Friday, July 01, 2011

Justin Upton Quietly Having Good Season

Several years ago, the Upton brothers, Justin and B. J., filled baseball with such promise that MLB used the tandem as part of their promotional campaign. Remember that? The commercial showed the Uptons as youngsters and they said nice things about each other. It was the perfect commercial about the possibilities of baseball. Unfortunately, since that commercial first aired, the careers of the two brothers stalled. Both seemed to have awesome physical skills. But both had gotten into high strikeout, not-enough-production ruts. B. J. perhaps is still there (though he has looked better lately). Justin Upton, on the other hand, is having a really good season that is flying a bit under the radar.

Justin Upton is currently sporting a slash line of: .304/.385/.518. The average and on base percentage--if they hold up--would be the highest of his career. The slugging percentage is his highest since 2009's .532 but is not that far off. Upton has always had a high BABIP, a number that stands at .344 for his career. This year is right in line with that career average and sits at .343. The big difference is that with less strikeouts, he is putting more balls in play and Upton is on pace to compile the most hits in his career.

Let's talk about those strikeouts. Let's face it, the Diamondbacks had a definite strikeout culture up until this year. Mark Reynolds was allowed to set the record and then break it twice. Adam LaRoche was on the team last year and struck out 172 times. Upton was caught up in that culture and struck out 152 times himself last year. The Diamondbacks easily paced the majors in strikeouts in 2010. While they still strike out, they are only third highest in the National League. That's a significant improvement. And Upton is among those thriving because of it.

Upton's previous seasons for strikeout percentage look like this:

  • 2007: 26.4 percent
  • 2008: 34 percent
  • 2009: 26 percent
  • 2010: 30.7 percent

In 2011, Justin Upton's strikeout percentage is only 20.1 percent. That's a big improvement. The weird thing about his improvement is that he is swinging at more pitches than ever. His swing rate is the highest of his career and that includes swinging at pitches outside the strike zone. His swing and miss percentage is right at his career average. So how, then, can his strikeout rate be down? Perhaps it has to do with being more aggressive and not so passive. Perhaps far too many of his strikeouts were looking. Mark Reynolds does swing and miss a lot, but he also gets called out on strikes a lot.

It's no surprise then that Upton's walk percentage is down from last year's 11.2 percent. His current rate of 9.1 percent is lower than his career average of 10.4 percent. Though his current 9.1 percent shows that he is being more aggressive, he could improve even more if he continued to be aggressive with a little better discipline within the strike zone. Sometimes it's easy to forget that Upton hasn't reached his 24th birthday! He can certainly get better. Cutting down his strikeouts is the first step and even with the lower walk rate, his walk to strikeout rate has never been as good as it is this year. The one pitch he seems to chase the most is the slider. Fix that and Upton will be flying!

Nothing else stands out in Upton's numbers to show this much improvement. Yes, he's been hit by a lot more pitches this season (probably a fluke?). The number one difference seems to be more balls in play. Justin Upton is a good fielder and a good base runner with plus speed. He has an outside chance at 30 homers along with 30 stolen bases. At his age, and in the right hands, Justin Upton can yet live up to those commercials about how special he can be. The signs are all positive in 2011 for that to be the case.

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