The Most Exciting Play in Baseball

Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

A popup is an automatic out. In 2023, popups had a batting average of just .014, so if we round up, we can say honestly that 99% of them were completely worthless. If you see the ball leave the bat headed straight up in the air, the outcome is essentially predetermined. No other batted ball carries less intrigue. Groundballs may be pariahs in the era of the launch angle revolution, but their .261 batting average meant they were 18 times more likely than popups to end up as hits. Knowing all that, you could be excused for thinking that the popup is the most boring possible way for the ball to be put in play. But I’m going to let you in on something: The popup is secretly the most exciting play in baseball.

You see, what popups lack in suspense, they make up for in drama. That’s because the popup is the play most likely to end up with any and all of the players on the field screaming. Now, in most contexts, screaming isn’t necessarily something you look forward to. Personally, my day-to-day life contains exactly zero screaming, and I prefer to keep it that way. In any given situation, I tend to think of somebody yelling at me as the absolute worst-case scenario. However, the screaming that happens during a popup is fun. No one is screaming to hurt anyone else. Players may scream out of anger, but they also scream in order to be helpful and to keep their teammates safe. When the ball has been popped up, screaming is cooperation. Screaming is friendship. Screaming is love.

As we embark on the 2024 season, it’s best to think of popups like tragic operas. Everyone walks into the theater knowing that things will end badly for the protagonist. They’re not there to find out what will happen, they’re there to be moved by how it happens. Although the end is sad, there is great beauty to be found in the death and shrieking. With that, let’s review the different reasons that players might end up screaming their heads off when the ball gets lifted into the air. I watched every single televised popup that happened during spring training, and then I made supercuts so that we could break them down together. I also included a few choice screams from recent seasons.

Whenever the ball is popped up, it is the solemn duty of every ballplayer to shout “Up!” as loud as humanly possible. This is the law, and it was hammered into me so hard when I was in high school that it became an involuntary response. I’m now 40 years old. I play recreational softball. And still, I cannot help screaming every time someone pops the ball up. No one else does this. It is embarrassing and I am unable to stop. It is less embarrassing when big leaguers do it.

In theory, the goal of this particular scream is to help the catcher. The catcher is busy trying not just to catch the pitch, but to frame it while also managing all of the other responsibilities that come with the position. Unlike everyone else on the field, a ball popped straight up immediately leaves the catcher’s line of sight. Screaming, “Up!” lets them know the location of the ball and warns them that they might have to make a play on it. Occasionally, you can see that catchers really do need the help. They’re capable of looking very confused indeed.

For that reason, and also because they are themselves forbidden from catching popups, pitchers have also been trained to point to the ball when it’s popped up. It is not helpful, but it is, once again, the law. It must be extraordinarily infantilizing for the pitcher, normally the source of all the action, to be reduced to a helpless citizen of Metropolis, shouting, “Look, up in the sky!” I imagine it also feels quite futile, since, throughout the entire history of baseball, exactly zero popups have ever been caught because the pitcher’s index finger helped a fielder locate the ball.

Once it has been established that the ball is, in fact, up, it’s time to decide who will have the honor of catching it. This is determined by way of the democratic process of — you guessed it — even more screaming, just as the founding fathers intended. In theory, there are certain places where one fielder has the right of way, but in practice, the rules are simple: Whoever screams the loudest and the latest gets the ball. The generally accepted parlance is, “I got it.” As Junior Caminero makes clear in the first clip below, “Mía, mía, mía” works just as well for Spanish speakers.

It really is important for the fielders to declare whether or not they’ve got it. To you, it may just sound like grown men shouting at each other, but in baseball, that’s known as communication. If your team fails to communicate, then something like this could happen.

But that’s still not the worst-case scenario. The worst-case scenario is an outfield collision, and it happens all too frequently. Usually, there’s nothing funny about ballfield collisions, but they can have their moments. For example, the legendary band Yo La Tengo got their name from center fielder Richie Ashburn’s futile attempt to avoid outfield collisions with shortstop Elio Chacon when the two played together for the Mets in the early ’60s. Seamus Kerney tells the story in Ashburn’s SABR bio:

The story revolved around the antics of the Spanish-speaking shortstop for the Mets, Elio Chacon, and his penchant for frequent near-collisions with outfielders. This was especially true with Ashburn on short fly balls to center field. Ashburn realized that Chacon did not understand the English warning: “I have it,” so he went to a bilingual Mets player and was told that Chacon would understand the warning in Spanish, yo la tengo; that it meant the fly ball was the center fielder’s to catch. Soon enough a short fly ball was hit and a back-pedaling Chacon veered off, following Ashburn’s admonition in Spanish. What was unexpected was that onrushing, English-only left fielder Frank Thomas completely flattened Ashburn. After pulling his center fielder from the ground, Thomas asked him “What’s a Yellow Tango?”

