For all the fuss this month about sign stealing, the key matchup in the World Series may have nothing to do with which team has the other team's signs.
Sometimes, you don't need the signs. Sometimes, the pitcher tells you what's coming.
He may do it with his hands. He may do it with his glove. He may speed up on one pitch and slow down on another. But just as every poker player is looking for a "tell" from his opponent, every hitter should be alert for a "tell" from the opposing pitcher.
More often than you think, there's one there.
"I think 90 percent of left-handers do something," said Eduardo Perez, who played and coached in the major leagues and now works for ESPN. "I'd say it's probably 50-50 with right-handers."
Perez, an acknowledged master at the art of finding the pitcher's tip, said left-handers tip more often because they tend to be more reliant on changeups, which are harder to disguise because of the grip they require. But all pitchers are susceptible. In fact, Perez said he has already noticed a few in this year's postseason who are tipping.
"I see it, and I wish I could grab a bat right now," he said.
He won't grab a bat, and he won't tell us who or what he's seen. He says it's not his place to alert the pitcher to what he's doing or to tell the opponent what to key on.
Besides, as a hitter, Perez knows that sometimes the suspicion of tipping can be just as bad for the pitcher as the tip itself. It's one more thing to worry about on the mound, one more way to take the pitcher's focus away from executing his best pitches.
And as with everything else in this ultra-paranoid era of baseball, there's plenty of suspicion.
Rich Hill and Ross Stripling of the Los Angeles Dodgers believed they were tipping before fixing the problem, per Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register. The Boston Red Sox were convinced closer Craig Kimbrel was tipping, leading to a 7.11 postseason ERA, manager Alex Cora told reporters (including Tyler Kepner of the New York Times) after the American League Championship Series.
Kimbrel told Chris Cotillo of MassLive.com that former Red Sox pitcher Eric Gagne had seen something in his delivery while watching on television that was tipping his pitches. Gagne texted Cora to tell him and then exchanged texts with Kimbrel to help explain what he saw.
"It was good to throw some pitches and have them not know what was coming," Kimbrel told Cotillo, convinced that fixing the problem had helped him throw a hitless inning in the Red Sox's clinching Game 5 win over the Houston Astros.
Then there was Danny Duffy of the Kansas City Royals, who told Rustin Dodd of The Athletic that he abandoned pitching out of the stretch with no men on base, even though he found it more comfortable, because he thought he was tipping his pitches. And Luis Severino of the New York Yankees, who may have been tipping his pitches during his Game 3 loss to the Red Sox in the division series.
Hill, Stripling, Kimbrel, Duffy, Severino—and that's just this year. They are just the instances found in a quick internet search, not all the other times a pitcher got hit hard and decided it must be because the hitters knew what was coming.
"You hear that from pitchers all the time," said Lloyd McClendon, a former major league player and manager who is now the hitting coach of the Detroit Tigers. "One of the things I always told guys was go back and look at the film. They didn't need to have your pitches. You just threw bad pitches."
Sometimes, though, they really do have your pitches.
Two of the best-known instances of pitch tipping helped decide World Series.
In 2001, the Yankees led the Arizona Diamondbacks three games to two going back to Phoenix for Game 6. They needed one win from two games to wrap up what would have been a fourth straight World Series title.
Then the Diamondbacks scored six runs in two-plus innings against Andy Pettitte, sending him to the showers in the shortest of his 44 career postseason starts and setting up a Game 7 the D-Backs would win dramatically on Luis Gonzalez's single off Mariano Rivera.
It could have been just a bad game. But on MLB's international TV broadcast that night, former big league pitcher Rick Sutcliffe said Pettitte was signaling what pitch he would throw. Sutcliffe went on to call the next few pitches before Pettitte delivered them. And the next morning in the New York Post, George A. King III reported that Diamondbacks first baseman Mark Grace had noticed Pettitte was taking longer in the stretch before throwing a fastball than he was when he threw a curveball.
Then there was the 2017 World Series, which the Houston Astros won in seven games over the Los Angeles Dodgers. Yu Darvish started for the Dodgers in Game 7, and when he gave up two runs in the first inning and three more in the second, the game and the World Series were basically over. The Astros went on to win 5-1, and when they did, some of them gave credit to Carlos Beltran, who didn't even play in the game.
As detailed later by Ben Reiter in his book, Astroball, Beltran was watching video of Darvish when he noticed that the Dodgers pitcher wiggled his right hand and wrist before he threw a fastball. When there was no wiggle, Darvish would throw a breaking ball.
Watching Game 7, Perez noticed the same thing. In an appearance the next morning on ESPN's Mike and Mike radio show, he explained how the Astros could tell which pitch Darvish would throw next.
