Lance McCullers Jr. was the first pitcher to give up five home runs in a World Series game, which prompted fans and sports analysts to ask: Did his body betray him?
In baseball, tipping a pitch can be described as a pitcher’s tell for a specific throw. It’s something teams monitor because of the catastrophic effects it can have on games. If the opposing team picks up on the differences between a curveball or fastball setup, players at bat have a better chance of responding to the pitch.
» READ MORE: The night Lance McCullers pitched his way into Phillies history
Speculation that McCullers had a tell the Phillies identified emerged early in Tuesday’s Game 3 as Bryce Harper called Alec Bohm over on the on-deck circle to whisper something in his ear.
Bohm would go on to respond to McCullers’ pitch with a home run.
McCullers was quick to shoot down tipping rumors in post-game interviews.
“I got whooped, end of story,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Phillies didn’t let on if they had found a crack in McCullers’ performance.
When reporter Ken Rosenthal asked what Harper told him, Bohm responded with a cheeky, “That’s between us.”
That hasn’t stopped internet sleuths from trying to piece together McCullers’ possible tells. Like the Astros’ co-pitching coach, they’ve come up empty.
Some fans joked that the Phillies never found anything and Harper was messing with the Astros’ heads when he called Bohm over.
Former Temple baseball pitcher Ed Molush — Owls pitcher during the 1972 College World Series and former baseball coach at Haverford College — said tipping could be as subtle as the kick of a leg or angle of the throwing arm mid-pitch. Sometimes players forget to make sure their glove is covering the entirety of the ball as they readjust their grip.
“Smart hitters are looking at those kinds of things from the on-deck circle and from the dugout, and they can pick up something,” said Molush, who also spent a few years in the Phillies minor leagues. “The average or even above-average viewer on TV won’t see that only because the camera is mostly from centerfield looking behind the pitcher as he delivers toward home plate.”
But sometimes tipping is obvious. Take a June game between the Los Angeles Angels and the Chicago White Sox. Angels’ relief pitcher Elvis Peguero’s tells were so clear, Angels center fielder Mike Trout was able to see them from the outfield — announcers were similarly able to break down Peguero’s tipping in real-time. For example, Peguero would set up his fastballs by placing his hands lower on his chest and then bring them up before throwing the ball, but he’d start off higher for breaking balls.
MLB Network analyst and former Hall of Fame pitcher Pedro Martinez said he noticed McCullers held his glove up high during offspeed pitches, and noticeably lower for fastballs.
“I’m surprised to see it that drastic,” Martinez said on MLB Tonight following the game.
So why would McCullers credit the hitters for besting him? Molush said it boils down to strategy and embarrassment. Molush said coaches wouldn’t want an opposing team looking at their pitchers with added scrutiny. What’s more, Molush said coaches and players work to get rid of these tells as they move up in competitive baseball.
“For a guy at the major league level, and McCullers has been a very successful major league pitcher, to all of a sudden have something happen very slowly and mindlessly over the course of a game or two, maybe even during the warmup — no pitcher would want to admit to that in public,” said Molush.
Staff writer Rob Tornoe contributed to this article.