B.J. Upton, Chris Davis and Breakouts

Chris Davis owners are experiencing an unexpected surprise this season. Instead of a possible corner infield or injury replacement, they have one of the top players in the league for pennies on the dollar. On the other end of the spectrum is B.J. Upton who Ron Shandler picked to have “40/40 upside”, but is in the discussion has the worst everyday player in the majors. Going into the 2013 season, Davis and Upton were projected to have similar production because of a uncertain skill set and the similarities ended then.

Every year surprises happen, but not usually with hitters. Some hitters may rise, some may fall, but usually no comes completely out of no where, like Davis, to possibly be the best hitter in the league. In Ottoneu leagues, 30% of first place team contain Davis. Looking at the top 3 ranked teams, 57% contain Davis. Getting Miguel Cabrera like production at a fraction of the cost is huge. The last Chris Davis non-rookie type breakout was Jose Bautista in 2010. 54 HRs and 124 RBIs from a player who was likely still on the waiver wire into May. The goal of any fantasy baseball owner is to find these players before others do.

Everyone likes a good breakout and figuring out who it may be. I went to one of my favorite little tools, Marcel Projection Similarity Application. What is does is take a player’s projection from any season, finds players with similar projections and then looks to see how the player actually performed. Most times, the projections are almost perfectly split with the same number above or below the sample set. With Davis selected with players his same age, a .020 variation in the stats, and going back to 1990, 15 comparable seasons were selected (*).

Generally, these players were high power, low AVG players. What I found was 10 of the 15 exceed their projected OPS, with most of the increase coming from a higher AVG. Some of the selected players really broke out (Kent and Ortiz).

So I decided to look again for similar players. I ran a query for players within 1 year of age of Davis and their AVG and ISO were within 0.010. Here are two of those players:

Player 1:

2013 ZIPS Projections: .251 AVG, .204 ISO

2013 FanGraphs+ Profile: Player 1 appears to have traded his on-base skills for power in 2012. He moves to a more hitter-friendly park as a member of the new team, and he is still young and good offensively for his position.

Average Draft Positions
Mock Draft Central: 35
Yahoo: 50.6
ESPN: 50.9

Player 2 ZIPS Projections: .252 AVG, .198 ISO

Player 2 has hit for much better averages than expected given his high batting average on balls in play. While he’s a candidate to see some regression in that area, his power is definitely real.

Average Draft Position
Mock Draft Central: 80
Yahoo: 136.3
ESPN: 154.8

As you probably guessed by the title of the article, Player 1 is B.J. Upton and Player 2 is Chris Davis. I know Upton has the advantage of more speed and better position, but not enough to be, on average, picked 70 places ahead of Davis.

The two players have performed as polar opposites, but these two are not the exception, a large percentage of players in the group either sink or soar.

Here are the players whose 2013 ZIPs projections are within 0.010 of Davis’s AVG and ISO and then their actual results are compared (**).

Name Age Projected AVG Projected ISO 2013 AVG 2013 ISO Diff in AVG Diff in ISO Total Diff
Chris Davis 27 0.252 0.198 0.310 0.380 0.058 0.182 0.239
Evan Gattis 26 0.247 0.206 0.252 0.325 0.004 0.119 0.123
Colby Rasmus 26 0.242 0.195 0.251 0.227 0.008 0.032 0.040
Matt Joyce 28 0.246 0.190 0.244 0.207 -0.002 0.017 0.015
Juan Francisco 26 0.252 0.199 0.244 0.198 -0.008 -0.002 -0.010
Todd Frazier 27 0.247 0.197 0.241 0.162 -0.006 -0.036 -0.042
B.J. Upton 28 0.251 0.204 0.179 0.125 -0.071 -0.080 -0.151
Ike Davis 26 0.245 0.208 0.172 0.089 -0.073 -0.119 -0.192

Some above, some below, a few dead on. The key to these player’s having more value is their BABIP. They are going to hit HRs, but their value skyrockets if they can get a few more balls to fall in play. For these guys an AVG over .270 is huge, but ones under are .220 a disaster.

When drafting or bidding for these low AVG, high ISO players, an owner must understand they may need to have a backup in place in case the player is non-rosterable. Second, they may need to look at trading the player or his replacement if the player has a decent AVG. They are players which will require action from the owner.

Low AVG, High ISO players, like Chris Davis and B.J. Upton, can drive an owner crazy with their swings in production. An owner needs to understand the possible roller coaster these player may take and plan accordingly.


