Sunday, November 25, 2012

Semi-annual post on BJ Upton, the head scratcher

There seems to have been two concurrent and recurrent posts heading into the tenth season of writing this blog. The first was already avoided when Big Papi signed early with the Red Sox. That made this year's "Should the Red Sox sign him," post unnecessary. The second is a yearly or every other year pondering of B.J. Upton. Perhaps, after the year that his brother, Justin, put up last year for the Diamondbacks, he will become the third one. But let's worry about that later. First, let's ponder Melvin Emanuel Upton, the free agent.

Upton has played for eight years already for the Tampa Bay Devil and not devil Rays. And he is heading into his year 28 season. He was the second pick of the first round of the 2002 draft behind only the Pirates and Bullington. In nearly a thousand plate appearances in A ball, Double-A and Triple-A in 2003 and 2004, he tore up his leagues and was Baseball America's #2 prospect in 2004.

Upton got a cup of coffee with the Rays as a nineteen year old kid in 2004 and held his own. But he was still too raw so he played all of 2005 and most of 2006 in the minors and got another taste of big league life in 2006. That time, he struggled.

Even so, the Rays were ready for him in 2007. He was still an infielder then, or so the Rays hoped. He played 48 games as the Rays second baseman in 2007. But the move was already begun to move him to the outfield and 78 games were played out there.

And in 2007, it seemed a new superstar had emerged. He finished that season with an .894 OPS and a .386 wOBA. His .393 BABIP in 2007 should have warned us, but we didn't think as strongly about such things back then. All most of us unlearned writers knew was that he hit 24 homers and stole 22 bases and looked like a star.

He still looks like a star. But he hasn't really lived up to 2007 ever since. His OPS fell 110 points in 2008. It fell another 98 points in 2009. His power evaporated and he became a speed player who struck out too much. The last three years have leveled off somewhat for Upton. He has settled into the .750 range in OPS the last three seasons and his wOBA in the .320 to .330 range. His fielding and his base running were valuable. But he never did become that superstar.

Is that possibility still in there for Upton? Geez, every time you look at the guy, you just have to think so. Some players simply look more physically gifted than others. We notice that stuff as far back as grade school. The tools all seem there...the speed, the power in the bat...the glove.

But now he is a free agent and teams have to take a gamble on what he could be because his price tag will be higher than what he has been thus far. He'll be slightly cheaper than Bourn. But will he be the better buy of the two?

And you know what? For like the sixth time in the history of this blog, the answer is yes. Take Upton's 81 games out of the cavern in St. Pete and put them in Philadelphia or in Atlanta and you might have an entirely different player. Saying that, his career splits are nearly identical at home and on on the road. Hmm...

There are other annoying little tidbits. Upton had a .438 OPS last season against power pitchers. .438. Let that sink in a second. You can kill Upton late in the game with a power arm out of the bullpen. His OPS in the seventh inning in 2012 was a minuscule .377 and was only .554 in the eighth inning. In both of those innings, he struck out more than thirty percent of the time.

And though Upton's homer total rose to a respectable 28 in 2012, his plate discipline disappeared. For his career, Upton has only swung at 23.7% of pitches out of the strike zone. In 2012, that rose to 30.7%. And that is the conservative PitchF/X stats. Fangraphs has him at 32.7%. His swinging strike percentage of 14.9% was easily the highest of his career after averaging 10.9% for his career.

And both major stat sites have shown his defense to have deteriorated some this past season. has never rated him as high defensively as Fangraphs has. But in this case, after watching so many of his games, Fangraphs seems more correct there. The guy can power glide with the best of them.

There is another troubling stat. Upton struggles against power pitchers, but he is the most successful against the fastball. He does not have a positive value against any other pitch a pitcher throws him. It would be interesting to see statistics on what power pitchers threw him. Was he sitting dead red and flailed away at their off speed stuff?

So yeah. Here we are again with BJ Upton. Once again, there is a lot of head scratching wondering if he will ever become the player we all thought he would be. Or is his game forever doomed to be flawed as pitchers exploit his weaknesses with him unable to adjust? This time, a team will have to shell out a lot of dough to find out.


Clave said...

I was fixin' to comment on his strikeout rate and the amount of balls he chases out of the zone, then you listed it. I really think those numbers are significant.

I wouldn't sign him if I were a team flush with cash. It doesn't matter what park you are n or how physically gifted you look, you have to be able to put the bat on the ball and Upton is trending the wrong direction in that regard.

William Tasker - Caribou, ME said...

Good comment, Clave, and it is hard to disagree with you. He has always been an enticing talent. But whether that talent will ever fully develop looks more in doubt each season that goes by.