on the batter. That is something that is banned in the game.
What's not banned, however, is a hitter's ability to pick up on pitchers' idiosyncrasies, small personal tendencies that might give a clue as to what pitch they are throwing--fastball, curveball, changeup, etc. If a pitcher has developed habits that give away this info, he is said to be "tipping his pitches."
Some of the subtleties that batters pick up on are mindboggling.
"There have been millions of things," said Chiba Lotte Marines manager Bobby Valentine. "Most guys have something that tips the pitch. I remember in the States--where guys are much more careless--things like a guy holding one finger outside his glove and when he would throw a breaking ball he would lift the finger a bit off the glove. I've known guys to change their facial expressions and even stick out their tongues for certain pitches."
Yes, the way a pitcher holds his glove, a finger poking out, clenched teeth, a hitch in his delivery--these are all traits that have been exploited by hitters against some very good pitchers, including the likes of Andy Pettitte and Orel Hershiser.
If you see a pitcher wearing a long-sleeved undershirt in sweat-inducing 36 C weather, you may wonder what's up. But, not surprisingly, there's more to it than simply keeping the arm warm.
"Guys were trying to pick up my pitches by the way the muscles in my forearm were flexing," said Yomiuri Giants ace Seth Greisinger, a two-time 16-game winner in Japan who always wears a long-sleeved undershirt when he pitches. "Different pitches require different grips and sometimes that can tip your pitches."
Yakult Swallows slugger Aaron Guiel has seen similar stuff when he played with the Kansas City Royals and New York Yankees.
"(Closer) Trevor Hoffman also wears a long-sleeved shirt under his uniform," Guiel said. "I believe there are something like six different muscles in your forearm and the grips for a changeup, fastball, etc., cause different muscles to pop out a bit."
But that's just the tip of the iceberg, no pun intended.
"Other things include the set," continued Guiel. "A guy's hands might come to rest in different spots--below the belt for a fastball, above the belt for offspeed pitches. A guy might clinch his glove tighter when he's throwing a fastball whereas it will be more flared when a changeup is coming.
"If the glove is pretty still while he sets up, you can expect a fastball. If he's digging around in there a bit, trying to get a different grip, the glove will move around more so there could be a changeup coming. Some guys try and shake their glove around a bit on every pitch so you can't read it."
According to Hanshin Tigers reliever Jeff Williams, pitchers may not always actually be tipping their pitches, but that doesn't stop them from torturing themselves mentally.
"Every pitcher thinks he tips," said the Australian lefty. "It's the insecurity in all of us, especially if we just gave up a few hits on good pitches. I'm no exception to that--we don't like to give the hitter any credit. Makes us look weak and maybe it means our pitches aren't as nasty as we thought. I sure hope I don't tip, but nobody from the other teams will ever tell me if I do."
Williams also notes that technology can give hitters an edge these days, particularly the use of video.
"When I played in the U.S. (with the Los Angeles Dodgers), some hitters were all over the video trying to find pitchers tipping," recalled Williams. "Shawn Green had a book on every pitcher he faced and thought he had about 90 percent of them tipping in some way."
Williams also remembers playing with a guy who stuck out his tongue every time he threw a curveball, but that wasn't the most bizarre behavior he witnessed from a pitcher. There was one fellow in the minors who sticks out in particular.
"One of my favorites was a guy who yelled 'See ya!' when he threw his forkball to try and strike someone out," Williams noted. "It's not really tipping, I guess, but it certainly let them know what he was trying to do. He wasn't real popular with opposing teams, as you could imagine, and he didn't make it to the big leagues."
The next time you're at a ballpark and you see a tongue sticking out, a finger popping out of a glove, or just a hitch in a delivery, you know there's a hitter somewhere taking note. It's all part of the game within a game that is baseball.