Used to be somebody'd hit a deep fly ball and you'd get to hoping and rooting and trying to will that ball over the fence, the announcer's call getting progressively more excited, the first wave of premature cheerers overwhelmed by the more prudent, wait-and-see cheerers. It was five seconds of drama, with you in full suspense until the ball came down from the sky and back into the camera shot and safely on the other side of the wall. A home run!
This postseason, the home run feels like the default. If it looks good off the bat, it's almost certainly a home run. If it looks lousy off the bat -- well, it might be, too. Thanks to a combination of the probably juiced ball, two lineups filled with home run hitters, and a couple of homer-friendly ballparks (yes, Dodger Stadium is, despite being otherwise pitcher-friendly), home runs are no longer the zebra, they're the horse.
So let me posit a theory: The home run has been replaced, for suspense and excitement and major stakes, by the deep fly out. The deep fly out is now one of baseball's most exciting plays.
We can test this theory: Is the deep fly out exciting enough to sustain an entire listicle? We will soon know. We're counting down the best doggone fly outs of the 2017 postseason!
10. Todd Frazier off Ervin Santana in the AL wild-card game
Stakes: Fourteen percent of a win. By which I mean: The Yankees would have been 68 percent likely to win if it were a home run, and 54 percent if it were an out. That's what this will refer to for the rest of this piece.
Did we collectively think it was gone? Not really. The pitcher never turns to watch, his posture suggesting (to me) a deep fly out. The batter takes off in a sprint. The crowd behind home plate gets immediately more interested -- at the 4-, 27- and 53-second marks in the video -- but nobody shoots out of a seat or raises arms in triumph. We have three broadcasts on that highlight clip, and only the third seems to be talking himself into it being a home run.
This was the first game of the 2017 postseason, and we were still so naïve. There had already been three home runs in the game -- it was just the second inning when Frazier hit this -- but we still had a basic faith that some physical force would draw smaller objects, like small spheres, toward larger objects, like the Earth. If Frazier hit this ball today, we'd all be so sure it was a home run that we'd probably stop watching it. It would land, untouched, on the warning track, but nobody would notice, because we would all be looking down at our scorebooks and shading in the little diamond to denote runs scored. But at the time, early in this journey into New Baseball, the response to a deep fly ball was fairly muted.
This ball traveled farther than 66 of this postseason's home runs.
Did we think it was gone? The fans behind home plate were mostly relaxed. There were a few scared faces, and one young man looks as if a wasp is in his tent, but nobody starts packing up to go home. The batter runs out of the box quickly. The announcer is skeptical. Justin Verlander, the pitcher, is the most worried: He levitates for a moment and then does a sort of sashay and closes his eyes at the two-second mark.
I suspect this would have probably been an even more exciting fly out if it hadn't been hit by Chase Headley, who, stats suggest, isn't allowed to hit the juiced baseballs. Every time Headley bats, umps swap out all the balls with pre-2015 balls. Because of that, we didn't assume a home run.
This ball traveled farther than 11 of this postseason's home runs.
Did we think it was gone? It had a good sound. But the reaction was muted all around. Even in center field, the fans seems to react late to it, rising like a wave only as center fielder Albert Almora Jr. gets close to the wall. Taylor sprints out of the box; Quintana adjusts his cup at the six-second mark.
The second baseman points to the sky; pop up. The announcer calls it as a fly out most of the way, with just the slightest lift on the last half of the word "high."
As Almora chases it down, a fan hangs over the side railing behind center field. Almost certain that's the same fan who caught Justin Turner's walk-off home run the next day. He thought enough of this one to run over to the same spot at the end of the aisle. The camera cuts to the reaction of the pitcher, and Quintana doesn't look like his pulse ever rose.
So far, these haven't been very exciting fly outs, but this is the bottom of the list!
This ball traveled farther than 62 of the home runs hit in this postseason.
Did we think it was gone? Heck yeah! The batter goes into a home run trot. The pitcher shuffles off the mound quickly, a searing wince on his face, like he's trying to look at an eclipse without special glasses. The fans behind home plate make lots of great "Crud!" faces, including one guy who brings his hand to his mouth and does the classic cartoon "I'm scared" face at the two-second mark.
The third announcer in that highlight video goes with a home run call all the way, until Mookie Betts reaches over the low wall in right field to catch it. Remember that play? It was incredibly exciting!
That out went farther than 27 home runs hit this postseason.
Did we think it was gone? The fans behind home plate don't react. Lindor pauses to admire his shot. The pitcher turns to watch it. The Yankees relievers hop up on a bench to try to see at the 19-second mark.
The announcer didn't buy it for a second.
