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Upton Brothers: Phenoms, Disappointments, Now What?

Posted By Alex Remington On November 8, 2012 @ 4:30 pm In Daily Graphings | 27 Comments

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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