Embrace The Automatic Out

Last week on Getting Blanked we looked at the mysterious influence of luck on the poor, unsuspecting ballplayer. A few months of bad luck can really submarine a season, we learned. Twisting and contorting ground balls into tiny holes or ensuring every broken-bat bleeder finds safe haven in the shallow outfield – the small things that can add up and undo all sorts of time and energy in the batting cage.

Obviously the principal of making one’s own luck applies. Not all batted balls are created equal. Line drives fall in much more frequently than high-lofted fly balls to the outfield. Grounders tend to bounce through for hits no matter how hard you hit them, but they certainly don’t turn into home runs.

If you’re interested Twins blog Twinkie Town has the exact BABIP numbers for flies, liners, and grounders. The most interesting number to me is the in-play average for infield pop ups because it is basically zero.

With that in mind, I can’t help but think that pitchers who rack up lots of ground balls and lots of infield pop ups tend to be desirable. Will the numbers support that claim?

Below you’ll find the ground ball/pop fly profile of all starters who amassed more than 300 innings between 2008 and 2010. The vertical axis represents average ground ball rates, average infield fly rate on the horizontal, providing us handy quadrants for classifying and passing harsh judgement on the suckers who fall below average.

Starting in the upper left hand corner and working clockwise we find:

  • Above average pop ups/below average ground balls
  • Above/Above
  • Below average pops/above average ground balls
  • Below/Below

I included as many names as I could without making it unreadable. While not providing complete context, we can scan the names and make the earth-shattering assumption that being above average in everything is good for business. Which section contains the kind of names you’d want on your team?

The great Jonathan Hale did some outstanding work on infield pop ups a few years ago at The Hardball Times. He concluded (shockingly!) that fastballs up and in are the most conducive to the weak pop (which themselves are conducive to awesomeness).

Most of the high IFFB guys throw hard and work up in the zone, like Ted Lilly or Rich Harden. Wormburners like Derek Lowe can’t afford to make a belt-high mistake due to his lack of stuff and velocity. When a ground ball pitcher does so, it is more like to get hit hard (and far) than weakly & straight up into the air.

As for the upper crust, what do you expect? Roy Halladay, Ubaldo Jimenez, Josh Johnson match great stuff with great control. Both grounders and pop ups are products of these aces going about their usual, dominant business.

In the end, the ability to induce ground balls and coax easy pop ups is about control. Not just control in the “putting the ball where you want it” sense, but controlling rallies and limiting big innings.

What better way to work around a walk than turn two with a double play? What better way to escape a runner on third & one out situation than letting an infield pop fly relieve pressure.

It isn’t as that these pitchers can perform these tasks on command, but having the ability and track record to do so is a requirement for success.