Justin Upton Is Having A Rough Week

Things have not gone well for Justin Upton this season. After posting an MVP-caliber season in 2011, Upton has struggled to reach the same level this year. The situation worsened on Tuesday, when Arizona Diamondbacks’ Managing General Partner Ken Kendrick criticized Upton’s performance so far this season. Later that night, Upton left out of the Diamondbacks’ starting lineup. Upton told reporters he was not pleased about the situation. And while that should have been the end of it, Upton found himself on the bench again last night. At this point, it seems like the only thing Upton can do to repair the situation is to start producing like his old self.

One thing that both sides agree on is that Upton’s performance has not been up to his usual standards. After hitting .289/.369/.529 last season, Upton’s slash line has dropped to just .243/.340/.365. Some of Upton’s struggles can be attributed to a thumb injury suffered earlier in the year. While Upton managed to avoid the disabled list, the 24-year-old outfielder missed a few games and had fluid drained from his thumb. Thumb injuries can often linger — and make it difficult to swing a bat — so it wouldn’t be surprising if Upton’s early struggles were a result of the injury.

Upton was so successful last season because he employed a slightly more aggressive approach at the plate. All of Upton’s swing rates (O-Swing, Z-Swing and Swing) jumped by at least 5% in 2011. This approach caused Upton to trade some patience for fewer strikeouts. And since high strikeout rates have always plagued Upton, it was encouraging to see him drop his K% to 18.7%.

But this season, he seems to have lost those gains. Upton has gone back to being incredibly patient. All of his swing rates have reverted back to pre-2011 levels. As a result, his strikeout rate has jumped to 22.6 — a number in line with his 23.8 career mark. Upton has made slightly less contact on balls thrown in the strike zone this season, but he’s making more contact on balls out of the zone. Upton could be swinging at worse offerings this year, and that could explain why he thinks he isn’t “squaring-up” the ball as much.

But that might not necessarily the case, either. Upton’s line-drive rate sits at 26.1, one of the highest performances in the league this year. He’s hit the ball fairly hard, but his batting average still sits at just .242. When things like this happen, it’s pretty easy to blame the luck dragons. Upton’s .298 BABIP would be solid for most players, but Upton’s career BABIP is .334. So, he should see some improvement as the season progresses. He’s also managed to cut his infield popups down to just 6.8% this year, and that should also help him raise his average.

There’s still the issue of Upton’s poor slugging percentage. His flyball rate is down this season — from 44.8 to 32.8 — and his HR/FB has also fallen to just 11.8%. That’s the worst Upton has performed in either category since his rookie season.

The easy explanation here is that the thumb injury either lingered for quite some time, or it continues to linger. Perhaps Kirk Gibson is trying to give Upton time to heal, and this isn’t a benching. But if that’s the case, Upton doesn’t seem to be aware of the plan. But if Upton’s thumb is still bothering him, it might be the reason why he’s been so reluctant to swing at pitches this year. And though he’s made good contact, he hasn’t been able to display his power much. Upton seems to have compensated for the injury by reverting back to his pre-2011 plate approach. As long as his thumb can handle it, Upton needs to start being more aggressive at the plate if he wants to return to form.

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Chris is a blogger for CBSSports.com. He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.

35 Responses to “Justin Upton Is Having A Rough Week”

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  1. Don says:

    His Upswing is deterred by his UZR and Zips projection.

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  2. LuckyStrikes says:

    Good analysis here. Upton has been one of my favorite players since he entered the league. Really hoping he can turn things around soon.

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  3. RC says:

    “While Upton managed to avoid the disabled list, the 24-year-old outfielder missed a few games and had fluid drained from his thumb. Thumb injuries can often linger ”

    This is one of the things that frustrates me most about baseball players (and I guess managers), the refusal to put obviously hurt players on the DL if they can “still play”.

    It seems in 90% of the cases the team would be better off putting the player on the 15 day DL, then watching them hit .250/.280/.310 for a month and a half while the injury doesn’t heal.

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    • Switters says:

      For sure. This is happening with Pedroia right now as well, just watch.

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      • George W Lucas says:

        They probably don’t put them on the DL because they are still better than ahving the replacement player out there. I think the Sox would rather have a hurt Pedroia playing than say Nick Punto.

