People love experiencing rarities. We flock to see Halley’s Comet when it comes around every 75 years, and to botanical gardens to see the blossoming of a flower that smells like death. There’s a thrill to seeing — or in the case of the flower, smelling — something that few others have. It’s not a unique experience, but it’s close. We likely experience many of little moments like this every day without realizing it. We only register the major events, like comets or death flowers, or Joey Votto pop ups.
Since he first entered the big leagues in 2007, Joey Votto boasts the lowest infield-fly-ball rate among all qualified batters at 1.3%. That figure was slightly lower before yesterday’s game against the Cubs, when he did this.
That’s the first batted ball that Votto has popped up to an infielder in fair territory since September 16th, 2016 — and that previous pop up was caught on the outfield grass, what Play Index describes as being in the “Deep SS-3B hole.” In fact, every pop up to an infielder by Votto in 2016 was described as deep in the hole. To find Votto’s last pop up that was caught by an infielder in fair territory that was actually in the infield, you’d have to go all the way back to May 24th of 2015, when Trevor Bauer got him to pop up to second base.
We all know that Votto is a phenomenal hitter with a great bat and an even better understanding of the strike zone. His bat control is nearly unparalleled among power hitters, and he’s known for making very good contact. He swings only at what he wants to swing at, and nothing else. He’s a scientist, and the ballpark and the batting cage are his laboratories. There’s a reason Votto almost never pops up. Pop ups are incredibly high-percentage outs. If you hit the ball straight up in the infield, it’s almost certainly going to be caught.
Thus, Votto usually doesn’t swing at junk that can easily be popped up, like he did on that pitch from Kyle Hendricks last night. The high fastball is a good pitch with which to get a swing-and-miss or poor contact, and Hendricks executed it flawlessly — even with 87 mph. And indeed, Hendricks has been pitching better of late. After a rocky start to the season, he’s gotten his ERA down to 3.35. Hendricks hasn’t historically been much of a pop-up specialist, so he’s not the first candidate you’d think of to get Votto of all people to do it. You’d think it be someone like Jeremy Hellickson, who has a 14.5% infield-fly-ball rate since the start of 2016. That’s the highest rate in the National League in that timespan, and he’s the one who got Votto to pop up to foul territory in April.
Instead, it was Hendricks who became one of the lucky few to ever cause Votto to get himself out in such a manner. It’s unclear whether or not Hendricks knows what a feat this is, or whether the average fan at Wrigley (or any ballpark where Votto has done this, for that matter) knew that they were experiencing one of sports’ rarest occurrences. Even including foul outs and balls caught by infielders on the outfield grass, Baseball Reference’s Play Index says that Votto has done this only 69 times in just over 1300 plate appearances — and it’s been getting rarer and rarer as his career has progressed.
After last night’s game, only eight of them have been in fair territory, and actually caught in the infield.
It’s worth noting that Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs define batted balls somewhat differently, as Jeff Sullivan noted last year. We get our raw stats from Baseball Info Solutions, and they define an infield fly ball as any batted ball that travels less than 140 feet. Our records show that Votto didn’t hit a single infield fly ball last year. B-Ref categorizes through Retrosheet data and X-Y coordinates from MLB. That’s why there’s slight discrepancies depending on which site you use. In the long run it’s not a huge deal. Regardless of however you slice this, what Votto did last night was extremely rare.
Last night was a little slice of everyday history. It wasn’t a groundbreaking event, or something that radically shifted the landscape of the game. It had happened seven times before. It’s one of the hardest things for a pitcher to do, and Kyle Hendricks did it. He got Joey Votto to pop out to the infield, in fair territory.
That’s incredible. It’s cool. It’s a fun little footnote, and something for geeks like us to freak out about.
Nick is a columnist at FanGraphs, and has written previously for Baseball Prospectus and Beyond the Box Score. Yes, he hates your favorite team, just like Joe Buck. You can follow him on Twitter at @StelliniTweets, and can contact him at stellinin1 at gmail.