Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Joe Mauer hates Pop-Ups


Sometimes inspiration strikes in odd ways.  Today, Rhett Bollinger, the Twins' MLB.com beat writer, sent out this tweet:



Wait, what?  I saw that come through my feed and I was immediately interested.  Was it true?


That seems so unlikely.  Even by raw luck, one would think that Joe Mauer would pop out a few times each year.  Mauer was the best in the AL last year at not making outs.  He only made an out 58.4% of the time.  He had 641 plate appearances  and only one resulted in an infield fly ball, which is what I will now be using to describe a pop up (at times).  He struck out 88 times, so he still made over 300 outs with his bat.  And yet, only once did he make an out by flying out in the infield. 

How rare is this?  I was inspired to investigate.  I started doing some research.  Mauer has only 20 infield fly outs in his nine-year-career.  Crazy.  I decided to look at how many players had 20 or more infield fly outs last season.  Forty.  Forty players!  Forty players popped out as much or more than Mauer has in his entire career, and all just last season.  Now I am really intrigued.  Here's a spreadsheet that resulted from my intrigue:

Infield Fly Ball Nerd Spreadsheet

Looking at the spreadsheet demonstrates just how rare this feat or accomplishment or freak occurrence really is.  In fact, take a look at this chart:

Mauer Infield Fly Balls
# of Players > 20 IFFB that season
Mauer Infield Hits
2004
1
87
4
2005
3
62
6
2006
2
73
8
2007
1
62
5
2008
6
57
10
2009
2
50
8
2010
4
46
12
2011
0
56
6
2012
1
40
8
Total
20
533
67


Mauer has had 20 infield fly balls in 9 years, and 533 players have had 20 or more infield fly balls in a season during that same span.  I threw in a BONUS! column that shows Mauer has over 3 times as many infield hits than infield fly balls.  How crazy.

Before I go further, this data does not necessarily mean these were all pop outs.  They are simply infield fly balls.  Some may have dropped, although it stands to reason that the vast majority were converted into outs.  So, when I use these terms interchangeably, I apologize.  This isn't an academic journal.

Since we are all in love with this stat at this point, I looked at who created the most infield fly balls per plate appearance.  Basically, these are the Pop-Up Kings (2002-2012 data):

Name
IFFB
PA
IFFB/PA
Eric Byrnes
273
3478
7.85%
Tony Batista
180
2315
7.78%
Mike Rivera
45
593
7.59%
Todd Greene
58
841
6.90%
64
979
6.54%
Rod Barajas
234
3642
6.43%
Joe Crede
212
3307
6.41%
Drew Butera
33
531
6.21%
John Flaherty
43
692
6.21%
Lenny Harris
34
555
6.13%


Do you prefer volume pop-up hitters?  Here is the chart for you!  I used 2004-2012 data, to mirror Mauer's career:

Name
Career IFFB
277
255
Eric Byrnes
245
239
221
Alex Gonzalez
212
210
207
206
Rod Barajas
205


A few familiar names indeed!  Personally, I'd rather remember Eric Byrnes for his extreme pop-up-edness, rather than for his current gig at MLB Network.  Tony Batista would have absolutely been my first guess as a Pop-Up King.  The way he stands would seem to lend itself to popping up a lot.  The leaders pop-up about every 13 plate appearances.  What about the players with the lowest rate of infield fly balls?  WordHippo tells me that the opposite of a King is a Subject.  So, here are the Pop-Up Subjects (that sounds terrible)(2002-2012 data):

Name
IFFB
PA
IFFB/PA
Larry Bigbie
1
1218
0.08%
Julio Franco
4
1517
0.26%
3
1064
0.28%
11
3064
0.36%
13
3232
0.40%
19
4701
0.40%
Joe Mauer
20
4552
0.44%
34
7644
0.44%
Jose Tabata
6
1197
0.50%
7
1255
0.56%

Mauer, even with all his anti-pop-up glory, is only 7th.  Larry Bigbie had one pop-up in his career.  Here is the box score from that game, in case you want to frame it.  Many of the names on this list are players who just don't hit a lot of fly balls at all.  Just looking at last year, Ben Revere had the lowest fly ball rate, Jeter was second lowest, Kendrick fourth and Mauer sixth. 

Votto, Howard and Posey seem like the anomalies, as they are all powerful hitters.  Votto and Posey post lower than average fly ball rates, and Howard is right at average.  The fact that each hits a lot of homeruns is quite impressive, as they just hit fewer balls in the air than most power hitters. 

I refuse to try to make sense of anything related to Julio Franco.

Back to Mauer.  Mauer hits an infield fly ball once in every 227 plate appearances.  So, today's event was pretty rare.  In fact, we might not see another one until around June.  The real question is why is he such a Subject of Pop-Ups?  I really hate that name.  Let's call them No Pop-Up Dudes going forward. 

A bigger picture can be seen with all of his batted ball data.  Here are his batted ball rates compared with league average:

Rates
Mauer
League Avg
LD
23.10%
20%
GB
50.30%
44%
FB
26.60%
36%
IFFB
2.20%
10%

This helps to explain his lack of home run power, but overall great hitting. 

BUT WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?!?!?

I don't know, nothing?

Well, the best contact hitters seem to be good at avoiding the worst type of contact.  It stands to reason that the infield fly ball is the worst type of batted ball.  It doesn't get converted to hits or runs unless there is some sort of hilarious infield mishap and they almost never lead to sacrificed runners. 

Mauer likely avoids this type of contact because he has such a great approach and he doesn't deviate from it.  He swings easily and tends to swing at only pitches he can handle.  The fact that he doesn't hit a lot of fly balls to begin with helps as well.  Overall, Mauer seems to be a hitter who knows exactly what he wants to do, and stays within that approach in nearly all cases. 

Or, he's a wizard. 

Upon further review, Grant Brisbee, Jeff Sullivan, and Jeff Passan all wrote about Joey Votto's extreme aversion to pop ups.  You could argue that he was the original No Pop-Up Dude.  In addition, Sullivan wrote about how remarkable Joe Mauer is.  You can say I stole from everyone and no one. 

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