It remains one of the game’s unsolved mysteries. A batter hits a pop-up near the mound and the person closest to it — a professional athlete wearing a glove — isn’t expected to catch the ball. Moreover, he’s not supposed to catch the ball. That job belongs to any one of several teammates, all of whom has traversed a greater distance. As often as not they’re climbing a slope to get under the descending baseball.
Chaos can ensue as the infielders and the catcher converge. The multiple “I’ve got its,” are drowned out by crowd noise and suddenly what should be a routine out becomes an adventure. We’ve all seen it. A bumper-car-like collision occurs and the catch is made clumsily… or not at all.
Just last week, Red Sox right-hander Rick Porcello was charged with an error when he failed to catch a pop up in front of the mound. Not because of ineptitude, but rather because he was veritably mugged by his catcher as the ball was about to arrive comfortably in his glove.
Why aren’t pitchers expected to handle simple pop-ups? They’re perfectly capable, so it makes sense that they should be catching them. Right?
“I don’t know why, and yes, they should be,’ said Seattle’s Perry Hill, whom many consider the game’s best infield instructor. “They’re on on the field of play when the ball is in play, so they should be able to make a play. It’s practiced in spring training. That little short pop-up that nobody can get to. The third baseman is playing way back. The first baseman is way back. The pitcher is the closest guy to the ball. He’ll catch that ball.”
Scott Servais sees it somewhat differently than his first base coach.
“The pitcher is only out there once every five days,” said the Mariners manager. “It’s something he’s probably not used to doing a whole lot. There are certainly plenty of pitchers that are good enough athletes to catch a pop up — I don’t question that — but the guys who call them off usually get it done. I’m comfortable if our guys call our guys off.”
Which brings us to the aforementioned risk of chaos. If multiple players are yelling “I’ve got it” — and assuming the voices can be distinguished — who does get it?
“There’s a pecking order,” explained Colorado Rockies infielder Ryan McMahon. “That way, if guys are calling it you know who has the priority. It’s second base over first base, first base and third base over the catcher, and the shortstop basically has priority over everybody. But why not the pitcher? It’s guess it’s kind of just an unwritten rule in baseball.”
McMahon’s teammate, right-hander Jon Gray, follows the unwritten-rule protocol. While he makes sure to be in position to catch the ball if the need arises, he defers when someone else calls for it. Which isn’t to say he wouldn’t prefer to make the play himself.
“Saying we shouldn’t catch it is kind of like saying we shouldn’t field grounders in front of us,” reasoned Gray. “You’re an athlete and should to be able to field your position. I think pitchers should be able to make the catch, but if it’s a towering pop-up in the infield, we’re probably going to get out of the way. We’re expected to.”
Bud Black threw over 2,000 innings in a playing career that spanned the 1981-1995 seasons. His feelings on the subject are mixed.
“I’m all in for pitchers catching a pop-up,” said Colorado’s manager. “But I would prefer an infielder catching it. By trade, they’re more skilled to catch the ball than a pitcher. Infielders practice that skill. Pitchers really don’t.”
Despite his stated preference, Black admitted that it’s a little surprising that more infielders don’t trip when converging on the mound. For one thing, they’re traveling uphill. When I asked Perry Hill, he told me that “Coming down the mound to make a catch is easier than climbing the mound.”
So, again: Why shouldn’t the pitcher be the one making the play?
“We’re definitely capable of catching a pop-up,” said Porcello. “It’s not that we’re not allowed to catch it, it’s just that we’re the worst defenders on the field. We have all these guys behind us who are tremendous athletes, and they do it for a living. If we have the opportunity to get out of the way and have one of them catch it, that’s what we’re going to do.”
Even if it’s wholly unnecessary.
If you’ve followed the pitch series we’ve been running here at FanGraphs over the past year, you know that hurlers learn and develop their offerings in a variety of ways. You’re also aware that technology-driven pitch design is becoming more and more common. That said, for every Trevor Bauer, there’s a Bryan Shaw. The Colorado Rockies reliever isn’t necessarily averse to modernity, but when it comes to his signature pitch… well, as Elvis Costello once warbled, accidents will happen.
“I didn’t learn my cutter,” said Shaw. “It was the result of a bad habit. I went to instructs for a second year — this would have been in 2009 — after being told that I wasn’t going to go. They said, ‘You’re going to throw bullpens every three days. You’re not going to pitch in games, you’re just going to throw bullpens.’”
He didn’t throw them in a purposeful manner.