Lindor hit a splitter out of the strike zone low and away. At the moment of contact he's reaching for it and looks almost to be swinging with one hand. He's not Aaron Judge, but a 5-foot-11 shortstop who hit 21 total home runs across parts of five minor league seasons. And the ball he hit went all of 349 feet to the power alley, according to Statcast. And yet, given all of those details, Lindor went into his home run trot, and he was right to: The ball would have been gone if it hadn't been for Judge. This is how our brain is learning to process batted balls in 2017: Little shortstop hits a great pitch not that far; it's probably a home run! Thank goodness for fly outs to subvert those expectations.
It went farther than three homers hit this postseason.
Did we think it was gone? Fans behind home plate had begun leaping to their feet before the shot leaves them. In the tracking shot of the home run from a right field camera, we briefly see security on top of Fenway Park stop walking and turn to watch it at the 55-second mark.
Bradley takes off quickly, no trot. Musgrove takes a few steps toward the outfield, watching it, unsure.
This is the rare double subversion of expectations: We think it's gone, because this is 2017. But then it's not. And then it is. OK, so this isn't a fly out, but it should've been if not for Reddick, who knocked it over the wall. The second-shortest home run of the postseason, and it took help.
Did we think it was a home run? Heck yeah. Keuchel drops to a knee on contact. Hicks holds the bat in a pretty pose for a moment before running. The crowd behind home plate sees a spaceship, each fan reacting in his or her own way based on whether he or she sees an impending alien abduction as terrifying or a welcome relief from all the bleakness of life on earth at the three-second mark.
The first half of the announcer's call is all home run. Listen to the word "center" in "he flies one into center!" That's resignation. That's the belief that all the human agency in the play has been removed, and it is all a matter of physics now.
In fact, Springer runs back and catches it, never even touching the wall. The out traveled farther than 76 of this postseason's home runs.
Did we think it was gone? In the Yankees dugout, Gary Sanchez starts to climb the rail so he can leap around and celebrate. The fans behind home plate are in visible turmoil at the 12-second mark.
Frazier's eyes get wide after contact, his mouth starts to open; Verlander spins around in the exaggerated way of children playing ninjas. The call from the booth is 65 percent committed to this being a home run.
Frazier hit three of the seven longest outs of this postseason: 403 feet, 402 and 397. This one would have tied it up if it had gone out; it didn't, of course, but three seconds of my life were spent 100 percent convinced a game-tying home run had been hit. That is a world I lived in, briefly. For three seconds, I raised a daughter in that world, I loved and was loved in that world, I made memories and I spilled a drink. It was a different world than this one. Not better or worse, but different. The great thing about a deep fly out is that you get to live, at different times, in both worlds.
This ball went farther than 65 of this postseason's home runs.
Did we think it was gone? Even Nolan Ryan shoots up out of his seat! Springer flips his bat. Stripling stares straight up into the sky, not at the ball but at the roof, an "if you're there, God ..." moment. The announcers are 70 percent committed to it being a home run.
Statcast tells us the hit probability of a ball hit this hard at this angle is 94 percent, but of course that's heavily dependent on the ballpark. Minute Maid's dimensions are one of the reasons we have distorted perceptions about the likelihood of a home run off the bat this month. Minute Maid's average home run, over the past four years, is 12 feet shallower than the average home run in the average ballpark. Carlos Correa hit a home run in Game 5 of the World Series that went 328 feet, the shortest of the postseason. In the same game, Yasiel Puig hit one 349 feet. But center field, in front of where Tal's Hill once loomed, is still a little extra deep. This would be a home run in most parks, and maybe even in most eras. It would have made for about 90 seconds of complete bonkers celebration in Houston, and then we would have gone to bed early because the game wouldn't have been close anymore. Instead, Stripling walked off the mound with a big "thanks, God" smile and we got two more innings of exciting baseball.
This ball traveled farther than 71 of this postseason's home runs.
Did we think it was gone? Every person behind home plate except Larry King stands up. This guy in the white T-shirt is the first out of his seat; Marlins Man looks grumpy because he was actually looking down when the pitch was delivered, and now it seems that he's missed one of the greatest walk-off homers of all time at the one-second mark.
Bellinger starts into a brisk, not-quite-certain trot. Giles starts to point up like "popup," then realizes it might actually be a walk-off home run in the World Series and he tries to cover up his gaffe with a nose scratch.
I was sure of this one. All the way sure. I thought it'd be out by 40 feet, and the only suspense was whether Bellinger would make it around the bases before the cheering in Dodger Stadium caused the entire place to collapse into a sinkhole. I was very much not alone.
I'm in a Vegas sportsbook. Every single person here thought it was gone.— Jay (@jhoward47) October 26, 2017
A home run would have been great there. More memorable than a fly out, even. Historic. But I can't help feeling that baseball is best when it sets up an expectation and subverts it: The nasty slider that jags suddenly out of the strike zone, the shortstop who fields a grounder on a dive and flips it to second base with his glove, the three-run comeback against the dominant closer, and now, the home run that doesn't happen.
Maybe it's a niche product, but lately I can't get enough of them.