Upton Brothers: Phenoms, Disappointments, Now What?

Bottom of the second inning, and as Upton walked toward the plate, he might have noticed that no one was referring to him as the future anymore…

It wasn’t much of a crowd, and therefore it wasn’t much of a heckle, but what it lacked in long and loud, it made up for in short and sweet. This was the sound of a crowd protesting spoiled brats and mouthy prospects and unpaid dues.
— August 2, 2006, Saint Petersburg Times

There’s no way around it: B.J. Upton and Justin Upton have disappointed. That is a true statement, even though it’s just as true that much of the criticism hasn’t been fair. They’ve both been booed by their home crowds and dangled endlessly on the trade market. And though B.J. is just 28 and Justin is just 25, it seems like they’ve been around forever, ever since B.J. signed for $4.6 million as the second overall pick in 2002, and Justin signed for $6.1 million as the first overall pick in 2005.

On the position player WAR leaderboards, B.J. is 13th in the American League since 2007, his first full season; Justin is 25th in the NL since 2008, his first full season. That’s really quite good. But it’s not good enough to satisfy the fans who expected them to win MVP awards. They have now played 11 full seasons between them, six for B.J. and five for Justin; B.J. has never won appeared in the All-Star game, while Justin has gone twice. Justin finished fourth on the MVP balloting in 2011, when his D-Backs made a surprising playoff run. But the very next season, this year, he had a power outage for most of the summer, and the fans wanted him gone.

As Fangraphs editor Robert Sanchez wrote for ESPN the Magazine:

Upton has been working with Baylor nearly every day, but his titanic power — especially to leftfield — has evaporated… Before long, he’s leading the majors in strikeouts looking.
The Diamondbacks are 23-29, and Upton is hitting .249 entering their game against the Padres on June 2, when manager Kirk Gibson benches the rightfielder. Gibson does it again three days later, before a 10-0 win against the Rockies…
[Diamondbacks managing partner Ken] Kendrick called Upton an enigma and added: “He’s certainly not the Justin Upton he has been in the past and we would expect of him. He’s 24 years old. It’s time for him to be a consistent performer, and he’s not been that.”

B.J. Upton was booed in 2006, in the game described in the St. Petersburg Times quote at the top of the story. That happened after this USA Today story was published, which described a 21-year old B.J. Upton and two troubled teammates as they waited impatiently for a minor league callup. Upton had gotten in trouble for driving under the influence. His teammate Delmon Young had recently been severely punished for throwing a bat at an umpire. And their teammate Elijah Dukes had been suspended numerous times due to his inability to keep his anger in check.

The DUI aside — and I don’t mean to minimize it, but it appears to have been an isolated incident — Upton was a model citizen compared to those two. Drafted as a shortstop, he shifted to third base and then to center field because of his error-prone defense. He stayed in the minors to improve his fielding while his bat was major league-ready; that’s why he was impatient. A different way of writing the story would have described him as eager to accommodate his team and to work hard to overcome his deficiencies. Though DRS doesn’t like his defense, UZR does, and by all accounts the converted infielder is a perfectly fine center fielder.

Upton was compared to Young and Dukes, who had phenomenal talent but serious problems. Yesterday, Young pled guilty to harassment for shouting anti-semitic slurs and tackling a tourist in New York. Dukes was arrested twice in 2012, once for driving without a valid license and once for marijuana possession.

Upton was not compared to another one of his teammates, who has actually wound up having a better career, and has two more WAR than B.J. since 2007. No, not Evan Longoria, who was a phenom like Upton. Ben Zobrist, who wasn’t. A 2006 Tampa Tribune story (which I can’t find on the web; I’m reading it in LexisNexis) made the contrast clear:

To a smattering of boos, B.J. Upton returned to the land of Evian showers Tuesday, the story as he took up his position at third base and eighth in the Devil Rays batting order. He knew his place.
After the recent riot in Cell Block Durham, the 21-year-old Upton said and did the right things in his long-awaited return to the majors. So did the guy next to him in the Rays infield.
You know, the shortstop.
Ben Zobrist.
“I’m just honored to be playing on this stage right now with these guys up here,” Zobrist said.
Say what?
Say who?
— August 2, 2006, Tampa Tribune

