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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.