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A reader thinks Alex Avila is tipping the Tigers’ pitches

Jun 18, 2014, 2:01 PM EDT

source: Getty Images

Things are pretty bleak for the Tigers these days. They’ve lost first place and their Cy Young pitchers just got rocked in back-to-back games. It’s enough to push some Tigers fans over the edge.

Or, maybe it’s enough to make some Tigers fans try to figure out what’s going on themselves. Take HBT reader Bill, who wrote me a few minutes ago with a possible explanation that, while he admits is thin, perhaps imaginary and undoubtedly imbued with some element of trying to cope with tragedy, is at least interesting:

Just something I noticed and started tracking yesterday…

The Tigers recent pitching woes really make me believe that there must be some way they were tipping their pitches. As I watched yesterday’s game against the Royals, I noticed Avila doing something that may or may not be a tell.

He gives the infield position signs, sends the signs to the pitcher and then does one of the following:

  • Smacks his glove once, fiddles/tightens it and it’s usually a fastball.
  • Smacks his glove twice, fiddles/tightens it and it’s usually a an off-speed pitch.

I started tracking around the second inning and got a 85% success rate at guessing the pitches. It’s probably nothing (and i’m reaching for an explanation for our recent performance) but I have to believe the staff or the catcher is tipping their hand somehow. Avila really was obvious when Phil Coke was in there. He stopped after that inning (for the most part). Compared to Salvador Perez, who never alters his routine, it stuck out some.

He notes that Tigers backup catcher Bryan Holaday has a lower catchers’ ERA when he catches, and that Avila’s has gone way up. He admits that the differences aren’t wildly divergent, however, and I imagine we’d all agree that trying to read something into catchers ERA is fraught with difficulty and may be folly.

Still, fun to think about. And something to watch for. Unless you’re a Tigers fan, of course.

  1. tfbuckfutter - Jun 18, 2014 at 2:12 PM

    That’s actually a really interesting observation, and a really dedicated effort to see if it pans out.

    Also, I didn’t know Nomar Garciaparra changed his name to Bill and started reading this site.

  2. stupidusername - Jun 18, 2014 at 2:15 PM

    “Observant fan fixes Tigers’ pitching”… hoping I see this headline soon.

    • 78mu - Jun 18, 2014 at 3:34 PM

      I doubt they’ll ask anyone on the Brewer’s coaching staff. They watched Axford every day and didn’t have a clue he was tipping his pitches.

  3. chinahand11 - Jun 18, 2014 at 2:24 PM

    Good look, Bill. Hope you can fix those guys.

  4. dondada10 - Jun 18, 2014 at 2:36 PM

    Not saying Bill is wrong, but wouldn’t Brad Ausmus, a former catcher, be looking for something like that?

  5. thehockeyhawk - Jun 18, 2014 at 2:42 PM

    If a batter knows whether its a fast ball or a change up, it’ll make all the difference. Thats probably not far off, might even be dead on. You won’t see it happen again after someone shined light on it. Too late to track now.

  6. philliesblow - Jun 18, 2014 at 3:04 PM

    So it’s not Kate’s fault after all?

    • historiophiliac - Jun 18, 2014 at 3:13 PM

      How original.

    • tfbuckfutter - Jun 18, 2014 at 3:47 PM

      It’s still her fault somewhat.

      Because she’s been stripping Justin’s britches.

      See what I did there?

      • historiophiliac - Jun 18, 2014 at 4:11 PM

        Are you saying Alex is jealous?

      • tfbuckfutter - Jun 18, 2014 at 4:17 PM

        I just wanted to use the word “britches.”

        I’ve been trying to work it in naturally somewhere for days.

  7. jdurant197 - Jun 18, 2014 at 3:04 PM

    There’d be a huge disparity between Holaday and Avila, then.

    445.2 innings with Avila, 4.28 ERA, opposing hitters are .262/.327/.408/.734
    137.1 innings with Holaday, 3.93 ERA, opposing hitters are .253/.316/.421/.737.

    I’m just not seeing it. Catcher’s pound their gloves all the time. If 75% of the pitches you call are hard, saying that every time he pounds his glove once that it’s going to be a hard pitch means you’ll probably be right more often than not. Coming to that conclusion have watching 7 innings of one game…?

    • tfbuckfutter - Jun 18, 2014 at 3:49 PM

      I don’t know how the Tigers battery works, but is it possible Holaday works with the lower tier pitchers more frequently?