B.J.’s a free agent, and Justin’s almost as likely to leave Phoenix, as the Diamondbacks have made it clear that they’re open to trading him. Earlier today, Dave Cameron wrote about a rumored trade for Elvis Andrus. The penultimate paragraph sums up the problems with Justin: “[A]verage power from a corner outfielder who strikes out a decent amount isn’t usually the foundation for a true superstar. The flashes of greatness are tempting, and his ceiling is higher than Andrus’, but his floor is also lower and he comes with a higher price tag.”

If you want a “superstar,” then neither B.J. nor Justin is one. They’ve looked like future superstars — on draft day, throughout the minors, and from 2007-2008 for B.J., and 2009 and 2011 for Justin. They’ve also looked lost. Through 2008, the year he turned 24, B.J. hit .277/.367/.426; since then, he’s hit .242/.316/.420. In 2008, Justin turned 21, and he had an ISO of .213: since then, he has posted ISOs of .232, .170, .240, and .150. Who’s the real Justin Upton? Who’s the real Bossman Junior? How permanent is B.J.’s walk outage, or Justin’s power outage?

A big part of the problem with the Uptons is expectations. If they had no expectations, ulike Ben Zobrist back in 2006, then everything that they have done in their careers would have been celebrated, much as the Zorilla has been. An alien from Mars who didn’t follow minor league prospects — maybe this alien happens to have a Yahoo fantasy league or something — would think that B.J. and Justin have had solid careers.

And they have. But “solid” isn’t enough.

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Alex is a writer for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times, and is a product manager for The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @alexremington.

27 Responses to “Upton Brothers: Phenoms, Disappointments, Now What?”

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  1. Rusty says:

    I think analysis of the Uptons simply proves the maxim for the millionth time that hitting a baseball is a very difficult thing to do. A person can have the greatest pedigree, the greatest set of raw tools, the highest ceiling, as well as previous productive seasons, but none of that guarantees future success.

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  2. MakeitRayn says:

    “On the position player WAR leaderboards, B.J. is 13th in the American League since 2007, his first full season; ”

    Names that fall below BJ on that list are notable non superstars:

    “B.J. has never won appeared in the All-Star game, ”

    It appears that ALL of those names that fall below him on that list have been All-Stars.

    It appears that BJ has been under appreciated, if anything, except from a few Rays fans.

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    • Paul says:

      You make a semi-valid point, but listing a lot of people with less AL WAR since 2007 is a bit dishonest as many guys have been injured (V-Mart, Ells, Crawford; and Hamilton was in the NL in 2007) – WAR being cumulative and all, you can give him credit for durability, but then you have to accept that he produces less WAR per 162 (i.e. is not as good when on the field).

      That being said, the Uptons are suffereing a bit of a ‘prospect backlash’ whether from not being as good as hyped (hasn’t hurt Gordon though), or for percieved attitude/arrogance problems.

      Did BJ sacrifice some discipline for power for his FA year?

      Also there is no excuse for the Uptons not being better fielders

      I could easily see Justin pulling a Kemp and sorting himself out to superstar status. And I hope he does

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      • makeitRayn says:

        I was just simply using the same weak analysis Remington was. Seeing that the term “superstar” is a non quantifiable measurement, and open to interpretation, Alex would have been better off defining how he interprets what a superstar is, and not leaving it up the the reader.

        Some people may believe peak production is what makes a superstar a superstar. If that is the case, then yes; BJ has never had an MVP caliber season (5WAR is pretty close) nor is he a superstar. Yet BJ has provided top tier value over a consistence basis helping his team to the playoffs (and ever having a monster superstar like performance in the 2008 PO). Staying healthy is a valuable skill, and it shouldn’t be over looked.

