Pitch Tipping? Nah, Bryce Harper is Just the Home Run Whisperer

Ninety-nine times out of 100, I will tell you that you should listen to Pedro Martinez talking about pitching. Even on this, the one time you shouldn’t, the guy is pretty convincing. He definitely knows baseball, and for all of our favorite readers who read just the headline or the headline and the first paragraph and nothing else, I’m well aware that I was never a pitcher and Petey is in the Hall of Fame, so what the hell do I know?

But the fact that he claims “without a doubt” that Lance McCullers Jr. was tipping his Game 3 pitches is a little over the top. I mean, even Martinez said he was surprised it was that blatant, that obvious. Pitchers should know better than to have such a noticeable difference, as Martinez pointed out, between what the delivery for one type of pitch looks like as compared to another, so to have that happen at the major league level, with as much alleged irreversible video proof as is out there, is unacceptable. To have it happen in the World Series is completely unfathomable.

Which is why I’m here to say that he wasn’t tipping pitches.

This likely puts me in a really weird minority, right? Like, why bother making that counter-argument when Martinez is so sure, as are other former Phillies who decided to chime in on the Twitter last night.

Note the time of this tweet. This was just after and while Nick Castellanos was at bat. Castellanos would make the last out. SO, whatever Harper and Bohm were discussing, it could have furthered on the bench between innings, or Bohm could have asked teammates if there was anything they had seen or anything they might have picked up on any tendencies or patterns by the pitcher.

Of course, Bohm led off the next inning hitting a first pitch sinker into the left field seats, so that fueled the notion of pitch-tipping even further.

Then there was Will Middlebrooks:

You may not remember Middlebrooks’ tenure with the Phillies. That’s because it was never due to a terrible injury. Middlebrooks was with the Phillies in Spring Training in 2018. Then 29, he was off to a quick start and there was some thought he could make the team as a depth corner infielder with a solid hit tool that could have been a valuable bench bat. Then, he collided with left fielder Andrew Pullin, and had to retire because of the leg damage, which included a broken fibula, among other issues.

Those tweets, among others, sent the Twitter sleuths on a video editing frenzy to show the difference between pitches for McCullers.

Most of them, who really don’t know what they’re looking at, were pointing out the difference in leg kicks. Of course, these geniuses didn’t take into account that they were comparing one swing (Harper’s) with a man on base, thus McCullers was pitching out of the stretch, and another (Bohm’s), where no one was on base and McCullers was pitching out of a wind up. So, of course, the deliveries were going to be different.

And Middlebrooks kind of debunked the Martinez take too when he pointed out while there may have been a glove height disparity on certain pitches, they were all being shown with McCullers pitching out of the stretch, and three of the five homers he allowed occurred with no one on base, when he would be pitching out of a wind up.

As such, it’s even more unlikely that Harper whispered to Bohm something that would indicate McCullers was tipping, because they would have seen different deliveries.

So, if he wasn’t tipping, what was it? And what was Harper whispering to Bohm, because it wasn’t sweet nothings?

THE TREND AND THE STUDENT OF THE GAME

Don’t ask me why. Maybe it was boredom. But, before the game, I was sitting in my seat about 75 minutes before the first pitch and I was a little bored. So, I decided to go to baseballsavant.com and look up McCullers last start against the Yankees in the ALCS clincher for Houston.

In that game he threw 100 pitches in five innings.

His breakdown of pitches was 36 sinkers, 36 sliders, 14 knuckle curves, 13 changeups and one cutter.

However, of those 14 knuckle curves, 11 were thrown to one batter – Oswaldo Cabrera, the other three were to Anthony Rizzo. Both are lefties. So, it wasn’t in his arsenal for righties at all.

Basically, McCullers was a two pitch pitcher against the Yankees righties.

And he really didn’t have a lot of swing and miss to his pitches. The Yankees only swung and missed 11 times.

He also struggled to get first pitch strikes, where of the 25 batters he faced in those six innings, he had only 11 pitches go for strike one while 12 went for ball one (two first pitches were put in play).

(Remember that because it’ll come back later)

But I couldn’t get past the fact that he completely eliminated his third best pitch against righthanders altogether. When looking at the Rizzo and Cabrera at bats, I noticed something else – He threw 26 pitches at Rizzo and Cabrera. NONE were sinkers. So, not only did he completely take his curveball away from righties, he completely took his fastball away from lefties.

It was stunning, to be honest.

The question was, would he take the same approach against the Phillies?

Harper is a work-a-holic when it comes to studying pitchers. I had to see this trend. Not only that, you know he is watching and sort of tracking every pitch in his mind about him. So, you had to know he’s watching the first three batters before he comes up. Here’s what he sees:

That’s six more pitches against a lefty without throwing a fastball (sinker). So, Bryce HAS to know, he’s not getting one, and considering the percentage of sliders vs. curveballs and changeups, He’s likely getting a first pitch slider when he comes up to bat. So, he’s going to look for something in the zone and be able to pummel it.

Even after Harper hits a slider for a homer, he avoids throwing sinkers to lefties. He finally threw one to Bryson Stott, but only one of five pitches. He throws three off-speed pitches to Brandon Marsh, the third, a slider, was another home run.

Then Schwarber sees seven pitches, no sinkers. Harper sees three – no sinkers. Stott gets two pitches, a cutter and a changeup. Marsh sees three, a cutter and two change ups, lacing the third pitch for a single.

That brings Schwarber back to the plate.

It goes change, change, curve, curve and then another change up and then…

That would make 61 pitches against lefties in his last two starts, of which he threw just ONE fastball. That’s insane.

And it leaves a former major leaguer like Middlebrooks scratching his head.

Now, if I can figure that out just looking at Statcast, you had to know Harper and his teammates were well aware of it as well.

But this still doesn’t address what Harper could have said to Bohm.

So let’s look at McCullers’ approach to the three righties before Bohm came up to bat:

At first glance, it’s a pretty even mix. Eight sinkers, six sliders, one change up.

But here’s what Harper, in his studies, may have gleaned, and wanted to make sure Bohm had that information:

  • McCullers throws a sinker 64% of the time on the first pitch to righties.
  • When facing righties immediately after allowing a baserunner, or to start an inning, McCullers that doesn’t change (64%).
  • However, starting an inning alone, that jumps to 80% of the time.
  • And, after a walk or a hit batter, its 100% sinkers on the first pitch – maybe to defer a steal attempt against his off-speed stuff.
  • So, maybe Harper tell him, ‘you’re definitely getting a sinker if Castellanos walks.’ Or maybe he tells him, ‘Look first pitch in the zone likely a sinker but maybe a slider if Castellanos reaches base.’
  • Or, ‘Hey, if you lead off next inning, look sinker and jump all over it first pitch if it’s in the zone.’

It’s all a matter of eliminating pitches and eliminating zones and narrowing the focus in on one pitch type in one location. If you can improve your odds of knowing what’s coming, you automatically have an advantage.

And, well, Bohm was looking for a sinker, and he got it, hitting it on a frozen rope into the first row of seats.

For his part, McCullers just took the loss on his shoulders because he didn’t pitch well, but he insisted he was not tipping pitchers.

I tend to believe him. I think he just suffered from Citizens Bank Park devil magic.

And some good research and intel by the Phillies best player, who is putting on a postseason akin to Babe Ruth at the plate, and one that is akin to Tony Gwynn in the video room.

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