"Of course," said one American League scout when asked if Darvish tipped his pitches in Game 7. "Everybody has always had Darvish's pitches. But when he was really good, you couldn't hit him, anyway,"
And that's the other thing to remember about pitch tipping—or even about sign stealing, for that matter. Knowing what's coming might give the hitters an edge, but it doesn't guarantee success.
Far from it, in some cases.
McClendon remembers a game in 2006 when the Tigers were facing Johan Santana. That was a good hitting Tigers team, one that would end up in the World Series.
"We had Santana's pitches," McClendon said. "Every pitch he threw. And we only got two hits off him."
Santana was well-known in the game for tipping his famous changeup. But it was such a good pitch that it often didn't matter if hitters knew it was coming. They couldn't hit it, and Santana won two Cy Young Awards.
Hall of Famer Randy Johnson was another famous tipper. Hitters often could tell what was coming.
It didn't help.
"I beg to differ," Perez said.
Sure enough, he had a 1.051 OPS in 39 career plate appearances against Johnson, with four home runs.
Perez is hardly alone in his pitcher-reading skills, but the story of how he learned to do it is worth retelling.
It goes back to 1983, the one season his Hall of Fame father, Tony Perez, spent with the Philadelphia Phillies. Eduardo was 13 years old, and for the first time his father would allow him to sit in the dugout during games.
"My dad was playing, and I was flipping seeds with John Denny," Perez said. "One of the seeds hit Pete [Rose]. Pete was like a father figure to me. He yelled with some profanity, but then he told me to come sit next to him. He told me to watch every pitch and tell him what's coming. I had no idea, but he showed me during the course of the season.
"When the Hit King speaks, it's like E.F. Hutton. You listen."
As he got older and played in college and then professionally, Perez put what he learned to work.
"I didn't know that what I learned at 13 was going to get me to the big leagues and keep me there for 13 years," he said.
It was as if he spoke a foreign language that most of his teammates didn't know. He studied pitchers, and things that no one else noticed seemed blatantly obvious to him. Maybe it was how the pitcher held his glove on a certain pitch. Maybe it was taking more time. Maybe it was a slight wiggle or hands held closer to the body or farther away as the pitcher went to the stretch.
"A lot of guys don't see what I see," Perez said.
Some do. When he was with the then-California Angels, Perez taught Jim Edmonds. Other players developed similar reputations for seeing what others didn't, including Cito Gaston, Roberto Alomar, Chase Utley, Carlos Beltran and Alex Cora, who now manages the Red Sox.
When Perez played for Tony La Russa with the St. Louis Cardinals, La Russa would choose games for him to play based in part on what pitchers he could read for a "tell." One day in 2003 when regular Cardinals third baseman Scott Rolen came down with a bad back, Perez got the start on just such a day, against Mark Prior of the Chicago Cubs.
Prior was one of the best pitchers in baseball that season, an All-Star with a 2.43 ERA who two starts before had struck out 16 Milwaukee Brewers. But he was also a guy who would come to a set with his hands close to the body when he was going to throw a curve and away from the body before throwing a fastball.
Sure enough, Perez came to the plate in the second inning with runners on first and second, guaranteeing Prior would be working from the stretch.
"I was like, 'Here we go,'" Perez said.
On the first pitch, Prior came set away from the body. Perez read fastball, but fouled it back. But on the 2-2 pitch, Perez read correctly again and this time didn't miss it.
"I hit that ball so hard and so far," he said.
It was a three-run home run in a game the Cardinals won 4-1. Perez had one more at-bat against Prior that day, but after correctly reading fastball and thinking he'd hit another home run, he popped it up.
So why do pitchers tip, and why don't they fix it?
Sometimes they do fix it. Often they try to fix it. But it's not as easy as it sounds.
For one thing, each pitch requires a different grip. Many "tells" are a result of a pitcher adjusting that grip. Most pitchers start with the most difficult grip, often for a changeup or breaking ball.
To throw a fastball, they need to adjust. That can take longer. It also requires movement in the hands and wrist. One pitcher said he always pitched with long sleeves, so hitters couldn't see his arm muscles flinch as he felt for the grip.
To keep hitters from seeing when they change a grip, pitchers will try to fake changing the grip even when they don't (i.e. when they start with a changeup grip and want to throw a changeup).
Because the so-called circle change grip requires the pitcher to wrap his hand around the ball, a pitcher's glove often flares out a bit when he holds it with the changeup grip. That can be another tell.
"We tell them to flare their glove on every pitch," said Doug Brocail, the Texas Rangers pitching coach.