        “you make a semi-valid point, but listing a lot of people with less AL WAR since 2007 is a bit dishonest as many guys have been injured (V-Mart, Ells, Crawford; and Hamilton was in the NL in 2007) – WAR being cumulative and all, you can give him credit for durability, but then you have to accept that he produces less WAR per 162 (i.e. is not as good when on the field).”

        The problem with this is, all these players have had their chance to reach their peaks (typical ages 27-29), so how is it unfair to judge pre-age-peak BJ to post peak superstars? This article is a bit premature, either wait till BJ has passed his chance to shine or maybe predict his feature years and compare it to other superstars.

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      • Maybe I didn’t make this clear, but this piece was almost entirely a reaction to the public characterization of both Uptons as “disappointing.” Like I say, “much of the criticism hasn’t been fair.”

        As another reader points out, the perception of BJ’s career almost entirely depends on whether you view his defense as above-average (as UZR does, in fWAR) or below-average (as DRS does, in rWAR).

        They’re both good players who have occasionally been great and occasionally been mediocre.

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      • makeitRayn says:

        Take a look at the following article by Sky Andrecheck: http://baseballanalysts.com/archives/2009/06/draft_picks_and.php

        In short, Sky suggest a high school first selection choice, on average, accumulated 20.7 WAR. BJ was a second overall selection, but considered first overall by many.

        In addition, the following is an article done by Victor Wang, where he did research on how much a top 1-10 hitting prospect is worth: http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/article/the-bright-side-of-losing-santana/

        In short, the article states that a top 1-10 hitting prospect (according to Sickles and BA) is worth $36.5M in surplus..

        Currently, BJ has been worth 23.1 career WAR, that’s 2.4 WAR more than the expected WAR of a what a FIRST (not second) overall pick is predicted achieve. In addition, BJ has been paid 16,059,000 in salary over his career plus a 4.6 mil signing bonus, coming up to about 24.66 mil. Now if we take that 23.1 WAR x 5.5 mil$/ WAR we get 127.1 mil$ or 102.4 in surplus value; and a whopping 65.9 mil more than the expected surplus value of a top 10 hitting prospect.

        Once again, if anything, BJ Upton has been undervalued by many. He is just now reaching his peak years, and he has already out preformed the expected performances of a first overall selection (not second) in his young career.

        As a Rays fan, the only disappointment i feel for BJ is the fact that he will be leaving TB, without raising the World Series Championship trophy once before he left.

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      • pudieron89 says:

        Alex Remington flip-flopping in the comments. Own your words, man.

        “There’s no way around it: B.J. Upton and Justin Upton have disappointed.”

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  3. Bob says:

    Maybe B.J. Upton hasn’t been the 13th best player in the AL since 2006. According to Fangraphs, BJ has 23.1 WAR in the majors. According to Baseball Reference, he has 13.6 WAR. So over 6.5 seasons, BR has him worth 9.5 WAR less, or almost 1.5 WAR lower per season.

    That makes BJ instead of a 3.5 WAR, borderline All-Star, a 2.1 WAR average major leaguer.

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    • Jason B says:

      It’s also an example of how maddening a single measure of value like WAR can be. One might expect some noise in the fielding statistics over the course of a single season, but the two WAR figures cited over the course of 6.5 seasons are terribly dissimilar and can lead to vastly different conclusions about the same player.

      I don’t know enough to know which measure of value is superior, but one can see how easy it can be for old school “non-stat” types to dismiss WAR in general because of specific situations like this.

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  4. Dreamin says:

    While I think 2010 bad Justin (3 WAR) was more him growing up than anything else (he was still 22), doesn’t the fact he played through a hand injury this year make more sense than anything for the lack of power? Almost all of his non-power stats were virtually identical to his career line, and hand injuries notoriously sap power. He hasn’t been consistently great, I agree, but I think calling him lost is far from the truth, and I think the DBacks are nuts to even consider selling low on him.

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  5. YanksFanInBeantown says:

    If only every player could disappoint like Justin Upton…

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  6. Matt Bush says:

    I see that disappointment, and raise you everything.