“My catch play turned into straight horse shit,” admitted Shaw. “I was mad that I was there, so I was basically just slinging the ball, not caring.”
Come spring training, Shaw, then in the Arizona Diamondbacks system, found that his ball was cutting as it had in instructs. He doesn’t have an explanation for why that was, nor for why it remains the same all these years later.
“It was basically a bad habit that turned into what it is,” the righty told me. “I don’t actually throw a fastball now. I grab the ball like a four-seam, like everybody else does, and throw it. And it cuts.”
RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS
When I spoke to Stephen Piscotty in 2013, he was a 22-year-old St. Louis prospect finishing up his first full professional season. The hitting approach he’d brought with him from Stanford wasn’t what you typically hear espoused in today’s game. Piscotty told me that he tries to hit line drives and hard ground balls, adding that “If you hit the ball low and hard, you’re going to have a lot better chance than if you hit it up in the air.”
Earlier this month I asked Piscotty — now a member of the Oakland A’s — how he’s changed since that time.
“That is a loaded question,” the erstwhile Cardinal replied following a pregnant pause. “It’s been a learning curve. I’ve learned how to drive the ball a little bit better. I wasn’t much of a power guy in college. I’ve kind of learned how to use some of my levers. I’m not like a bulky, strong guy, so I have to use my length.”
I reminded Piscotty what he’d said six years ago about low and hard. His response struck me as unclear.
“You have to adapt — change to the game — with all the shifts now,” said Piscotty. “Usually, when you hit it on the ground it’s an out, so you need to get that low liner over the heads of the infielders.”
That’s still a low liner, right?
“If you start with a line-drive approach, and get a little under it, you’re going to really drive the ball,” Piscotty explained. “If you’re a little on top, you might hit a hard grounder that’s got a chance. So I still go for that low liner. It’s worked for me. I want to stay true to the hitter I am.”
Piscotty homered a career-high 27 times last year while slashing .267/.331/.491. So far this season he’s gone deep five times, and is hitting .258/.333/.401. His career ground-ball rate is 45.1%.
Jose Devers, a 19-year-old infielder in the Miami Marlins system, is slashing .342/.405/.386, in 126 plate appearances, for the high-A Jupiter Hammerheads. The left-handed hitter from Samana, Dominican Republic is the cousin of Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers.
Drew Waters, a 20-year-old outfielder in the Atlanta Braves system, is slashing .323/.358/.494, in 173 plate appearances, for the Double-A Mississippi Braves. A second-round pick in 2017 out of a Woodstock, Georgia high school, Waters is Atlanta’s No.6-rated prospect.
Brad Case, a 22-year-old right-hander in the Pittsburgh Pirates system, is 5-1 with a 1.90 ERA in seven starts for the low-A Greensboro Grasshoppers. A 17th-round pick last year out of Rollins Collins, Case has 30 strikeouts and just has walked just two batters in 42-and-two-thirds innings.
Ben Bowden, a 24-year-old left-hander in the Colorado Rockies system, has 13 saves and a 1.62 ERA for the Double-A Hartford Yard Goats. A native of Lynn, Massachusetts, Bowden was a second-round selection in 2016 out of Vanderbilt.
Dante Bichette, Jr. is slashing .400/.430/.575, in 86 plate appearances, for the High Point Rockers in the independent Atlantic League. A former first-round pick, the 26-year-old infielder/outfielder spent the 2011-2017 seasons in the Yankees system.
The 51-plate-appearances sample size is small; the .469 BABiP borderline absurd. Regardless, results are results. Pittsburgh Pirates infielder Kevin Newman is slashing a splendiferous .340/.392/.447.
Newman’s approach is much like Stephen Piscotty’s, and it’s the same one he had when I first spoke with him. The former Cape Cod League batting champion told me in 2016 that he “tries to hit low line drives all over the field.” He still does, and with a limited power ceiling that’s probably in his best interest. The 25-year-old batted .302 last year in Triple-A Indianapolis, but he only left the yard four times.
“It hasn’t changed much, honestly” Newman said of his offensive profile. “More than anything, I’ve just grown as a player, and as a human. I’m stronger than I was when we talked three years ago. So if anything has changed, approach-wise, it’s more of ‘drive the ball up the gaps, over the second baseman’s head, over the shortstop’s head,’ instead of just aiming for low line drives, per se. But I go up there and just try to make hard contact. Wherever it goes, it goes.”
Newman’s batted balls are currently finding more than their fare share of holes. At least for now, the BABiP gods are squarely on his side.
