B.J. Upton Now Differently Confounding

Things to know before we proceed with this article about B.J. Upton:

(1) B.J. Upton is set to become a free agent after the end of this season, and he is newly 28 years old.

(2) Yesterday, in the last game of a series between the Rays and the Rangers, B.J. Upton slugged three home runs. They were his 19th, 20th, and 21st home runs of the year.

I was tricking you before — this article about B.J. Upton began with the word “Things”. Now let us move on to the rest of it!

Upton is no stranger to transaction talk, and it’s something of a minor miracle that he’s still with the Rays considering how often he’s been in the middle of trade rumors. Now people get to talk about him as a potential free-agent acquisition, and as a potential free-agent acquisition, Upton is as confusing as he’s ever been. I mean, on the one hand, I guess he isn’t confusing at all. He remains an everyday center fielder who is more than capable of handling the position. Here are Upton’s wRC+ figures for the last three seasons:

2010: 113 wRC+
2011: 115
2012: 113

I bet I can guess how projection systems are going to view Upton going forward. But remember that Upton was the second overall pick in 2002, and remember that he’s always seemed capable of more than he’s done. Upton, like his brother, is blessed with more tools than you can keep in one shed, but he only very seldom puts them all to proper use. Additionally, below the surface, there have been changes, and it’s those changes that I’m here to talk about.

I think the easiest way to lay this out is like so: five years ago, Upton finished with 93 unintentional walks and 134 strikeouts. That’s a whole lot of patience, from a very young player. So far this season, Upton has 39 unintentional walks and 144 strikeouts. Forget about the different sample sizes and just focus on the ratios. Clearly, B.J. Upton has changed as a hitter. And the evidence suggests that he isn’t done changing.

Here is a very terrible graphic I whipped up to compare B.J. Upton to Bobby Abreu. I selected Upton because this article is about Upton. I selected Abreu because he was the first guy who came to mind when I thought about a consistent veteran. I put part of Abreu’s name in parentheses because he seems old enough to just go by Bob now. We look at three different plate-discipline statistics:

I warned you before that this was terrible. Upton’s overall swing rate is on the rise, his first-pitch swing rate is on the rise, and his contact rate is going down. Bobby Abreu has been Bobby Abreu. The once selective Upton has become more and more aggressive, and still it continues.

Through August 10 of this season, Upton owned a .676 OPS. The free-agent-to-be wasn’t doing anything to boost his value, and then on August 11, Upton hit two home runs. Upton hit three home runs yesterday, on September 10. FanGraphs leaderboards have a very handy “Last 30 Days” option in the pull-down menu for splits, and the last 30 days capture both August 11 and September 10. Upton has been streaking. Over the last 30 days, Upton has posted the fourth-highest wRC+ in baseball, at 193. He’s right in between Adrian Beltre and Miguel Cabrera, and that tends to be good company as offensive statistics are concerned. Yet at the same time, over the last 30 days, Upton has posted the very lowest contact rate in baseball, at 57 percent. The next-lowest belongs to Chris Carter, at 63 percent. Upton’s hottest stretch at the plate by one statistic coincides with his coldest stretch at the plate by another. Not that contact rate is even close to being as important as wRC+, but this is weird. Upton has hit the crap out of the ball. At the same time he’s posted a lower contact rate than Aroldis Chapman has allowed.

As the Rays have scrambled back into the playoff race, Upton has done a lot to boost his value as a free agent, but even his value boost carries a major red flag. He’s hit, and he’s hit for power, but how much of that can continue if he keeps on swinging and missing? What is the story behind all of the swings and misses?

Let’s break Upton’s 2012 season down, splitting after August 10. A table:

Split O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% Contact% 1st% OPS
Through 8/10 29% 71% 50% 73% 44% 0.676
Since 8/11 35% 73% 53% 57% 52% 1.050

I can’t stop staring at the recent contact rate. It is such a low contact rate. That is three whiffs for every seven swings. But one can’t ignore the far right column, and one can’t ignore that the numbers in the far right column correspond with increased aggressiveness in the other columns. Upton’s swung at more balls, more strikes, more first pitches — more everything, and when he’s hit the ball, he’s pummeled the ball. He’s hit the ball some.

Right now, what’s important isn’t B.J. Upton’s free agency. Upton and the Rays are trying to get to the playoffs, and lately Upton has done a lot more helping than hurting. Over 28 games over those last 30 days, he’s hit 11 home runs and also stolen eight bases for good measure. But what matters for Upton’s free agency is also what matters right now. And that’s the question of: how good is B.J. Upton going to be? He’s a tricky one to pin down. Some numbers suggest that right now he’s locked in, and some numbers suggest the very opposite. Some numbers suggest that Upton is beginning to really tap into his abundant potential, and some numbers suggest that he’s going to get exposed once pitchers figure out what he’s doing.

For the final month or so, the Rays will have a player who is very good, very frustrating, or somewhere in between. It’ll probably be the same story for Upton after this last stretch is over and he finds a new home. I don’t know what Upton’s numbers are going to look like between now and the end of the year, but for a month he’s seemingly been all-or-nothing to an extreme degree. B.J. Upton’s hot streak has undeniably been a hot streak, but it’s been a hot streak far different from most.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

34 Responses to “B.J. Upton Now Differently Confounding”

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  1. Eminor3rd says:

    Why do we compare all-encompassing stats to run environment, but leave component stats context-free? Wasn’t everyone hitting better 5 years ago? How have league contact rates fared? I assumed they’ve gone down, since K’s seem to be going way up.

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    • Since 2008, the American League average contact rate has dropped from 82% to 80%. Obviously these things aren’t perfectly stable, but they’re generally stable enough that we can keep from over-complicating things. Run environments can be enormously different. League stats year-to-year over a shorter period aren’t, mostly.

