Power. Patience. Speed. During the course of his career, B.J. Upton has shown more tools than Home Depot. Those tools are the reason that the Rays selected him with the second overall pick in the 2002 draft, and they’re what allowed him to cross the four win threshold in the majors in both 2007 and 2008. Since then, however, Upton has aggravated fantasy owners with his schizophrenic bat. B.J.’s wOBA sat at .387 in ’07 and .354 in ’08, but it dipped to .310 last season and has rebounded mildly to .324 this year. Is he a power hitter? An uber-patient batter with medium pop? Neither? And what about his declining BABIP? Let’s look at Upton’s core skills to get some answers.
Upton walked in 11.9% of his plate appearances in 2007, 15.2% in 2008, 9.1% in 2009 and he has drawn a free pass 11.1% this season. As those above-average walk rates indicate, Upton does a better job than most in terms of laying off pitches thrown outside of the strike zone. This season, he’s venturing out of the zone more than he usually does. Here are Upton’s outside swing percentages over the period of 2007-2010, compared to the MLB average:
His O-Swing is about 86 percent of the big league average, compared to 76% in ’07, 59% in ’08 and 78% last season. In addition to swinging at more off-the-plate pitches, his first-pitch strike percentage is 66 percent (58-59% MLB average). It was 63.7% in 2007, 55.2% in 2008 and 61.8% in 2009. I don’t necessarily think this has a ton of predictive value, but Upton’s performance when putting the first pitch in play has plummeted. Here are his sOPS+ numbers on the first pitch over 2007-2010. sOPS+ is a stat that compares a player’s performance in a given split to the league average. One-hundred is average, above 100 means the batters is better than most and under 100 means he is worse than average.
2007: 204 sOPS+
2008: 105 sOPS+
2009: 89 sOPS+
2010: 62 sOPS+
The 6-3, 185 pound righty batter hit for elite power in 2007, posting a .209 ISO with 19.8% of his fly balls leaving the yard. Upton’s ISO fell to .128 (7.4 HR/FB%) in ’08 as he battled through a left shoulder injury that required off-season surgery. Fantasy players were hopeful that a supposedly healed Upton would start going deep more often in ’09, but his ISO barely budged (.132) and his HR/FB% was 6.8. In 2010, B.J.’s pop has rebounded to an extent — his ISO is .163, with an 8.3 HR/FB%. At this point, I think it would be safe to expect power output closer to his current clip — ZiPS pegs Upton for a .156 rest-of-season ISO, and CHONE forecasts a similar .153 ISO.
This is one area where Upton’s performance hasn’t varied much. He stole 22 bases in 30 tries in 2007 (a 73.3% success rate), then went 44-for-60 in ’08 (73.3%), 42-for-56 last season (75%). In 2010, he has 27 steals in 33 attempts (81.8%). He’s an efficient stolen base threat, and his Speed Score has increased each season (five in ’07, 5.6 in ’08, 6.8 in ’09 and eight in 2010; the MLB average is about five).
Upton’s BABIP has been all over the place in his four seasons as a full-time starter — .393 in ’07, .344 in ’08, .310 last year and .292 in 2010. Considering Upton’s wheels, it’s bizarre that his BABIP on grounders is fueling the dip — .341 in ’07, .285 in ’08, .270 in ’09 and just .218 this season. For comparison, The AL average over that period has ranged from .231 to .246.
Is there any particular reason for Upton’s continual BABIP decline? Let’s turn to this expected BABIP (xBABIP) calculator from The Hardball Times, which estimates a hitter’s BABIP based on his rate of home runs, strikeouts, stolen bases, line drives, fly balls, pop ups and ground balls:
While Upton’s actual BABIP has dropped precipitously, his xBABIP totals suggest that little has changed. I don’t think there’s much reason to think that a player with Upton’s speed will continue to post a BABIP on grounders that’s below the league average.
His overall rate of hits on balls put in play should improve. Something closer to his career BABIP, .334, is a good estimate of what to expect from this point forward. Upton should be more of a .250-.260 type hitter than his current .227 mark.
Upton is currently on the waiver wire in one-tenth of Yahoo leagues. If you’re in a league where he’s available, I’d certainly take a gamble. I also think he’s a shrewd buy-low candidate, assuming his recent ankle injury isn’t too serious. Upton possesses a good eye (though it hasn’t been quite as discerning this year) and above-average power, and he’ll add plenty of steals to boot. There’s still upside, too, with Upton not turning 26 until late August. Don’t give up on this guy.