      Because that wouldn’t show up just in the numbers but would suggest that on a level playing field the disparity could be greater.

      • jdurant197 - Jun 18, 2014 at 4:19 PM

        It would depend on how you tier the pitchers. By FIP it would be Sanchez/Scherzer in the top tier and Verlander/Porcello/Smyly in the bottom tier. In which case Holaday would have 8 starts with the top tier, 7 with the bottom. Avila with 16 top, 34 bottom.

      • lucimorland - Jun 18, 2014 at 4:50 PM

        You’d need to stick to one variable — in this case the catcher — to see.

        So the way to do it would be to break it down with each catcher/pitcher pairing and then pray you have enough data for something meaningful to emerge.

        So Avila/Verlander, Holaday/Verlander, Avila/Scherzer, Holaday/Scherzer, and so forth.

      • tfbuckfutter - Jun 18, 2014 at 5:13 PM

        @jdurant197, I’d go by rotation position, because we’re trying to figure out if the catchers are affecting the pitchers (or if you want to do the work, rank them by overall career numbers).

        So if we assume 1-2 in the rotation should perform the best, 3 average, and 4-5 the worst, then see how the breakdown is. That was my point.

        Putting Verlander in the bottom tier because Avila may be screwing up his performance by tipping his pitchers defeats the purpose.

      • jdurant197 - Jun 18, 2014 at 5:17 PM

        It’s a useless exercise anyway. Avila has been pounding his glove before/after calling a pitch as long as I can remember. To think that no one noticed until May 19th 2014, where it was utilized by the Cleveland Indians, who then called and told the Rangers, Mariners, A’s, Blue Jays, Red Sox, White Sox, Twins, and Royals…? I can understand one team taking advantage, but that’s a lot of teams suddenly coming up aces in a very short amount of time, and division rivals aren’t going to help each other out, and 8 teams aren’t going to have a magical discovery at the same time.

        It’s not the catcher. The Tigers’ record/winning percentage with Avila before May 19th? 21-10, .677. With Holaday it was 9-4, .692. During their garbage stretch right now? Avila 7-17, .291 and Holaday 4-9 .307. The same great record. The same rapid decline. Two different catchers. He’s not tipping pitches.

      • tfbuckfutter - Jun 18, 2014 at 5:29 PM

        Teams wouldn’t share information about one of the best teams in the league?

        Of course they would. It helps everyone’s position to bring the #1 team down. Granted it raises everyone’s win level by the same amount, but it also decimates the advantage of that one team letting the lower tier teams battle amongst themselves. Keeping the information confined to just your team still leaves the Tigers on top even though you’re taking advantage of them, but that only gives you a slight edge over your peers. So you climb up a a spot, maybe two, but the Tigers are still on top.

      • tfbuckfutter - Jun 18, 2014 at 5:42 PM

        My suggestion about the battery is actually moot though, because based on a rotation order of Verlander/Scherzer/Sanchez/Porcello/Smyly then Holoday has caught Verlander 5 times, Scherzer 7 times, Sanchez 1 time, Porcello 4 times and Smyly 5 times. Also a replacement pitcher once (who did have an incredibly poor start, and those 7 runs in 3 innings would skew the numbers at least a little bit because of Holoday’s light overall work load).

        But he has been pretty evenly distributed between the top and bottom of the rotation. 12 top, 10 bottom, 1 in the middle and 1 replacement.

  8. historiophiliac - Jun 18, 2014 at 3:16 PM

    I blame Morse Code. And Mitt Romney. And televised games. And, if Bill is retired and that’s why he’s watching during the day, Social Security. And, A-Rod.

    • sophiethegreatdane - Jun 18, 2014 at 4:05 PM

      Wait…we’re blaming Mitt now? I thought we had to blame Obama for everything.

      • historiophiliac - Jun 18, 2014 at 4:09 PM

        That seemed a bit unfair. It’s Michigan, and he’s allegedly a Michigander, so….

      • Kevin S. - Jun 18, 2014 at 5:54 PM

        One of his four home states!

  9. toledotigerfan - Jun 18, 2014 at 3:26 PM

    While an interesting theory—-and perhaps correct—— I think a more logical theory is that two key pitchers(Nathan and Verlander) simultaneously got old at the same time. Both have fastballs that have lost velocity and breaking balls that have lost bite AND both have a lot of mileage on their right arms.

