Back in 2007, B.J. Upton was thought to be a future megastar, a young tools-filled player, whose future seemed to almost certainly include MVP consideration and numerous other awards. As a 24-year-old he put up back-to-back 4+ WAR seasons. For the past two years however, he has posted a total -0.2 WAR. What has happened to B.J. Upton? He is only 30 years old, which for an athlete of his caliber, is still potentially only the tail end of his prime.
Defensively speaking, he has had ups and downs, but the swings in performance were never too drastic, posting a -7 DRS and -1.9 UZR/150 in 2014 compared to -3 and 8.4 back in 2008. His Defense rating has dropped from 9.8 to 0.1 from 2008 to 2014. Again, obviously not good, but not enough to account for such a big drop in WAR. So his troubles must mostly be tied to his offensive production.
I first tried to identify the problem with his hitting by dividing our options into two groups. The biomechanics processing results versus possible telling statistics on his approach. Let us look at the latter to start. A couple things I want to focus on would be his O-Swing% and how he performs in hitter-friendly counts. From 2008 to 2014, his O-Swing% has jumped up 11% from 16.8% to 27.8%, which is not a great indication that he has a plan when stepping into the box. Hitter’s counts are all about the approach, not only working yourself into this count, but being ready for your pitch because you can be selective at the plate.
|Avg. / wRC+||Through 2-0||Through 3-1||Through 3-0|
|2008||.265 / 176||.262 / 212||.353 / 280|
|2014||.091 / 134||.097 / 150||.100 / 204|
Now obviously the wRC+ numbers will be inflated due to the higher walk rates when in a hitter’s count, so I am focusing more on average. To help put this into perspective, in 2014, through 0-2 counts, Upton hit .085. That is scarily similar to his performance in hitter’s counts. Clearly something is off. When in a hitter’s count, the batter typically sits on a fastball, so naturally my next focus was to look at his wFB. His wFB in 2008 was 1.1 and in 2014 was -11.1. So while he used to be above average, he has now become much worse at handling fastballs, which would correlate to his lack of success hitting in hitter’s counts. In order to survive in this league as a hitter, you must be successful hitting against the fastball. His pitches seen rate has remained relatively consistent except for a slight increase in sliders seen. His lack of production in these areas really makes me question whether he is ready to hit when stepping into the box.
If you have ever seen a B.J. Upton swing you know there are a lot of moving parts. This in and of itself is part of the problem. Double loads, bat wraps, too much rotational and not enough linear movement, dipping, and changing eye levels are all apparent. But first let’s start with the numbers. A couple of things jump out when looking at the numbers. To begin with, his GB/FB rate in 2008 was 1.65 in comparison to a rate of 1.11 in 2014 while his 2014 HR/FB rate is lower than his career rate, it is higher than his 2008 All Star rate at 9% compared to 7.4%. His line drive rate is consistent throughout.
However Upton’s BABIP tells you most of the story. Upon entering the league full time in 2007, B.J.’s BABIP was .393 then .344 in 2007-08 compared to .286 in 2014. This is ridiculous and impossible to sustain! The question is, does this then make his two best years a fluke? Back in 2010 and 2011 he had near-league average BABIP years and posted close to a 4 WAR in both. So as ridiculous as those 2007-08 numbers were, I can’t blame his entire decline on not being as lucky.
Another one of the most worrisome numbers is to see his Z-Contact% drop 10%, almost as much as his overall Contact% which dropped 12%. This to me screams mechanics. So let’s take a look (and I apologize in advance for the youtube link, but it serves our purposes decently enough — I still haven’t figured out the .Gifs). Ironically enough, he hits a home run in this video. It just goes to show all the holes in his best of swings.
The first thing you see is at the peak of his negative move his hips slant upwards (2 second mark). The reason this happens, is because his leg kick doesn’t gain any ground. It immediately makes him more likely to have a bit more uppercut in his swing and it also changes his eye level due to the flexion in his knees changing while the distance between his feet do not change. Both factors make it more difficult to produce solid contact. Once at toe-touch, he then loads again and inverts his front leg, making it a double load (5-6 second mark). This leads to the potential to over-rotate (think Newton’s 3rd law — for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction). By inverting and coiling his body, he will uncoil, or over-rotate off the pitch, causing his shoulders and hips to pull off the pitch and not stay square.
Once he finishes inverting his front side he commits to swinging. His hands/upper half look okay up to this point (7 second mark), and they’re very active. However his upper half and lower half are completely out of sync. Once he initiates his swing, his bat immediately wraps because he still hasn’t come set with his barrel, the bat has been moving the entire time. At this point there is nothing going forward at all, no backside drive. It is all rotational, making it harder to stay on the ball if his timing isn’t near perfect. In other words, due to having a more rotational swing versus a linear swing, his margin of error with timing is much narrower.
Once at the contact position (11 second mark) he looks okay. He hits the ball off his front foot, his elbows are at slightly obtuse angles, and his front side is stiff. During his bat path his hands dip a bit, giving him a high finish, most likely due to the pitch being low.
B.J. Upton’s biggest problems in his swing come before his contact position. This is a very good explanation for why he struggles against fastballs and in hitter’s counts. Simply put, he isn’t ready to hit. He has way too much going on, the main problems being his double load and lack of linear movement. In an age of power bullpens and power fastballs it is no wonder that he is struggling as badly as he is. B.J. Upton needs to simplify and settle everything down in the box. His swing is fixable, but these issues need to be addressed and changes have to be made if he is ever to be successful again.