The San Diego Padres played the 8,020th game in franchise history on Thursday, and for 8,020th time they didn’t throw a no-hitter. That broke the record held by the New York Mets, who recorded their first ever no-no on June 1, 2012 — Johan Santana turned the trick — after 8,019 games.
Houston Astros right-hander Ryan Pressly set a major league record on Friday night with his 39th-consecutive scoreless appearance. (Craig Kimbrel went 38 consecutive in 2011). Pressly has pitched in 18 games this season, and has allowed nine hits in 20 innings. He’s fanned 21 batters.
Kris Bryant homered three times on Friday, going deep in the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings. Per STATS, Bryant became the 12th player in history to homer in three straight innings, and the second to do it in the 7th, 8th, and 9th. J.D. Martinez did so in September 2017.
Sabermetrics, Scouting, and the Science of Baseball (aka SaberSeminar) tickets are now on sale and can be found here. The can’t-miss benefit-event will be held in Boston on August 10 and 11. FanGraphs is among the sponsors.
Bud Black was asked about his experiences pitching at Fenway Park when the Rockies visited Boston earlier this week. The Colorado manager made his first two career appearances at the now-108-year-old ballpark in September 1981 The latter of those outings is memorable due to the relative impacts of respect.
“I made my debut here,” said Black, who was 24 at the time. “I gave up a [hit] to the first batter I faced. Rick Miller. The next day, I walked Yaz on strike three — a 3-2 fastball right down the middle for ball four. He dropped his bat and walked to first. I’m waiting for the umpire to ring him up. No chance. Five-days-in-the-big leagues left-handed pitcher. Carl Yastrzemski. It was ball four.”
One of my favorite old quotes is included in the fastball chapter of Tyler Kepner’s new book, K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches. Spoken in 1907, it was in regard to a teenage pitcher named Walter Johnson:
“The boy throws so fast you can’t see ‘em.. and he knows where he is throwing the ball, because if he didn’t, there would be dead bodies strewn all over Idaho.”
A native of Humboldt, Kansas who went on to win 417 games and lead the American League in strikeouts 12 times, “The Big Train” was pitching in the semipro Southern Idaho League at the time.
LINKS YOU’LL LIKE
At Sport Techie, Joe Lemire wrote about how Pennsylvania’s Gaming Control Board expects the state’s first online sports book to begin live testing sometime in the next two weeks.
Stephen Hawkins of The Associated Press wrote about how Adrian Beltre is missing baseball less than he expected to after 21 big-league seasons.
How are Kansas City’s pitchers and position players doing so far this season? Josh Keiser handed out his first-quarter grades at Royals Review.
This SABR BioProject entry on Hod Eller isn’t new, but it’s well worth your read. As biographer Stephen V. Rice explains, the righty went 58-38, 2.52 for the Cincinnati Reds from 1917-1920… but then MLB banned the “shine ball.” Soon thereafter, Eller’s career was over.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
Cody Bellinger has a .409 batting average and a .408 BABiP.
DJ LeMahieu is slashing .471/.488/.500 in 42 plate appearances with runners in scoring position.He’s slashing .245/.295/.378 in 105 plate appearances with the bases empty.
Terrance Gore has 10 hits, a .400 batting average, and has been caught four times in nine steal attempts. Coming into the season, he had one career hit, an .063 batting average, and had been caught four times in 31 steal attempts.
This past Tuesday, the Red Sox had just two outfield putouts in an 11-inning loss to the Rockies. Colorado had 13 outfield putouts, including three each in the fifth, sixth, and seventh innings. All three in the fifth were by the rightfielder. The ensuing six were by the centerfielder.
Ty Buttrey has an 0.76 ERA and a 1.25 FIP in 21 appearances out of the Angels bullpen. He has 31 strikeouts in 23-and-two-thirds innings.
Ray Chapman had 67 sacrifice hits for the Cleveland Indians in 1917. The Oakland A’s have 66 sacrifice hits as a team since the start of the 2014 season.
On May 20, 1961, rookie infielder Ken Hubbs logged eight hits in 10 at bats as the Chicago Cubs swept a doubleheader against the Philadelphia Phillies. Less than two years later, Hubbs perished in a plane crash at age 22.
Shorty Des Jardien made his only big-league appearance on May 20, 1913. The 6-foot-4 native of Coffeyville, Kansas pitched one inning for the Cleveland Indians.
George Laurila went 14-4 for the Wisconsin State League’s Appleton Papermakers in 1941. A native of Newberry, Michigan who played in the Cleveland Indians organization, Laurila is no relation to the author of this column.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.