Pitching by the Numbers: Pop-up artists

You can find more from Michael Salfino at SNYWhyGuys.com

Pop-ups get hitters muttering to themselves. But instead of taking all the blame for a bad swing, perhaps they should tip their cap to the man on the mound. Some major league hurlers appear to have a consistent and thus projectable ability to induce infield fly balls at rates well above the major league average.

These same pitchers tend to be mocked for having an unsustainable batting average allowed on balls in play (BABIP). But often this supposed luck in generating a higher percentage of outs on balls in play is largely explained by these pop-up rates.

Last week for the Wall Street Journal, I wrote about the leading active reliever and starter (minimum 400 innings) in this category. I also listed the others in an accompanying chart. Here are the BABIP of the pitchers in the top 10, top to bottom (remember, the average/expected BABIP is about .300): .261, .251, .279, .274, .251, .281, .286, .271, .277, .290, .280.

I ask you, luck or skill?

These career leaders ranged from 14 percent to 15.8 percent IF/FBs (that's the rate of pop-ups relative to all balls put in play that either landed or were caught by infielders). The average rate is generally about 9 percent. The leaders also were consistently well above league average when looking at seasonal rates. Thus, it would seem that for them the pop-up is more within their control than it is the hitter's.

But what about last year's leaders, as we don't want to limit ourselves to only those with 400 career innings. Of course, we have to be somewhat skeptical given the smaller sample sizes. Still, I would go out of my way to own most of these guys – all other things being equal – because a significantly lower BABIP and thus WHIP seems bettable, if not quite bankable.

Here are the 2010 leaders among starting pitchers who pitched at least 162 innings, IFFB%, BABIP last year in parenthesis, followed by career IFFB rate:
Stats courtesy of Fangraphs

1. Ted Lilly(notes) (17.3%, .247, 14%)
2. Hiroki Kuroda(notes) (16.6%, .283, 12.3%)
3. Matt Cain(notes) (16.4%, .252, 13%)
4. Dallas Braden(notes) (14.1%, .270, 12.2%)
5. Jason Vargas(notes) (13.9%, .272, 14.4%)
6. Max Scherzer(notes) (13.9%, .297, 10.4%)
7. Colby Lewis(notes) (13.7%, .275. 12.2%)
8. Jonathan Sanchez(notes) (13.5%, .252, 11.9%)
9. Wade Davis(notes) (13.4%, .272, 13.5%)
10. Ubaldo Jimenez(notes) (12.7%, .271, 10.2%)
11. Clayton Kershaw(notes) (12.4%, .275, 12.4%)
12. Jeff Niemann(notes) (12.2%, .263, 11.8%)
13. Jered Weaver(notes) (11.9%, .276, 12.9%)
14. Phil Hughes(notes) (11.7%, .273, 11.9%)
15. Brian Matusz(notes) (11.7%, .292, 11.7%)
16. Fausto Carmona(notes) (11.7%, .283, 7.9%)

Feel good about projecting continued IF/FB rates and thus sub-.280 BABIP (and the related better WHIP) for all of the above except Scherzer, Jimenez and Carmona. I'm not saying these guys are not otherwise worth owning. I'm saying don't pay for better than average IF/FB because there's just not enough proof that they own this skill.

What about the relievers? I'm ignoring them because the sample sizes are so much smaller in one year. I did see that Jon Rauch(notes) and Brian Fuentes(notes) were on the career list and that was a tailwind pushing me to purchase them this week in one very deep, AL-only league for next to nothing.

I think it's also important to note that the pitchers we've listed above are generally guys we want to own because they are good. One of the defining characteristics of good pitchers is an ability to control outcomes. This can be in the form of strikeouts, but also being extreme in ground ball and fly ball rates. And it's also clearly true about inducing pop-ups, too.

Michael Salfino writes and edits the SNYWhyGuys blog that projects player and team performance for New Yorkers. He's also a quantative sports analyst whose writing regularly appears in the Wall Street Journal. .

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