When the Pop-Ups Fell In

Is a pop-up the same as a strikeout? No, of course not, by definition they are very different things. A pop-up requires contact, whereas a strikeout requires no contact, or at least very little contact, or a two-strike foul bunt. Pop-ups and strikeouts look nothing alike, to the eye. However, to the numbers, pop-ups and strikeouts look very much alike. On one level they are very different, and on another level they are very similar.

A few weeks ago, Dave asked whether infield flies should be included in FIP. The idea is that IFFBs have little to do with defensive skill, and pop-ups are effectively strikeouts, in terms of plate-appearance result. Pop-ups don’t advance runners, and pop-ups are almost always outs. They’re not literally always outs, but then, a batter can reach on a strikeout if the ball gets away from the catcher. So while pop-ups lead to outs slightly less often, they’re still just about automatic.

According to the Baseball-Reference Play Index, last year there were 9,377 pop-ups — we should note that pop-ups and infield flies are not the same thing, so we’re also dealing with flies to the shallow outfield here — during the regular season. These led to 220 hits and 45 errors. The slash line on pop-ups was .023/.023/.028, and on average someone reached base on a pop-up around once per nine games. If someone were to reach on a pop-up, it was almost a complete fluke. There were some dozens of games in which one batter reached on a pop-up. There were far fewer games in which two batters reached on pop-ups. There was but one game in which three batters reached on pop-ups. The odds of this happening are staggeringly low, but it happened, in Anaheim, on May 17.

And all three pop-ups were hit by White Sox batters, against the Angels defense. One came in the top of the fourth, one came in the top of the fifth, and one came in the top of the sixth. This just begs to be examined. If you’d like to follow along, here’s the box score, and here’s a Gameday link.

Look at the top of the box score and you’ll see our first clue. It reads:

Thursday, May 17, 2012, 12:39PM, Angel Stadium of Anaheim

This was a Thursday matinee, in southern California, which means even before we go to the video, we can assume the sun was a problem. The box score also says it was 73 degrees and sunny. It was, in many ways, a perfect day to be watching baseball. It was a slightly less perfect day to be playing baseball. It makes sense that the game in which three batters reached on pop-ups would be a game with a bright sun in the sky. It’s a decent excuse, not that the Angels are entirely exonerated. Last year around the country there were lots of matinees on sunny days.

There was little of note, for our purposes, in the first three innings of action. The White Sox took a 1-0 lead. In the first inning, the White Sox fielded two pop-ups. In the second inning, they fielded one pop-up. In the third inning, Chris Sale struck out the side. The fourth inning is when things got, I don’t know, circus-y. For one team.

Even before the Angels started having trouble with pop-ups, Mike Trout had trouble with fly balls. Here’s Trout misjudging a Dayan Viciedo foul fly, ultimately over-running it:

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As Trout returned to his position, he looked up at the sun, suggesting he couldn’t read the ball properly. On the very next pitch, Viciedo flew to right. He did not fly out to right.

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That’s not one of the pop-ups. This wasn’t a very good game in the field for the Angels.

The White Sox extended their lead, and Paul Konerko came up with two outs in the inning. In a 2-and-1 count, he popped up a sinker on the fists, and he wasn’t very happy about it:

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He wasn’t very happy about it because it was a pop-up and Konerko has been around baseball long enough to know that pop-ups are bad for hitters. This particular pop-up, however, would work out in Konerko and the White Sox’s favor. Pity poor Howie Kendrick, or don’t:

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The ball dropped in because Kendrick couldn’t see it. Perhaps Kendrick couldn’t see it because he wasn’t wearing his sunglasses.

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Kendrick’s manager, who wasn’t playing in the game, was wearing his sunglasses.

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Kendrick immediately put on his sunglasses.

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That was pop-up single number one. In the top of the fifth inning, Alexi Ramirez swung at the first pitch against David Carpenter. It was another sinker in on the fists, and it led to another pop-up in the vicinity of Howie Kendrick. This one also should’ve been an out, and Kendrick had his sunglasses on, but Kendrick got a late start and Ramirez ultimately reached.

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That was pop-up single number two. (That counted as a single.) Ramirez, though, wouldn’t score. We move on to the top of the sixth, when Adam Dunn faced Hisanori Takahashi. Takahashi got Dunn to pop-up a slider, and this time it wasn’t hit to Kendrick, but Maicer Izturis couldn’t find the ball in the sky and it deflected off his glove.

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That was pop-up single number three. (That also counted as a single.) I wouldn’t say it was an easy play, but that’s a catch that’s supposed to be made, and Izturis didn’t make it. No run would score in the frame, but the Angels’ defense presumably came away sufficiently embarrassed.

In the span of three innings, the Angels’ defense failed to field three pop-ups, and it also screwed up consecutive outfield fly balls. The White Sox batters hit three pop-ups in the game, and they all went for hits. The Angels batters hit five pop-ups in the game, and they all went for outs, like they’re supposed to. There’s no question in my mind that the sun was making things unusually difficult, but somehow, the White Sox managed. The Angels struggled, and the Angels deserved to lose, which they did, only in part because of the misplays.

Said Kendrick later on:

“When you make some of those mistakes, it opens the door for other things to happen,” Kendrick said. “And that’s usually what we thrive on as a team.”
[…]
“I had my sunglasses on my hat,” Kendrick said. “I made a mistake there. I have to have my glasses on and make that play regardless. There were some tough fly balls, but at the same time, those are plays that have to be made.”

If there’s a larger point here, a question to be examined, it’s the idea that pop-ups will be more difficult to field during matinees, as opposed to night games. That’s something that could fairly easily be studied — at what rate do pop-ups turn into outs during day games? At what rate do pop-ups turn into outs during night games? Wind can make things just as difficult as sunny conditions, and that would be another thing to look at, but our wind data is of a lesser quality. What’s the run value of a matinee pop-up, versus a nighttime pop-up?

But the more specific point is: on May 17, 2012, the White Sox hit three pop-ups against the Angels, and they all went for hits. In no other game all season did a team reach base three times on pop-ups. A lot of it, if not all of it had to do with the fact that there was a super bright sun in the sky, but that’s still really fluky and weird.



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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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