MLB.com Columnist

Mike Petriello

Statcast of the Day: Kluber's popup skills

Rizzo popped up three balls above 64 degrees, had done so just 8 times in 2016

Statcast of the Day: Kluber's popup skills

CLEVELAND -- Corey Kluber set a World Series record by striking out eight Cubs in the first three innings of the Indians' 6-0 win in Game 1 on Tuesday night, but for all the focus on his impressive ability to miss bats, what shouldn't go unnoticed is what he did to one of the few Cubs who didn't strike out: Anthony Rizzo.

This is where we remember that "not all contact is good contact," because while Rizzo didn't whiff, he also popped out each of the three times he faced Kluber. It's not a stretch to say that a popup is basically a quicker strikeout, because Major League hitters combined to hit .023 on popups during the regular season. It's basically the best thing a pitcher can get a hitter to do, because the likelihood of a successful outcome for the hitter is so small.

Game 2: Tonight, 7 ET game time on FOX (6 ET pregame show on FS1)

Game Date Matchup Highlights
Gm 1 Oct. 25 CLE 6, CHC 0 video
Gm 2 Oct. 26 CHC 5, CLE 1 video
Gm 3 Oct. 28 CLE 1, CHC 0 video
Gm 4 Oct. 29 CLE 7, CHC 2 video
Gm 5 Oct. 30 CHC 3, CLE 2 video
Gm 6 Nov. 1 CHC 9, CLE 3 video
Gm 7 Nov. 2 CHC 8 CLE, 7 (10) video

In Rizzo's career, he'd popped up three times in a game just three times, but even that doesn't really express what Kluber managed to do here. Rizzo's three popouts had launch angles of 64 degrees (first inning), 83 degrees (fourth inning) and 77 degrees (sixth inning). Launch angle can be read as zero degrees being right back at the pitcher's release point and 90 being straight up, with around 12 degrees being ideal for line drives and 28 degrees for home runs.

So Kluber didn't just force Rizzo to pop up, which we usually define as being 50 degrees or higher. He made him pop up, as all three of the balls were above 64 degrees. Over the two seasons of the Statcast™ era, Rizzo had done that a total of 14 times entering the night, yet Kluber made him do it three times in approximately two hours.

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"When Kluber's going good, he's got such good late movement both fastball and breaking ball, and I thought he had both tonight," said Indians manager Terry Francona. "I mean, his balls had extremely good movement tonight."

It'd be one thing to just say that Kluber got Rizzo to make the kind of contact a pitcher loves, however. More interesting is to show that Kluber made it happen on basically the same pitch in the same spot. Three times, Rizzo went after a sinking two-seam fastball in on his hands, coming in between 93.1 mph and 93.8 mph. Three similar pitches drew similar swings and similar outcomes… all of which ended poorly for the Cubs star:

Anthony Rizzo went after three similar Corey Kluber two-seamers in the same spot, and got three identical results.

Those three balls in play went 57, 64 and 134 feet. That's a combined total of 255 feet, and it obviously led to a batting average of absolute zero.

"It just starts at your hip and then it comes more at you," Rizzo said. "Tonight he really had it going on."

Rizzo, of course, is a star, one of the 10 best hitters in the Majors against right-handers this year. He didn't get there by hitting low-value popouts, because most pitchers can't force him to do that. Kluber isn't "most pitchers," obviously. When you think about his strikeouts, don't forget about the low-impact batted balls he induced out of Rizzo, popups that were just as good as whiffs.

Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast. He has previously written for ESPN Insider and FanGraphs. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.