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      • RC says:

        The problem is, since getting hurt, Pedroia is hitting .206/.246/.222 for a whopping .468 OPS. He’s not better than Punto right now.

        And trying to keep him in the lineup is making it less likely he’ll recover quickly.

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      • dirtbag says:

        The DBacks already have Young, Kubel, and Parra, so it’s not like they’d be putting minor league dreck out there regularly if they DLed Upton.

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      • steex says:

        I agree with RC here. While a hurt Dustin Pedroia may well seem a better option than Nick Punto (though it’s not working out that way) for the time he’d be on the DL, that’s not the real issue. If Pedroia can heal on the DL and come back strong, you’re deciding between either 15 days (or whatever it takes) of Punto + top form Pedroia for the rest of the season or a long stretch of subpar Pedroia fighting an injury.

        In many cases, getting the superstar back at full strength or something close to it would more than make up for a few weeks of the replacement player if the alternate is continuously depressed performance from the superstar.

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    • Jon L. says:

      RC hit the nail on the head. This seems to be one of the most frequent major managerial errors made. I can’t think of any times that the reverse happened (a team missing out because a healthy-enough superstar was held out of the lineup).

      Another frequent error that seems analogous to this one is leaving the star pitcher in the game even after it’s become apparent that he’s lost his ability to get batters out.

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    • wally pipp says:

      couldn’t disagree more. at least half of life is as simple as showing up, even if you’re not at 100% (and really, when is anyone actually at 100%?)

      maybe upton and pedroia are special cases because their superstars and their job is secure, but the difference in talent between a lot of ML starters and AAA or AAAA types isn’t nearly as much as you think.

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  4. Mario Mendoza of commenters says:

    “…Upton has struggled to reach the same level this year”

    Hell he has struggled to reach replacement level.

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    • Duh says:

      Not really, he’s on pace for a season above the league average…

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    • ValueArb says:

      He’s still providing excellent defense and base-running, and his OBP is .340, keeping his offense is not too far below average. He’s on pace for over 2 WAR and an above average season. Not what you’d expect from the 2nd best right fielder in baseball since 2009, but far above replacement level.

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  5. viconquest says:

    He’s really not seeing the ball well (his words) and it just doesn’t feel as if he has a game plan when he digs in. One of the marks of a great hitter is that he adjusts within an AB better than others and Jupton just doesn’t display that skill at that level.

    When he falls behind in the count, it’s gg, enjoy cursing your way back to the dugout.

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    • ValueArb says:

      When any batter falls behind in the count, it’s GG, enjoy cursing to the dugout.

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      • Jason says:

        Unless you are named Joey Votto.

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      • Jon L. says:

        Is that true of Votto? I just read that article saying that with two strikes on him, his OPS is 80 points higher than league average. It’s misleading though, because without two strikes on him, his OPS is a heck of a lot more than 80 points above league average. So basically, Votto adjusts worse than average to having two strikes on him, once his overall superior performance is taken into account.

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  6. Hurtlockertwo says:

    The Dbacks had a season last year where many guys contributed to winning and that became contagious. This year that is just not happening and it places extra pressure on the main guys to do more. The pitching isn’t as good either which also places pressure on the hitters to perfrom. Just shows you how hard it is to repeat success in baseball.

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  7. kid says:

    Always something with this guy.

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  8. Scott says:

    Look, Justin Upton is a very good player.

    That being said, I don’t know why analysts insist that he is close to an MVP-level player. He was between the 4th and 6th most valuable player in the NL last year. That was his best year and he’s not especially low on the aging curve anymore.

    As a RF, he’s not going to get “bonus points” the way a Pedroia or a Rollins might for playing middle infield.

    But then 9 out of 24 Fangraphs writers, for example, pick him to win the NL MVP this year, only 2 less than those who picked Joey Votto.

    Maybe if I watched more Diamondbacks games, I would understand the love, who knows. But here’s the list of players who have had seasons as good as or better than Upton’s 2011 at the same age or younger, since 1995 (from B-R):

    Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, Andruw Jones, Bobby Abreu, Carlos Beltran, Carlos Gonzalez, Chipper Jones, David Wright, Derek Jeter, Dustin Pedroia, Edgardo Alfonzo, Eric Chavez, Evan Longoria, Grady Sizemore, Hank Blalock, Hanley Ramirez, Ivan Rodriguez, Jason Heyward, Jose Reyes, Nick Markakis, Nomar Garciaparra, Ryan Zimmerman, Scott Rolen, Troy Glaus, Troy Tulowitzki, Vladimir Guerrero.

