2021 Offered Us Towering Popups Galore

On the surface, popups may seem a bit mundane. Typically, the ball isn’t even visible on the broadcast and they are nearly always converted into outs. Nearly always isn’t always, though, and dropped popups are a treat to behold. And even if you aren’t lucky enough to see one actually drop, plenty of weird things can happen on plays that start off routine:

Since it’s the middle of the offseason, I thought it would be a good time to take a closer look at the popups of 2021. I don’t want just any old popups, though. I want the best of the best — the popups that cause players to lose their feet, the ones that make the crowd “ooh” and “aww” as the ball simply refuses to come down.

The easiest way to find these sky-scraping popups is to base our search off of exit velocity, as balls hit harder will go higher. An exit velocity of at least 97 mph seemed like a good cutoff point. Any lower, and the popups would start to feel less impressive; any higher, and the sample wouldn’t be large enough to satiate my desire to watch this sort of play. That cutoff left me with 126 popups representing the hardest 1.5% of popups hit this season (if you’d like to follow along, you can find the whole batch here on Baseball Savant).

This is not meant to be a representative sample of popups, just an entertaining one. I want to take a closer look at how fielders handle them and how hitters react to hitting them. But first, let’s listen to how the broadcasters describe them. Broadcasters have a unique ability to see popups in all of their glory. They are positioned high up in the booth, giving them a more holistic perspective on batted balls, one we simply don’t get at home. Given that these popups are of a rare sort, do broadcasters do a good job of alerting the audience to the fact that we’re witnessing something atypical? To find out, I watched the home and road feeds of all of these popups, giving me 249 opportunities (a few games didn’t have a road feed) to hear how announcers chose to describe them.

Below is a chart that tracks the frequency of the descriptors broadcasters used to add some extra flavor to all these popups. I’ve also included some, though not all, of the more interesting phrases that were only said once:

Broadcasters Describing Popups
Descriptor Frequency
High 33
Mile High* 13
Hiiiiiigh* 12
Skies (it/one) 12
Who wants it 9
Towering 8
Way up (there) 7
That’s up there 5
Wow 5
Big league popup 4
Who’s going to take it 3
Just missed it 3
Sky High* 3
That had re-entry burns 2
If it comes down 2
If we were in the Metrodome, that would puncture the roof 1
Right up the elevator shaft 1
Keep your eye on that one 1
Man, oh man 1
A rainmaker 1
Waiting all night for it 1
*Not counted toward the total of “High”

Somehow I hadn’t heard the “re-entry burns” line before but heard it here twice by two different people. I’m also a fan of “big league popup,” as it’s a phrase I’ve heard used a lot at the lower levels to indicate that a player hit a ball to heights you only see in the big leagues. “High” feels like the absolute bare minimum you should expect on popups like this, and I certainly heard the bare minimum a lot. One step down from that, though, is an announcer simply describing the hit as a popup and moving on, which happened a surprising 54% of the time. It’s disappointing to think that you could be watching a popup hit so hard that one like it is seen less than once a day across all of baseball and yet be left unaware.

Pretty quickly I began to notice a difference in how the home and road broadcast crews called these popups. The home crew gave them a descriptor 62% of the time, while the visiting crew did so a mere 30% of the time. A lot of this difference might be explained by the number of road broadcast teams that were still operating remotely last year due to the pandemic, though admittedly, I’m not sure how often that was happening. Some of the difference may also be due to home announcers having more experience watching the game from their exact vantage point, giving them better awareness of when a ball is hit higher than normal. If you watch baseball specifically to hear announcers exclaiming about “towering” popups — and who doesn’t? — stick to the home feed.

On that note, watch the Royals broadcast, as Rex Hudler often sounds like he has just taken a really good bite of steak when a ball heads up to the stratosphere, like when he gave us a “man, oh man” while the following was in the air:

Let’s move on to the hitters. As I’ve noted, these balls were hit incredibly hard and likely would have lead to home runs if the contact point had been adjusted ever so slightly. That has to be quite frustrating for hitters: batted balls hit 97 mph or greater have a league average wOBA of .683, yet not a single batted ball in this sample was rewarded with a base hit:

No hitter broke the 105 mph exit velocity barrier on a popup this year, but three hitters crossed the 104 mph mark: Tyler O’Neill, Joey Votto, and Dominic Smith, who took the crown with 104.3 mph popup that was described as “a mile high” by Mets’ broadcaster Gary Cohen. From the fielding to the announcing, it actually ended up being a rather mundane play, but it’s worth seeing how long the hardest hit popup of the year takes to come down – more than seven seconds on my watch:

As for the fielders, popups that are difficult to catch represent one of the few times when we get to see a big league defender look truly vulnerable. This can lead to impressive displays of footwork and riveting adjustments, as players have to react to the wind or their own initial misplay in order to wrangle the falling baseball. This, of course, is known as a popup dance:

On the opposite end of the spectrum, defenders who confidently track a popup will often emphatically announce that the ball is theirs to catch by waving off their teammates:

It’s really a matter of personal preference whether you like Elvis Andrus’ two-armed triple-wave or Tyler Wade’s single-armed quad-wave more. Even when a fielder easily handles these tall popups, you still get an idea of how impressive the contact was based on how they react afterward, like this “wow”-inducing 101 mph popup off the bat of Byron Buxton fielded by Whit Merrifield:

Through all my watching, I only saw three balls hit the ground. One of those three still managed to count as an out thanks to a questionable infield fly rule ruling. These plays can sometimes be surprisingly tricky and yet they are being made right around the rate of the league average fielding percentage of .985. If I boost up the sample size by looking across multiple seasons, the fielding percentage sits at .987. If you’re curious about more softly hit popups, the fielding percentage when the contact is under 90 mph is .994. So there is a difference in the error rate between soft and hard popups, just not much of one.

One other small thing: there seems to be a perception that pitchers always point to the sky after a popup. It’s an attempt to tell the fielders where the ball is, but it has always seemed rather unnecessary and is even mocked. It feels like I see pitchers pointing up all the time, but they only did so on 21% of these popups. Perhaps pitchers do it less nowadays, or maybe they never did it that often at all.

Enjoying popups is a guilt-free experience. It’s not some dark trend that is making the game less watchable, but simply an uncommon bit of action on the 27-out journey through a baseball game. Between the batted ball and the out being made, you might see a precarious route or a player taking a tumble. You may even learn something about objects re-entering our atmosphere. Of course, you probably won’t see any of that, but that rarity makes it all the more exciting when you do:

Luke Hooper is a designer and writer at FanGraphs. He lives in Portland, Oregon, longing for a major league team to materialize.

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Steve SD
Steve SD

Fun read. Would be better if we had some hot stove news to talk about, but when life gives you lemons, and all that . . .