B.J. Upton’s Power Resurgence

When B.J. Upton made his seemingly long-awaited full-season major league debut in 2007 at 22, he did not disappoint. Although he didn’t settle in full-time defensively at center field until the following season, his 2007 offensive performance was tremendous. Upton hit for average (.300), stole 22 bases, displayed good plate discipline (11.9% walk rate, 19.1% O-Swing), and perhaps most exciting given his age, showed very good power, with a .209 ISO and 24 home runs. A 22-year-old center fielder putting up a .387 wOBA (.300/.386/.508) seemed to be destined for superstardom.

Upton’s 2008 season was still excellent overall, as he put up 4.6 WAR while playing well in center field, improving his walk rate, lowering his strikeout rate, and stealing 44 bases. However, his power seemed to disappear, as his ISO dropped to .128 and he hit only nine home runs. Many attributed this to a shoulder injury during the season, and given that he excelled in almost every other area (.354 wOBA [.273/383/.401]), there was little reason to worry. However, in 2009, the power drought (only 11 HR, .132 ISO) continued, and coupled with a declining walk rate and a lower BABIP, Upton limped to a .310 wOBA season (.241/.313/.373).

Upton might have been seen as settling in as good defensive center fielder with an okay-ish bat, but it is easy to forget that he was only 25 to start the 2010 season. Whatever other problems he (allegedly) has had, the power has been fairly close to his 2007 level. While a low BABIP (.299) is responsible for a keeping his wOBA down to .342 (.236/.324/.427), that’s still a good number in the current offensive environment, and notably for the purposes of this post, his ISO is back up to .190 with 17 home runs.

Is this real improvement, random variation, or simply Upton finally getting his swing back after 2008’s shoulder problems? The shoulder issue is something we’ll have to set aside, but maybe we can get a bit of lead on the other two, beginning with Upton’s batted ball data. In 2007, Upton had a 19.8% Home Run-to-Fly Ball Ratio, but in 2008 that dropped to 7.4% and in 2009 to 6.8%. While his 2008 flyball rate dropped down to 30.6% from 37.6%, he still had trouble getting fly balls out of the park in 2009 despite the increase in flies to 40.3%. This season, Upton has increased his flyball rate to 42.7%, and more of them have gone out of the park — 11.9%. This is perhaps demonstrative of a change in approach.

Moreover, other data suggests that Upton has never been terribly lucky with regard to home runs. I don’t know the most recent Hit Tracker averages, but I believe that about a third of all home runs across baseball are “Just Enoughs” — that is, just barely cleared the fence. If a player has more than that number of “Just Enough” homers, they are probably getting a lucky. In 2007 only 7 of Upton’s 24 home runs were “Just Enough” homers, in 2008 3 of 9, and in 2009 3 of 11. Upton doesn’t seem to have had much luck on that score in previous seasons, or in the current season, when only 3 of Upton’s 17 home runs so far have been “Just Enoughs.” He’s hitting those homers with authority.

There are other legitimate concerns about Upton’s offense, of course — strikeouts aren’t horrible in themselves, but they remain high for Upton and might reflect a growing problem making contact. The less contact a player makes, the less chances he’ll have to hit one out of the park. These contact problem might also be related to a more aggressive plate approach — while Upton’s walk rate and O-Swing percentages remain above average, he’s swinging at more pitches outside the zone than ever before (24.9% O-Swing vs. 18.9% career). Still, whether it’s due to a change in approach, a finally healed shoulder, or a combination of the two, fans of the Rays have to be happy to see B.J. Upton’s power returning to previous levels, and there are indications that it might continue to do so.



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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.


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slash12
Member
slash12
5 years 11 months ago

you have an error in your numbers:” but in 2008 that dropped to 7.4% and in 2009 to 11.9%” He didn’t hit 11.9 HR/FB in 2009.

Sandy Kazmir
Guest
5 years 11 months ago

I find it interesting that he rarely hits a single from just watching the games. It seems like Beej either strikes out or hits with authority and with his speed he does rake in the occasional cheapy dub. Another thing you may want to look at is some of his streakiness, he is currently at a zenith while he has seen plenty of bad stretches this year. He’s been on fire of late and perhaps that could be attributed to “getting the swing back” or perhaps he’s just been running exceptionally lucky of late. One last thing is that he’s done a remarkable job of hitting lefties pretty much all year, but at times can’t hit even a weaksauce fastball from a righty. He’s done much better of late even against normally-armed humans, but I’m not sure if that is something that we can expect to continue.

Ben Hall
Member
Member
Ben Hall
5 years 11 months ago

He is hard to figure out.

A couple of notes: that .300 average in ’07 will probably never be repeated. He had a .393 BABIP in ’07, and even with his speed, if he’s hitting over 40% fly balls, it’s going to be hard to maintain even a strong BABIP, much less anything among the league leaders. Secondly, he strikes out a ton, as you noted–28% for his career.

I don’t think the plate discipline is actually declining much. Compared to averages, he’s pretty much in the same place he was in ’07 and ’09: 4.5% below average this year, 5.5% in ’09, and 5.9% in ’07 (he was exceptional in ’08: 10.4% below average).