Sometimes the issue is not who will get the ball, but whether the fielder can get to it safely. If the ball is being buffeted by the wind and your head is craned skyward to track it into foul territory, it can be hard to mind your surroundings. That’s where your teammates can come in, telling you whether or not you have the space to safely make the catch without running into the wall. The preferred verbiage is “Got room! Got room!” Strangely, nobody yells much of anything when you don’t have room. It doesn’t make a ton of sense, as that’s the situation when you’d really need help to keep from crashing into the wall. In theory, nobody should need to be told that they’ve got room. They should just keep going after the ball until they hear a teammate say, “Stop running or you’ll die!”

There’s one more player who can get in on the screaming action, and that’s the batter. In this case, there is no altruistic reason for screaming. It’s just pure catharsis, a way to vent the rage from your body before you explode. Let it out, Jason Heyward. Let it out.

Of course, the players aren’t the only ones who can scream. I have a friend who is physically incapable of going to concert without shouting something at the band between songs. Maybe it’s a joke, or maybe it’s just a big, loud Woooo! There is something inside of him that simply cannot survive those few seconds of silence. For baseball fans with the same condition, the odd interstice when everyone in the stadium is waiting for the ball to finally remember that it’s earthbound is the perfect moment to grab some attention. Usually, they’ll shout that it is in fact they who have got it, but it’s also a time to shine for people blessed with great whistles or anyone who simply loves screaming. In my favorite of the clips that follow, someone who is presumably not familiar with the terminology of the game very clearly tells the fielder, “You’re gonna fumble it.”

In addition to the joy of screaming, popups give you a chance to enjoy the choreography of a baseball game. Because it’s never immediately clear where the ball will land and who will end up with it, the broadcast cuts to the widest shot they have, way up behind home plate. In this rare glimpse of the entire field, you can see all of the infielders, and sometimes all nine fielders, as they move together. There’s beauty in it, and it truly lets you see the way in which defense requires all nine players.

One of my favorite moments comes in the instant before they cut to that camera. It’s vanishingly brief, and it can only take place if a right-handed batter fouls a pitch from a right-handed pitcher down the first base line. When that happens, the pitcher, catcher, and hitter will all move together, following the ball toward first base. First their heads snap up, and then their bodies follow in sort of a synchronized drift. It’s like they’re zombies who suddenly catch the scent of brains wafting over from the south.

That’s the last supercut I’ve got, but before I leave you, I’d like to share with you my dream of the perfect popup. It’s the popup where everyone in the stadium screams: players, fans, umpires, announcers, ushers, even the possums (assuming the game is being played in Oakland). I crunched a lot of tape looking for the perfect popup. I never found it, but I know that it’s out there somewhere.

The perfect popup starts with a pitcher unleashing both the baseball and a max effort grunt. With a mighty cut, the batter sends the ball straight up into the stratosphere, and the catcher, pitcher, and infielders instantly scream the word, “Up!” in perfect unison. The batter barks the F-word in fury, smashing the bat over a beefy thigh. The umpires shout, “Infield fly, batter’s out!” Thunderclouds boom. A swirling thermal pushes the ball hither and yon in the sky, and as it passes over each fielder in turn, each one shouts, “I’ve got it! I’ve got it!” At first the fans shout gaily that they’ve got it too, but as the ball travels ever skyward in open defiance of gravity, their playful shouts turn into panicked screams. They rend their garments. The batter, no longer jogging half-heartedly toward first, furiously churns around the bases. The ball keeps rising. “Cold beer here,” screams a vendor, completely oblivious to the apocalypse unfolding around him. “Yes, oh God yes,” howls the play-by-play announcer. And then, just like that, the ball decides to start falling. The thunderclouds dissipate. The fans meekly put back on the clothes they’d ripped from their bodies in terror. The third baseman drifts toward the dugout, and after reassurances that he’s got room, he settles under the ball, says once more that he’s got it, and secures it safely in his glove. The batter dives headfirst into home. God weeps.

Davy Andrews is a Brooklyn-based musician and a contributing writer for FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @davyandrewsdavy.

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2 months ago

This is a fantastic article. No notes.