Identifying 2015’s Pop-Up Champion

I’ll tell you what this was supposed to be about. Over the weekend, Howie Kendrick was in the news, since he re-signed with the Dodgers. I was going to take the opportunity to write about how Kendrick just about never hits a pop-up. It’s one of those things that helps explain why he’s been able to run high batting averages, and even though I know I wrote about this very thing like a year ago for Fox Sports, Kendrick didn’t hit a single pop-up in the most recent season. Nor did he hit a single pop-up in the previous season. So, by our numbers, Kendrick has gone more than two regular seasons without a pop-up, which is insane and well worth re-visiting. Who doesn’t like to read about the weirdos?

But, you know, ideas evolve, especially when you give them a few days to simmer. Kendrick, pretty clearly, is exceptional in this regard. However, he’s not unique. You might be thinking right now about Joey Votto, and Votto is also pop-up averse, but this past year there were just two regular players who successfully avoided pop-ups: Kendrick and Christian Yelich. This is fitting, because over the past five years, if you set a 1,000 plate-appearance minimum, Yelich and Kendrick own the lowest pop-up rates in baseball. They both feature phenomenal bat-to-ball skills, reflected by these numbers, and they’re valuable because of the extra singles they can scratch out.

So, Kendrick doesn’t hit pop-ups. Yelich doesn’t hit pop-ups. By at least one source, neither hit a pop-up in 2015. Might it be possible to crown either the 2015 pop-up champion?

It’s time to dig in, because this is about to get nerdy. The batted-ball information you see on FanGraphs comes from Baseball Info Solutions. They provide good data, and they classify a pop-up as being a fly that’s caught (or, I suppose, not caught, every so often) within 140 feet of home plate. There’s nothing wrong with that definition, but it should also be clear this is a little bit arbitrary. There is no perfect cut-off. So what if we look elsewhere? Here’s what happens when you run a search for pop-ups on Baseball Savant:

kendrick-yelich-baseball-savant

That’s…interesting, and unhelpful. Kendrick and Yelich, again, are at the top of the list. However, according to BIS, they tied with zero pop-ups. According to MLB.com, they tied with one pop-up. A tie is a tie, so we have to dig deeper still. We should look at the actual pop-ups, that MLB.com thinks are pop-ups, and to make it all that much weirder, you’ll notice that both these balls in play were hit on June 21. Here’s how the FanGraphs play log describes one:

Howie Kendrick flied out to second (Fly).

Here’s how it describes the other:

Christian Yelich fouled out to shortstop (Fly). Derek Dietrich advanced to 2B.

It’s time to watch. We’ll start with Kendrick, and try to figure out which alleged pop-up seems pop-uppier. Here’s Kendrick batting against Yusmeiro Petit, in relief of an ineffective Tim Lincecum:

Well now. That sure as heck looks like an ordinary pop-up. Long hang time, caught on the dirt, snagged by an infielder. Look at this and tell me it’s not a pop-up:

kendrick-pop-out

I kind of get why sources differ, because here you see the infielder with his back foot sort of on the grass, and maybe you prefer a really super-strict definition. But why don’t we make an estimate, pulling an image from Clem’s Baseball? I’ll approximate the spot where the ball came down:

kendrick-pop-out-stadium

Based on pixels, and using the distance from home to first base as the 90-foot standard, Kendrick’s fly had a distance of about 148 feet. Just barely north of the BIS cut-off. So now we move to Yelich, and at this point he has a great chance of winning. He just needs his pop-up to look less pop-uppy than Kendrick’s obvious pop-up. In Cincinnati on the same day:

This also looks a lot like a pop-up. The hang time is there, and the ball was tracked down by an infielder. But a difference is that the infielder who caught the ball had to go to some effort to arrive in the right area.

yelich-pop-out

That’s close to the foul-area warning track, behind third base. Using Clem’s again:

yelich-pop-out-stadium

This time, going through the same math, I get a fly-ball distance of about 177 feet. So Yelich popped the ball about the distance of two third-base lines, meaning Yelich’s pop went almost 30 feet farther than Kendrick’s. Just to drive the point home that Yelich’s pop-out was “better,” it advanced a runner from first to second base, as Dee Gordon bluffed home from third and drew a throw. It seems like we’re set, then: Kendrick and Yelich tied for their number of pop-ups, but Yelich’s most pop-uppy hit was less pop-uppy than Kendrick’s. So Yelich is the 2015 season champ.

But.

Christian Yelich lined out to shortstop (Fliner (Liner)).

July 25. San Diego. It’s called a liner there, but according to Yelich’s spray chart, it was a blooper. A blooper, caught by the shortstop? That’s awful suspicious.

And that’s awful suspicious. The ball hung up a little bit — for roughly 2.4 seconds — and it was caught easily. It was caught about 138 feet from home.

yelich-pop-out-stadium-2

It’s obviously something of an in-between play — with a slight modification, the ball clears the infield, and goes for a single. It’s almost a soft line drive, but it seems to have more of the soft, and less of the drive. I’m not real comfortable designating this either as 100% a pop-up or 100% not a pop-up, but I don’t think I have to do that. See, Kendrick didn’t have a 2015 equivalent. So while Kendrick hit the more obvious single pop-up, Yelich hit a pair of in-betweeners. His advantage on the first was right around 30 feet. I think this questionable ball in play, right here, negates that advantage and then some. It’s an arguable stand, but I’m going to make it. I made up this competition, and I’m putting my foot down.

Your 2015 pop-up champion: Howie Kendrick, then and still of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Kendrick, in truth, didn’t go the whole year successfully avoiding any easy infield flies. But then, nobody did. Kendrick, in the end, came the closest.





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.

23 Comments
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Zonkmember
6 years ago

Good article, but I thought it was going to be about the player who hit the MOST pop-ups in 2015. Who was that?

stripesjr
6 years ago
Reply to  Jeff Sullivan

Yes, the meaning of life.

Zonkmember
6 years ago
Reply to  Jeff Sullivan

Dozier’s career BABIP is .269, despite having decent footspeed. I bet large numbers of pop-ups are the main culprit!

Brian Reinhartmember
6 years ago
Reply to  Zonk

I loved the detective work here, and the coincidence of both pop-ups being on the same day, and the quaintly colorful Clem’s stadium maps. But I did expect the same thing you did.

Doing a quick sort of IFFB%, I see that Jose Reyes is at over 20%. No idea if that is indicative of being a pop-ups leader, but his spray chart indicates that he popped out at least 40 times last year.

Sn0wman
6 years ago
Reply to  Brian Reinhart

I would guess Andrelton for most IFFBs every season, knowing I’d at least have a shot at being right.