  10. highsportsiq - Jun 18, 2014 at 4:42 PM

    Good reasoning, except for the fact that Ausmus calls every pitch, every infield and outfield movement and placement and whether to swing or take the pitch when the Tigers are at bat. Trying to blame Avila shows a very low sports IQ

    • wholesalechanges - Jun 18, 2014 at 5:06 PM

      Ausmus may call the pitches, player positioning etc from the dugout, yet that doesn’t discount Avila showing a simple tell after relaying said signs. I don’t believe that this shows a low sports IQ, especially when the comments are qualified as “it’s probably nothing” and “I’m reaching”.

      Clearly, it’s just a person who’s looking for anything that makes logical sense of the mess that the Starting Pitching has become.

      • jdurant197 - Jun 18, 2014 at 5:08 PM

        Thinking that Ausmus calls pitches from the dugout shows an incredibly low sports IQ.

      • highsportsiq - Jun 18, 2014 at 5:20 PM

        The Indians had Bob Sagamano sitting near the Royals dugout watching Ausmus very intently with binoculars today marking everything down, every sign and every signal, doing the advance work for Cleveland getting readied to sweep the Tigers I was sitting right behind him.

      • jdurant197 - Jun 18, 2014 at 5:37 PM

        YOU MAKE THE CALL: Ausmus was a longtime catcher, but he doesn’t call pitches from the dugout as a manager.

        “Over the course of a major league baseball season, all 30 teams, I’d be shocked if you can find 50 pitches that were called from the manager,” Ausmus said. “It just doesn’t happen.”
        Ausmus said catchers study scouting reports and know their pitchers and know what to call.

        “In my career, I probably had less than 25 pitches called from the dugout,” Ausmus said, adding that they were all during the first three years of his career. “That’s why you go through the minor leagues,” he said. “There’s all this development. That would really make the manager’s job busy if you had to start calling pitches.”

        http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:yHgansRAEekJ:www.vipjacksonmag.com/article/C4/20140407/SPORTS02/304070031+&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us

  11. gloccamorra - Jun 18, 2014 at 9:11 PM

    The Tigers did that wire-to-wire bit in ’84, and it doesn’t do much for the gate or the following off-season. This mid-season dip is a pre-planned strategy. The “reach the heights, fall from grace, and achieve redemption at the end” storyline was made in Hollywood. It always does boffo at the box office.

  12. tracyd112 - Jun 18, 2014 at 9:16 PM

    I really feel that other teams have just figured out that Tigers pitchers are going to throw strikes and go up there and wait on 1 type of pitch. Also I feel they are trying to compete to much and not as Team mates it has become a power struggle with Max and Justin trying to outdo 1 another trying to be number 1.They are not moving the ball around the strike zone or pitching to contact.There pitches are right over the heart of the plate as they think every batter should be struck out.Then you get into the ninth and bring in Nathan and he makes good pitches but then lately there has been at least 1 error in the first 1 or 2 batters and blows his whole train of thought. But LETS TALK ABOUT THE REAL ISSUE THE HITTING HAS GONE SOUTH ALL OF A SUDDEN WE HAVE A TEAM OF HOMERUN HITTERS.

  13. steve7921 - Jun 18, 2014 at 9:57 PM

    Brian McCann will be very upset with Bill….these are unwritten rules and Bill has obviously broken them!!

  14. highsportsiq - Jun 19, 2014 at 8:35 AM

    roflmao, watch Assmass in the dugout if you don’t believe that he’s calling the pitches. I’ll bet $100 grand he calls no less than 90% of them

    • toledotigerfan - Jun 19, 2014 at 11:55 AM

      high— I would bet that Ausmus calls ZERO pitches. I’d bet your 100 grand and add a million.

  15. markinchico43 - Jun 19, 2014 at 9:39 AM

    Actually, i think the fan is missing something even more obvious. when the tigers played the A’s a couple weeks ago, the A’s announcer, Ray Fosse, a former catcher himself, pointed out a tip…on fastballs he put his hand behind his back. on bteaking pitches he didnt.

    • jdurant197 - Jun 19, 2014 at 11:44 AM

      Avila has said he puts his hand behind his back until there’s two strikes, then he puts it in front because he said it helps him block pitches in the dirt. It has nothing to do with the type of pitch he’s receiving.

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