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  2. Spike says:

    saw somewhere that BJU has a very high looking strike 3 rate…. Maybe he’s just swinging more now that free agency is staring right at him and this is more or less his last chance to pad his stats… with those additional swings comes lots of misses and some big hits.

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  3. Roy J says:

    Upton is such a weird player. It’s funny because people always talk of his potential but he’s already a solid player as it is. Of course, he could be better but still, it’s not as if he’s terrible. Not to mention the fact that he always tends to streak later in the season. He did it last September as well(do I even have to mention the 08 playoffs?). He’s just an anomaly in my opinion. Nothing about him makes all that much sense. So I’m not surprised at what you’ve brought here in this article. Just tack on to the list of things that BJ Upton confuses us with.

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    • Parallels between Upton and Adrian Beltre.

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      • B N says:

        Eh, Beltre at least had a very bad home park to blame his issues on. He vaguely made sense. I will admit, BJ Upton is a peculiar player. His numbers remind me of some guys’ stats, but nobody over the last 20 years. I mean, who has had comparable careers by this age?

        Is he Rick Monday with more speed and worse OBP?
        Is he Corey Patterson with better OBP?
        Is he something else entirely?

        I’d be wary of handing him a long contract, but there’s no doubt there’s value there.

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      • Dongcopter says:

        “Rick Monday”? Yeah, let’s just start making players up!

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  4. brendan says:

    dear jeff, really enjoying your daily articles. great to have you here. thanks.

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  5. Wil says:

    Oh how I wish in my little fantasy world that the Bravos would sign BJ and trade for his brother Justin during this offseason.

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  6. Alex says:

    Your logic behind Bob Abreu is completely flawless. I laughed hard

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  7. Phantom Stranger says:

    I think there is a widespread belief among players and agents that teams pay for offensive production (homers and RBIs) in free agents more than anything else, and things like k-to-bb ratio don’t impact the ultimate payday that much. Sure, some sabermetric teams will pass on him because of it, but you know there are at least a few GMs more concerned with flashy offensive numbers. It only takes one team impressed to give Upton a big payday.

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    • Ivan Grushenko says:

      In that case why did he wait till Aug 11 to change? Why not take this approach from the beginning of his career? He’s just a hard player to figure out offensively.

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      • Phantom Stranger says:

        Everything else hadn’t worked so far and he tried something different? Some people simply respond to pressure better when backed up against a wall.

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  8. Glorpo says:

    I don’t know if this adds anything to the analysis, but B.J. has noticeably changed his stance in the last month. He went from squatting with his feet almost four feet apart to standing straight up with his feet a bit wider than his shoulders. The result has been a much smoother swing & much better contact

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  9. hildebeast21 says:

    He should remain fast and agile enough, assuming he avoids injury, to be a plus defender in centre field and a plus base runner for another 3 years (until the season in which he turns 31). His power should also maintain for another 3 seasons or so. I wouldn’t want to be the team relying on him for above-average production beyond that.
    5 years, $55million…I wouldn’t offer him a dime more than that if I cared about how I spent my money…

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  10. danny says:

    What happens if you take away those three swings? Confounding indeed. But I’d rather see consistent repetition of skills than fluky wRC+.

    I hope my team doesn’t sign him.

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  11. Patrick says:

    Or maybe pitchers challenge him on certain counts because he has a reputation for being patient, and by being more aggressive he is, at least temporarily, gaining an advantage. He has been especially effective on 0-0, 1-1, 3-0 and 3-1 counts — counts when pitchers might be expecting a patient hitter to be taking and might try to get ahead.

    I noticed the same pattern the other day (after reading the post on Pedro Ciriaco) for Will Middlebrooks, a player who is mistakenly thought to be impatient (he has an O-Swing of 27% and a swing% of 44% both well below the league median). I was trying to figure out how a player with such a low swing rate (and one didn’t look like a wild swinger, at least to me) could simultaneously have both such a high K and low BB rate (his contact rate is not good, but it is not terrible either — it is consistent with other power hitters), and it struck me that maybe pitchers were getting ahead by grooving the first pitch because they were fairly confident he wouldn’t swing. To verify the hypothesis, I looked up how he was doing on 0-0 pitches and they seemed to back up this hypothesis. Like Upton, he was consipicuously effective when swinging at 0-0 or 1-1.

    I don’t have enough data to know if this idea is correct, but I thought it at least worth throwing out there.

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  12. Larry says:

    He’s a decent player given he players centerfield and flashes five tool potential but there is an up and down quality that says he may not figure it out until later in his career.

    Already 28, it may not click until his early 30s.

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  13. Antonio Bananas says:

    Does his athleticism mean that his body will give him a longer window to be great? 25-30 is generally the prime with 27 as the peak. So if he’s already 28, you’d think his time is passing. He’s still so ridiculously athletic that I would think that he has a longer time to figure out an approach that utilizes his talent.

    Or he could just be a great athletic but only a decent/good ballplayer forever. Kinda reminds me of Adam Jones’ expectations vs results over his career.

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  14. 81 says:

    Could his increased aggressiveness be at least partly attributed to everyone telling him he’s not playing to his ability?

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  15. Hurtlockertwo says:

    BJ Upton is another Mike Cameron, talented, streakey, frustrating.

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  16. Tim says:

    Searching for meaning in randomness. He’s better than he was early. He’s not as good as he was late. His full seasonal line gives the best representation of who he is.

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  17. ttnorm says:

    The thing that BJ gets no credit for is his durability. It is tough to play on that concrete carpet as CC said repeatedly in his years there. I am afraid that the Rays will figure this out next season when the somewhat fragile Des Jennings takes over in CF.

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