(*) Pedro Munoz (1995),Jason Kubel (2009),Jorge Cantu (2009),Deion Sanders (1994),Adam LaRoche (2006),Jeff Kent (1995),Nate McLouth (2008),David Ortiz (2002),Bill Hall (2006),Jeffrey Hammonds (1998), Wilson Betemit (2008),Tino Martinez (1994),Butch Huskey (1998),Khalil Greene (2006), Phil Plantier (1996)

(**) Looking at the ZIPS(ROS) projections, Pedro Alvarez‘s name sticks out as player who fits the mold (.240 AVG, .240 ISO)

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Jeff writes for FanGraphs, The Hardball Times and Royals Review, as well as his own website, Baseball Heat Maps with his brother Darrell. In tandem with Bill Petti, he won the 2013 SABR Analytics Research Award for Contemporary Analysis. Follow him on Twitter @jeffwzimmerman.

16 Responses to “B.J. Upton, Chris Davis and Breakouts”

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  1. Adam says:

    Ok, I’ll ask what everybody’s wondering. What’s wrong with B.J. Upton, and is he salvageable this season?

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    • Wobatus says:

      He’s striking out and popping up a ton. 41% of the time one or the other. One by definition an out, the other pretty much guaranteed. That and a rotten babip as well (partially eanred by pop-ups though).

      I don’t know, Upton’s batting average has been poor for years now. Davis has been increasing even coming into this year and has historically had a high babip. And he had some massive iso years in the minors. I wouldn’t have expected quite this much but a breakout was possible.

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      • MLB Rainmaker says:

        While true, I think the Ks and IFFBs are just symptoms — the real problem seems to be his contact skill. His Contact% has fallen from 77% from ’08-’11 to 67% in ’13, and his Z-Contact% for the same period has fallen from 83% to 73% — or dead last in the league.

        That’s not a BABIP luck or batted ball mix or even an expanding the zone, its degrading of skill. I’d guess there is something mechanical driving it, but I don’t think its the type of thing you bounce back from. He likely needs to overhaul his swing.

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    • Jeff Zimmerman says:

      Upton has me a perplexed. He is near the top of my HURT metric almost all season long. He continually stated he was healthy even though his contact%, power and speed are down.

      I read in a few places he couldn’t catch up with fastball, so I basically created SLOW because of him and he is struggling with fastballs. He is struggling one them (not as bad as brother).

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  2. Mike says:

    I was riding high on Davis prior to this season expecting a breakout campaign, enough for me to get him very early in the draft, I think it was somewhere around rounds 5 and 6, maybe 7, and I was ridiculed by leaguemates for doing so. I expected a breakout, but nothing near what he’s done now, he has proved me right and helped me make a fool out of everyone else in my league. On the other hand I stayed away from B.J. for no reason other than I’ve never been a huge believer in him. I didn’t expect a bad season, but just another normal B.J. season (AVG around .250, lots of k’s 20 or so HR and some speed), but he has been abysmal. I hope he turns it around solely for the fact that I never want to see someone struggle as badly as he has this year

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  3. RJ says:

    A guy in my league chose Ike over Chris Davis. 14 team mixed, and with every homerun he dies a little more inside. Finally cut the cord on Ike at the AS break.

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  4. buddyglass says:

    I drafted Desmond, Goldschmidt and Segura, and Grilli, so I’m pretty happy there.

    Unfortunately I also drafted Moustakas, Reddick, Jesus Montero and Cameron Maybin.

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  5. RJ says:

    i too with jesus montero. earlier than normal. i usually wait til the last round on a catcher but couldn’t resist for some reason. luckily jason castro was available to scoop up after he hit 2 homeruns on May 25th, and montero has been forgotten.

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  6. bradley newman says:

    Jeff: Do you take any credence in players saying they aren’t injured. It seems to me that they all say they aren’t injured.

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    • Jeff Zimmerman says:

      Initially, the player’s word is all I could on, such as Sir Albert mentioning the problem with his ankle/foot. I had to look for traits from these players.

      With hitters, I believe the process is pretty good with about 90% of the players at the top of the list injured. With pitchers, the process has been a more frustrating. I am focusing on season Zone% and velocity. I am beginning to think these are better for long term injury prediction and I need to look at more short term issues.

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  7. MLB Rainmaker says:

    Two things:

    - After his breakout season, Bautista noted that TORs hitting coach had pushed him to shorten his leg kick to get his front down faster and give him more time to handle the inside fastball, and that adjustment had a lot do with the surge. And MLB Network did spot last season how E5 had similarly shortened his leg kick when he broke out. I’d be curious if Davis had made any such change.

    - I think there is a dead zone for hitters between a big league caliber breaking ball and the fastball. You get burned by the curve for a few months, and you try to build in time so you can see and react to the curve, but then you’re behind on the fastball. Now you still haven’t figured out the curve and lost any success you had on the fastball, so everything goes to shit. But I think the opposite is also true; once you’ve got your timing has you ahead of the fastball, you’ve got more time to at least fight off the curve, and that dynamic feeds on itself.

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  8. Pauly says:

    anyone on that list jump out as a breakout candidate for next year? i’m looking at you, Colby-jack!

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