Flying high above the stadium's view, a pop-up is the anti-home run. Like a long ball can momentarily catch the attention of fans, beer salesman, and players alike, a pop-up can briefly disengage its spectators, the fate of landing in a catcher's or first baseman's glove of no real interest.
In a city used to long home runs that hit glass-faced restaurants, foul poles, and empty outfield seats, infield flies, the batted balls that reach for the Rogers Centre roof, are also a common sight. More common than many probably realize.
The Toronto Blue Jays hit the highest percentage of infield flies in baseball last season. In fact, looking over the past eight seasons, dating back to 2007, they have frustrated fans with more pop-ups than any other team. Interesting, considering how often a fly ball off the bat of Jose Bautista or Edwin Encarnacion turns into a home run. It's feast or famine north of the border: the Blue Jays have the third highest HR/FB rate in baseball over the past two seasons, and the most pop-ups.
Infield flies and home runs are two very different things. An infield fly is usually the result of hitting the baseball on the absolute worst part of the bat, inside on the hands, with a stinging sensation, both from the pitched baseball and the reverberation of the bat from slamming it to the dirt in frustration. It would seem logical to presume that teams who hit a lot of infield flies don't hit as many home runs.
Looking at the data, the relationship between IFFB% and HR/FB rate is not as strong as you would think. There is little correlation between the two. It seems that pitchers who produce a lot of pop-ups, or players who hit many, do so without impacting their respective home run rates.
While balls that tower over the infield may not correlate to ones destined for reaching the outfield wall, there must be some reason why the Blue Jays are hitting in such a feast or fathom fashion.
Let's take a look at the biggest pop-up offenders over the past season, and see if we can find a pattern.
|2||Conor Gillaspie||White Sox||17.2%||4.6%|
|3||Alexei Ramirez||White Sox||16.8%||8.4%|
|6||Jose Bautista||Blue Jays||15.0%||18.1%|
|10||Jose Reyes||Blue Jays||14.1%||4.7%|
|11||Edwin Encarnacion||Blue Jays||13.9%||18.2%|
Of the eleven highest infield fly producers in 2014, three of them, predictably, were Blue Jays. If we look at their respective HR/FB rates, there is no obvious pattern; both Bautista and Encarnacion hit lots of home runs relative to their fly balls (along with Chris Carter), while Jose Reyes, and many others atop the list, don't offer much power at all.
If not power, are there other things that these pop-up hitters share in common?
As one would guess, there are batter traits that cause infield flies. Based on research by Jeff Zimmerman, we know that a hitter is more likely to hit a fly ball on pitches that don't break downward (think cutters and four-seam fastballs). We also know that pitch location matters; pitches up and in are most often shot straight into the air.
Let's look at our list of IFFB% leaders from 2014 in terms of pitch type and pitch location. Where does each player rank in terms of percentage of pitches that turn into pop-ups?
|Name||Team||IFFB%||Pitch Type Rk||Pitch Location Rk|
|2||Conor Gillaspie||White Sox||17.2%||NR||NR|
|3||Alexei Ramirez||White Sox||16.8%||2||20|
|6||Jose Bautista||Blue Jays||15.0%||24||52|
|10||Jose Reyes||Blue Jays||14.1%||1||NR|
|11||Edwin Encarnacion||Blue Jays||13.9%||6||5|
*Pitch Type Rk is based on the top pop-up hitters on cutters and four-seam fastballs. Pitch Location Rk looks at both righties and lefties (and switch-hitters) to find their relative pop-up percentage on pitches up and in.
In terms of pitch location, sure enough, the hitters who turn the most cutters and four-seam fastballs into pop-ups are the top IFFB% in baseball. For pitch location, the relationship isn't quite as strong. There are several batters who on pitches near their bat handle, shoulder, or jaw hit a lot of pop-ups, but aren't frequent pop-up hitters overall. Of course, this isn't testing for a true statistical relationship, but it gives us an idea for the top infield fly hitters.
For the Blue Jays, Edwin Encarnacion is the biggest rule follower. He turns cutters, four-seam fastballs, and jammed pitches into sky-high infield flies.
A pop-up is perhaps the least glamorous batted ball in baseball. Good thing the Toronto Blue Jays mix things up. While they may lead baseball in having the opposing catcher call off his pitcher to make an easy out, they also frequently force the catcher to ask the umpire for a new ball after a home run. A balance that Blue Jay fans can live with.
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Jeffrey Bellone is an editor and featured writer at Beyond The Box Score. He can also be found writing about the Mets at Amazin' Avenue and Mets Merized Online. He writes about New York sports at Over the Whitestone. You can follow and interact with him on Twitter @OverWhitestone.