Thursday, April 21, 2011

When Do We Give Up on B. J. Upton?

B. J. Upton is now 26 years old. You look at him and see his athletic frame. You see the glide in his step, the grace in all he does. You have heard of his promise for more than half a decade now. When he first broke in to the big leagues in full time action in 2007, he hit .300 with an on base percentage of .386 and he slugged .508. His fielding was suspect and he struck out an awful lot (32 percent), but for a first year, you'd take that as a sign of great things to come, right? Despite poor fielding numbers, he compiled an fWAR of 4.4. You might have flinched a bit at his .391 BABIP, but nobody can be that lucky over 600 plate appearances, could they? Perhaps that BABIP told us what we should know now.

It's been all downhill for Upton since then. His batting average slipped 27 points to .273 in 2008. But he did walk 97 times. His homers fell from 24 to 9. His doubles rose from 25 to 37. His stolen bases increased to 44. And his fielding metrics were terrific. You'd still take that and continue to think a star was on the rise, right? His fWAR was actually higher that 2008 season and rose to 4.7. So far, everything about Upton seemed to point to stardom.

It didn't happen. It still hasn't happened. If you combine his two seasons of 2009 and 2010 covering 1,236 plate appearances and 1,096 at bats, his batting average has been .239. His on base percentage has been .318 and his slugging percentage, .398. He still stole a lot of bases. His defense suffered, particularly in 2010. If we look at Upton's wOBA history, it's been on a sliding scale for four years. It reads: .387, .354, .310, .337. The rise in 2010 accounts for a return of some of his power as he hit 18 homers, the most since 2007.

At some point, you have to raise the question: Is this all he is going to be? And the equally troubling question: Has the B. J. Upton we've been waiting for a myth? All of which ultimately leads to the question of how long we continue to believe our dream of the Upton that could be and finally settle on the fact that he is more of like he is now. Should we give up on him?

The Fan still grapples with the question. Whenever you see him play, his ability to the eye and his grace scream, "STAR!" But he hasn't been a star. Does he need a change of scenery? Is he a somewhat better Mark Reynolds that just needs to move on? Pouring over his statistics lead to more questions than answers. For example, his strikeout rate refuses to come down. It was 30.6 percent in 2009 and 30.5 percent in 2010. But then again, he doesn't swing at pitches out of the strike zone. His career rate is 19.4 percent, which is more comparable to Lance Berkman than Miguel Montero. His rate did increase noticeably in 2010 to over 25%. But that doesn't indicate a total lack of plate discipline.

So what is it then? Is it the quality of his contact? There may be something to see there. His line drive percentage has shrunk alarmingly. His first full season, that figure was at 19.8 percent. The last two seasons, his line drive percentage has been 15.4 and 16.6 percent respectively. Meanwhile, his infield fly ball rate (pop ups to the infield) has risen from 5.4 percent his first full season to over 8.0 percent the last two seasons.

His split stats are also revealing. The simple fact is that he cannot seem to hit right-handed pitching. Last year, his OPS against pitchers from that side was .664 while his OPS against lefties was .919. He was better against right-handers than left-handers in 2009, but it was by far his worst season in the majors. In 2007 and 2008, his splits were nearly identical. And so it seems that scouts and pitchers have seen something they have exploited the last two seasons and Upton and his coaches have not been able to make the adjustments.

Just in case you still think this Fan is overstating the case, if we look at fWAR for last season among center fielders, here is a list of some of the center fielders that were more valuable than Upton last season: Alex Rios, Vernon Wells, Shane Victorino (who had a really down season), Austin Jackson, Curtis Granderson, Colby Rasmus, Torii Hunter, Michael Bourn, Chris Young and Angel Pagan. Wouldn't you look at Upton and think he was better than some of those guys?

So how is this year going? Unfortunately, it is more of the same. His OPS before Thursday night's game was .696. He went 0-3 with a walk and a strikeout, so those numbers won't change much. It's frustrating. It has to be for Upton and it has to be for his team and its fans. He should be better than this. Why isn't he batter than this? Perhaps we are at the point where the Rays have to simply cut their losses and simply get as much value for him as they possibly can. It's obvious that the team can't simply wait forever for the promise that may never be delivered.

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