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Infield Fly Balls and xFIP

Today I saw a couple gripes around the Internets about xFIP and how infield fly balls are not taken into account. On FanGraphs, overall fly-ball percentage is used to calculated a pitcher’s “normalized” home run rate.

This got me thinking about David Gassko’s Batted Ball DIPS article from five years ago where he writes the following about infield fly balls:

Infield flies per ball in play actually have a slight negative correlation with outfield flies per ball in play. Inducing infield flies is a skill, and while it correlates somewhat weakly year-to-year (Lichtman found an “r” of .140), a small subset of pitchers exhibits clear control over the percentage of their fly balls that are infield pop ups. I would encourage studies looking into who those pitchers are—one thing I have noticed is that extreme ground ball pitchers allow fewer than expected infield fly balls.

What I believe is actually going on here is that fly-ball pitchers in general have higher infield fly-ball rates as measured by Baseball Info Solutions. The repeatability of infield fly balls is basically just a side effect of a pitcher’s total fly-ball rate. Looking at all pitchers from 2006-2009, here’s what you get when you bucket FB% in increments of 5%:

FB% Bucket     IFFB%    HR/FB%   HR/OFFB%
< 25%          7.1%     11.1%     11.9%
25% - 29%      7.8%     10.9%     11.7%
30% - 34%      8.9%     10.2%     11.2%
35% - 39%      9.7%     10.2%     11.3%
40% - 44%     10.5%     10.0%     11.2%
45% - 49%     11.6%      9.8%     11.0%
>= 50%        12.2%     10.0%     11.4%

So, while it’s pretty clear that overall FB% is impacting IFFB%, I’m not sure things are quite so obvious with home runs. It seems to me that home-runs-per-total-fly-ball plateaus at about 10% starting in the 30%-plus range. And for home-runs-per-outfield-fly-ball, things look pretty similar, except everything is about 1% higher because of the removed IFFBs.

So getting back to xFIP, does it really matter whether or not you exclude popups? The answer is, not really. You’re going to get almost the same results because HR/OFFB on average exhibits more or less the same issue as HR/FB. In fact, the correlation between using OFFB vs total FBs in xFIP is .996. The two, in practice, are virtually identical.

However, when you bucket the data like this, it seems that there is one thing made clear: When an extreme groundball pitcher induces a fly ball, there’s slightly greater chance it will end up a home run. I think it would be particularly interesting to look at the run values of different batted balls types for different buckets of fly-ball pitchers, but I’ll have to leave that for another time.