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B.J. Upton, Braves Reach Hefty, Predictable Agreement

For several months, now, the Atlanta Braves have looked like a fitting future home for B.J. Upton. Once Upton officially became a free agent, the Braves made no secret of their interest, and in fact nearly two weeks ago it was suggested to me that I begin writing about Upton signing with Atlanta. That turned out to be not so much a false alarm as a hasty one — Upton didn’t sign then, and other teams sniffed around, but Upton has signed now, with the Braves for five years and just over $75 million. The predictable match is indeed the match that we observe, as Upton has landed his big-money contract, and as the Braves have landed their top offseason priority.

With the Braves, Upton basically replaces Michael Bourn in center field. The Braves aren’t done, as they still have a hole on one side of Upton (assuming Martin Prado shifts to third), but that’ll be addressed in time, and that also isn’t what’s relevant today. B.J. Upton is 28 years old, with a new employer that just made a substantial long-term commitment, and he should be discussed.

This is not a modest contract, by any means. The FanGraphs audience projected four years and $52 million, and in reality Upton’s more steep. But to whatever extent we can make reasonable comparisons to Andre Ethier, Ethier’s five-year, $85-million deal is just now kicking in. Compared to Upton, Ethier has been a slightly better hitter, but he’s also a corner outfielder instead of a center fielder, and his body has stood on this Earth for a full two additional years. The Ethier contract looked immediately like an overpay by a front office rendered snowblind by doubloons, and the Upton contract looks a lot more sensible. It’s not so small that the Braves look to be getting a bargain. It’s not so big as to resemble a potential albatross. It just seems like a fair deal that ties Upton to Georgia.

Now, to me, Upton is two things. The first is that he’s sort of underrated. This speaks more to the fan experience than to the front-office level — Upton did just get $75 million dollars from a major-league general manager. It is imperative that front offices rate baseball players as accurately as possible. But among fans, Upton has long been somewhat divisive. The issue for Upton has been the burden of extraordinary natural talent. When one possesses so much talent, the talent generates corresponding expectations. When one falls short of such lofty expectations, frustration might build. Fan opinion is part about results, and part about results relative to subjectively expected results. A three-win player who maximizes a three-win skillset might be more popular than a four-win player who doesn’t maximize an eight-win skillset. These are just hypothetical example numbers used to illustrate a point.

Upton was once drafted second overall. He was once rated by Baseball America as the league’s second-best prospect, and he made the majors at 19. Physically, there’s nothing of which B.J. Upton isn’t capable. All of the usual tools are there, along with some other ones. Upton has a career .255 average and a .758 OPS. He can handle center field, but defensively he isn’t amazing. Upton is good, and he’s been good for a long time. In the eyes of many, he hasn’t been good enough.

Which, whatever, people are free to feel however they want to feel. I’ve never watched B.J. Upton on an everyday basis; I’m sure at times I would grow frustrated. But it seems to me too much emphasis is placed on what players can’t do, and too little is placed on what they can. Over the past six years, Upton has been pretty durable, and he’s averaged about 4 WAR a season. He was one of the best players on the Rays, even when he was drawing criticism. He should be one of the best players on the Braves. If what’s most important is overall value, then, overall, B.J. Upton has been greatly valuable.

The second thing I think B.J. Upton is is mysterious. Let’s put it this way: in 2008, Upton swung at a lower rate of pitches than Daric Barton. In 2012, Upton swung at a higher rate of pitches than Jesus Montero and Adrian Beltre. In 2008, Upton was a groundball hitter with nine home runs and 97 walks. In 2012, Upton was a fly-ball hitter with 28 home runs and 45 walks. His OBP has dropped from .383 to .298, while his slugging percentage has increased from .401 to 454.

The numbers paint the picture of a guy who’s been becoming a lot more aggressive at the plate. His walks are down, his strikeouts are up, his contact is down, his power is up. By WAR, Upton has hardly changed, but by profile, Upton’s turned into a different hitter. Last year, the average hitter swung at just over a quarter of first pitches. Upton swung at nearly half. Used to be he swung at about a third.

In fact, among qualified players in 2012, B.J. Upton had the third-highest first-pitch-swing rate. New teammate Freddie Freeman had the fourth. If the Braves were to plug their left-field hole with Josh Hamilton, there’d be the potential for a lot of quick innings (and a lot of long, prodigious innings). All of Upton’s aggressiveness indicators have been trending upward, and one wonders when they’re going to stop. He was still valuable in 2012. He did still post a sub-.300 OBP. Even in a run-suppressing ballpark in a run-suppressing league, it’s a little weird to see that turn into a five-year mega-contract.

But it did, and it strikes me as being perfectly reasonable. That Upton has been changing his game as a hitter doesn’t necessarily offer any compelling clues as to what his future will look like. We might as well stick with our more basic projections, and they say that Upton will be fine. As he ages, he’ll probably get a little worse in the field, but he’s young now, he’s valuable, and there’s inflation to consider. Upton doesn’t have to be a star to be worth this deal, and to be worth it in 2017 in isolation he might need only be roughly league-average. The chances justify the investment.

Now for the dominoes. There are other free-agent center fielders, and they’ll learn from the Upton example. So will the teams looking to add a center fielder. The Atlanta Braves aren’t one of those, anymore.