Greg
Guest
Greg
5 years 11 months ago

“Strikeouts aren’t horrible in themselves”

WRONG. INCORRECT. I hate this excuse-making for striking out. It’s about as pernicious an offensive play in baseball as you can imagine. They are awful and if your team strikes out a lot, they probably suck. Stop perpetuating this mythical nonsense that strikeouts aren’t bad. That goes for everyone on fangraphs.

Steve
Guest
Steve
5 years 11 months ago

You heard him Fangraphs: NO MORE EXCUSES FOR STRIKEOUTS. Better watch out.

The Pernicious One
Guest
The Pernicious One
5 years 11 months ago

STRIKEOUTS ARE PART OF MY EVIL PLANS FOR DOMINATION OF BASEBALL AND EVENTUALLY THE WORLD. MARK REYNOLDS AND ADAM DUNN ARE MY FAITHFUL SERVANTS IN THIS VENTURE.

SINCERELY,
BUD SELIG

Bill@TPA
Guest
5 years 11 months ago

This is hilarious. Unless it’s *intentional* humor, in which case it’s kind of a failure (other than the inspired use of “pernicious”).

Josh Shepardson
Guest
Josh Shepardson
5 years 11 months ago

Gotta love old faithful here stating that strikeouts are the worst thing ever. I’ll take a batter who can work a walk, and drives the ball with authority and sacrifices some contact, thus strikeouts more, over a slap singles hitter any day of the week.

Phantom Stranger
Guest
Phantom Stranger
5 years 11 months ago

B.J. Upton is getting by on pure talent as a hitter. Several commentators have noted his horrible swing mechanics, you would never teach a young hitter to use that approach. He has a very long swing that does produce some majestic blasts when he connects, but will inevitably lead to many strikeouts. That might explain his mixed results. If I was running the Rays, I would go about trying to fundamentally change his hitting approach. There is a reason he was drafted so high, his innate talent is top 5% or 10% in the game.

His brother has a much better approach at the plate, with the concomitant better numbers. Justin might actually be slightly less talented, because B.J. has the better hands at the plate. But that swing is actively hurting his potential.

Ben
Guest
Ben
5 years 11 months ago

I think another part of the problem is that B.J. is having a problem identifying pitches. He’s constantly fooled on breaking pitches and almost always gives up on inside sliders or cutters that start off the plate and catch the corner. I swear, once a week he winds up shocked and barking at the ump when it happens as if he had never seen the pitch before.

Ben F
Guest
Ben F
5 years 11 months ago

Side note:
“The less contact a player makes, the less chances he’ll have to hit one out of the park.”

All else equal, then yes; but if a player is making less contact b/c he’s swinging harder (or freer, or looser, or whatever) then an increase in missed swings could correlate with an increase in power.
This actually seems to describe B.J.’s plate approach: swing hard and don’t worry about missing; he could alternatively choose to put every single ball in play (as in he’s talented enough to avoid swinging and missing if that were his goal), but the HRs would disappear.

exxrox
Member
exxrox
5 years 11 months ago

I’m gonna go ahead and call out this line as a poor assumption with no backup, unless somebody can back me up:

“If a player has more than that number of “Just Enough” homers, they are probably getting a lucky.”

How about, if a player hits more than the average number of Just Enough HRs, he has greater than average power? Sluggers hit bombs, no-doubters, moonshots, etc…middle infielders with “pop” do not. That is the difference. The roundabout use and abuse of the word “luck” on this website is among my top pet peeves when reading articles here.

exxrox
Member
exxrox
5 years 11 months ago

that should read, “unless somebody can back up Klassen with proof”. I got jumbled.

Mitchello
Guest
Mitchello
5 years 11 months ago

I really think the majority of his power fluctuation is due to his shoulder injury/surgery. His shoulder was bothering him in 2008 and he had his labrum repaired right after the World Series. As a rule, it takes 5-6 months to regain full activity after labrum surgery with full strength returining after about a year. If I recall, he returned to the majors in the middle of April of 2009 which means he probably couldn’t work out much in the offseason/spring training.

Wilson
Guest
Wilson
5 years 8 months ago

It takes drive, and a deep desire to become a great ballplayer, and B J appears not to have either.

Luke
Guest
Luke
5 years 6 months ago

I think it’s very interesting his splits in SLG/BA for lefty/righties for 2009/2010. In his big year he hit lefty and righties for a better then .500 slugging. 2010 the split was .538/.371 in favor of LEFTIES! Very odd. What you’d expect is other way around, which is what happened with RIGHTIES in 2009 for a .270/.416 split. Tells me I think his power was back last year, but his shoulder problems have forced him to be a pure pull ball hitter for a few years. If you look at his splits before surgery he hit the ball to all fields. If you try having too much of a pull on on a righty you end up fouling the ball off a bunch of times, putting yourself in 0-2 counts, and KOing.

I think with a full year under his belt healthy, and some time to re-tool his swing for something more natural he’ll have that power again.

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