    His 2011 was not historically great by any means, nor was there ever any indication that he was going to be a perennial MVP candidate, at least apart from the fact that he could sell some jeans.

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    • ValueArb says:

      His crime is that he’s a very good player, 2nd best right fielder in baseball since 2009, but no, he hasn’t shown that he’s historically great, and there isn’t much reason to expect him to improve much. He got MVP talk last year because he was by far the best player on a surprisingly successful team, but he wasn’t that close to the best player in baseball last year.

      Because he’s an Upton, because he was the #1 pick, and because the team jacked him from AA at age 19, Arizona fans blame him for every team failure and rip him during every slump, despite still being an above average player right now during one of the worst slumps of his career.

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      • Scott says:

        I don’t think it’s strange that he got MVP talk last season when he had a very good season.

        It’s the obvious confirmation bias from analysts that SHOULD understand confirmation bias in the first place.

        9 out of 24 Fangraphs writers choosing Justin Upton to be the MVP this year is either obvious confirmation bias, or is a denial of the existence of Troy Tulowitski, Ryan Braun, Joey Votto, Matt Kemp, Carlos Gonzalez, Andrew McCutchen, etc.

        All players just as or more likely than Justin Upton to win the MVP this year, in an analytical vacuum.

        But something about Justin Upton’s tool make even seasoned stat nerds ignore the facts and assume he’s going to be an epic superstar.

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    • Oasis says:

      That’s a nice list. It’s essentially meaningless though. I can write down a random list of names too without giving any criteria whatsoever …. And no, writing “per B-R” does not count.

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      • Scott says:

        I thought it would be obvious since we’re on Fangraphs that “as good or better” would be based on WAR, and since we’re on earth that “at the same age or younger” would be self explanatory.

        If the most commonly accept value basis and age do not count as “criteria” to you, I’m not sure what to say…

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    • Jon L. says:

      Um, you just produced a list of only 26 players across a 17-year span, and the vast majority fall into three categories: future HOF’ers, legitimate HOF candidates, and younger guys with HOF-level promise. I count six players on that list with no shot at the HOF – 3 who got hurt, and 3 who fizzled.

      I think it’s a fascinating list, but it should have been posted by someone who was trying to prove that Justin Upton could be one of the greatest players of his generation.

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  9. Scott says:

    And before it comes up, most of the really great players on that list had SIGNIFICANTLY better seasons than Upton did in 2011 to land on that list. If you limit the list to seasons below 6.5 BWAR (Upton was 5.7 last year), you eliminate every Pujols season beside age-21, A-Rod, Andruw Jones, David Wright, Evan Longoria, Derek Jeter, Ryan Zimmerman, Vladimir Guerrero, Dustin Pedroia, and Hanley Ramirez.

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    • Jon L. says:

      Great point. I hadn’t read this yet when I posted above. Still, even eliminating those 9 players still leaves 11 with HOF potential versus only 6 without.

      I don’t even like Justin Upton, but this is making him look good.

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  10. yo-yo says:

    Let’s hope it’s the thumb. Let us also remember he is an Upton so he could be suffering from Upton disease. Incredible potential and flashes of greatness interupted by long periods of unexplicable underperformance.

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    • radicalhenri says:

      I’ve feared this for a while. Although, he’s been much more stable than bj up to this point. Still, if he continues to post this low of an average, it would be .002 away from the average bj posted in his year 24 season after posting .300 and .273 the years before.

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  11. wynams says:

    Hand injuries have a funny way of lingering … Chris Young fought it last season and under-performed. Unfortunately for the Dbacks, Upton will not perform this season and Young’s shoulder will probably keep him under-performing as well.

    Get ‘em next year. I don’t see Arizona making it, especially with LA poised to drop some FA coin, make some trades to win now.

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  12. RC says:

    I’m not sure why people think Upton is going to be a superstar.

    Yes, he was great at a young age, but so was his brother. BJ put up 5 WAR at 24. And just never got any better.

    There’s a lot of reason to believe that the Upton boys just develope young.

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