Some pitchers stand taller on the fastball. One hitter said with one pitcher he was told if you see daylight above the pitcher's hat, it's a breaking ball.
Sometimes the tip isn't even physical. Some pitchers get into such patterns that they always throw the same pitch on the same count. One time when Phil Garner's Brewers were facing Roger Clemens, they realized that Clemens almost always threw a breaking ball at 1-1, and that he almost always threw it for a ball.
Pitchers try to avoid patterns and they try to make every pitch look the same, but they fall into habits. Maybe they've been having trouble getting the right angle on a breaking ball and they work on it over and over in the bullpen. Then the pitch breaks the way they want, but in the process they pick up a movement that could tip off a hitter.
Then the pitching coach or a teammate notices, so the pitcher tries to change. And he does change, except that when the game gets close and he's a little tired and focused on making a perfect pitch, the movement comes back.
"It's extremely tough to fix," Brocail said. "I argue there's such a thing as muscle memory."
Brocail speaks from experience. In September 1992, the San Diego Padres called him up from Triple-A. His first start would be against the San Francisco Giants at Candlestick Park, and before the game he saw Giants first baseman Will Clark in a tunnel outside the clubhouse.
"You the kid pitching tonight?" Clark asked.
"Yes, I am," Brocail said.
"Hey, just so you know, you tip all your pitches," Clark told him.
"I thought he was messing with me," Brocail said. But he wasn't. The Giants knocked Brocail out in the fourth inning. Clark walked and doubled.
"We got looking at the video," Brocail said. "Sure enough, I was coming to a set by my chest when I threw a fastball and by the waist when I threw the curve. I'd been doing it all year in Triple-A and no one picked up on it."
When a pitcher is tipping in the major leagues, word tends to get around. When a team or player has success against a certain pitcher, friends around the league will ask if they picked up on something. Sometimes a hitter will even mention it to a pitcher after a series is over, perhaps in hopes the pitcher will fix it before facing a rival.
Sometimes a pitcher finds out much later. When Edwin Jackson was traded to the Chicago White Sox in 2010, White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper told him the Sox had all his pitches when he faced them as a Detroit Tiger the year before. A similar thing happened to John Axford when he was traded from the Brewers to the Cardinals in 2013.
In today's world, even a hint that a pitcher is tipping will send internet sleuths to the video to find evidence. After the Yankees said they suspected Severino was tipping in his Oct. 8 start against the Red Sox, Ben Harris of The Athletic wrote a story that included video attempting to prove they were right.
Harris shows Severino checking a runner at second base and then hesitating while he looks toward third before turning to deliver the pitch. When he hesitated, Harris said, Severino threw a fastball. When he didn't, he threw a changeup.
At a press conference during the ALCS, Cora said the Red Sox didn't notice the hesitation.
"I was upset because we didn't see that one," he said, leaving open the possibility they saw something else with Severino.
Perez doubts the hesitation was the key, because only one of the Red Sox's seven hits off Severino came with a runner on second base.
"Was he doing something else? Perhaps," Perez said cryptically. "I don't think it's my job to tell the Yankees and tell Severino what he's doing."
Harris also believes he identified Kimbrel's tip, which he detailed with photos in another story in The Athletic. While it's possible the tip was the issue, as Kimbrel and the Red Sox seem to believe, Perez cited another non-tipping cause for Kimbrel's poor postseason.
"Kimbrel is struggling because the strikes he's throwing are down," Perez said before Kimbrel's hitless inning in Game 5. "He has to hit the upper quadrants of the strike zone. Once he has to pitch down in the zone, he's done."
Kimbrel will need to fix that before the World Series begins Tuesday. He believes he has already resolved the tipping issue, thanks to Gagne's helpful hints.
If Severino is lucky, someone will tell him what he was doing in the division series. If the Yankees had Utley on their team, perhaps he already would have. Dodgers teammates Stripling and Hill credited Utley for tipping them off on their own tipping, and Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said Utley has helped others, too.
"He's been extremely helpful to the guys," Honeycutt said. "He'll pick up just the smallest thing ... whatever it may be. He's always searching. He's kind of like The Informant on that."
There's always more to do, because there are always pitchers who are tipping. And there are always hitters who want to know what's coming.
What's more surprising is there are also hitters who don't want to know. Frank Thomas was a good enough hitter that he ended up in the Hall of Fame, but when he was with the White Sox he had a reputation for never wanting advance notice of a pitch.
Some players, it seems, feel more comfortable just seeing the pitch and reacting.
"That really boggles my mind," said McClendon, the Tigers hitting coach. "If a guy's throwing a slider, I want to know."
Most hitters want to know.
Some pitchers will tell them.
Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.
Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.
B/R's Scott Miller contributed to this story.