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  7. mwash1983 says:

    Justin Upton=Andruw Jones hitting wise

    Upton will never come close to his Griffey Jr. ceiling as Andruw Jones never hit his true ceiling with the bat

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    • David says:

      Hold up – Andruw Jones hit 51 HR when they were testing for steroids. He hit 30+ seven times – phenomenal power hitter throughout his 20s. Yeah the average was kinda low, but .267/.345/.505 with that defense made him a HOFer in his 20s.

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  8. Hurtlockertwo says:

    Too much hype, too high of expectations. There will be an article in five years telling us Bryce Harper and Mike Trout are just not as good as we thought they were. I belive that a tough game like baseball made to look easy by some players spoils our expectations. There are hundreds of other players that are out to beat those guys and win for their own teams, its just hard to adjust for some players that get there on talent alone.

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  9. Rob says:

    I think this quote pretty much sums things up:

    “He’s 24 years old. It’s time for him to be a consistent performer”

    I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’m pretty sure that at age 24 “consistent performer” is not a phrase that would have described me very well. “Consistently late to work” is probably a bit more accurate.

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    • Likewise. I have no idea why Kendrick said what he said, but it was both strategically foolish — it attacked the trade value of one of his own players while also attacking his confidence — and logically hard to fathom.

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      • Basebull says:

        Agreed. Can’t wait to see him traded and put up another 6 WAR season – preferably for the M’s. Some forward progress would be nice, but that doesn’t always happen in a linear fashion and it’s easy to forget that a lot of players his age – even guys still seen as semi-legit prospects – are still figuring things out in AAA.

        Also, I hate to be this guy and I’m certainly not plugged in enough to the Rays or DBacks club house to speak to it, but I sort of wonder how much race plays into the “bad attitude” thing. It seems like that’s a meaninglessly vague term that gets attached to black players just because they’re not Nick Swisher in the dugout.

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  10. philosofool says:

    The D-Backs are basically run like the Marlins, but since the D-Backs are owned by a notorious dick, people notice a lot less.

    Fans shouldn’t blame Upton for being a very good player that isn’t a star, and their attitude that his “failure” is an attitude problem is total BS. It’s rare that I hope a player becomes a Yankee and puts up MVP season after MVP season, but if that happened with Upton, it would serve the D-Backs fans right.

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  11. moosh says:

    what does this mean? “B.J. has never won appeared in the All-Star game”

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  12. cs3 says:

    ” Upton was not compared to another one of his teammates, who has actually wound up having a better career, and has two more WAR than B.J. since 2007. No, not Evan Longoria, who was a phenom like Upton. Ben Zobrist, who wasn’t. A 2006 Tampa Tribune story (which I can’t find on the web; I’m reading it in LexisNexis) made the contrast clear: ”

    Not trying to be a smart ass, but what are you trying to say with this paragraph? I’ve read it 4 times and I just keep getting a jumble of words that I cant make sense of.

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  13. shoewizard says:

    In baseball reference WAR, since integration 1947 there have been 6,434 players to appear in ballgames through age 24.

    Justin Upton ranks 74th in WAR among those 6,434 players, or top 1.2%

    I’m not disappointed too much. Just a little.


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  14. Jack says:

    BJ Upton is terribly underrated. I get that he fell below the obligations of being a superstar, but once you get over that there’s a very nice player there.

    I think I would take him over the next 3-4 years over his brother, though I do think Justin Upton still has terrific upside himself.

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    • Jack says:

      Possibly I take that last part back. Point was that I like BJ Upton a whole lot moving forward. I think he wants out of the Trop, rightfully so.

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      • YanksFanInBeantown says:

        Yeah, I’ll take Justin over BJ 11 times out of 10, 8 days a week. He’s shown that he’s a much better hitter over his age 20-24 seasons than his brother was over his 22-27 seasons.

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  15. Hadley Rohanna says:

    I have never had any respect for Remington since he wrote that stupid and silly article victimizing Milton Bradley.

    Bradley is a clown – and brought almost all of his problems on himself.

    Yet people like Remington consistently forget what the word “accountability” means and in that particular situation painted everyone criticizing Bradley as a racist.

    Net result = Remington has no credibility.

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