B.J. Upton’s Unlimited Upside

As an ardent Pittsburgh Pirates fan, I have to admit that discussing B.J. Upton is something of an exercise in masochism. A wonderfully talented player, Upton nonetheless is a constant, sharp, prodding reminder of years of aimless drafting by the Bucs, motivated by frugality more than future upside. Add in the fact that Bryan Bullington (the Pirates’ ill-fated, 1st overall selection) is now in his third organization and a cornucopia of other ’02 first-rounders have borne fruit for their respective teams, and it’s enough to send this writer curling up into a ball playing Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” until the unpleasant memories subside.

But enough of that. Today, I come to discuss Upton’s seemingly unlimited variety of skills. Expectations have certainly been high for the Norfolk, Virginia native ever since the Rays gladly snatched him up with the 2nd overall pick after the Pirates shot themselves in the foot, and Upton has more than held his own to this point. A career .277/.367/.426 hitter who made his debut in 2004, Upton is still just 24 years of age. He has displayed every tool that you could possibly desire in a major league player at some point during his time with the Rays. Let’s take a look at Upton’s multi-faceted game…

Plate Discipline: Upton has displayed an extremely selective eye for such a young player, drawing walks at a 12.4% clip during the course of his career. He posted the best walk rate of his career in 2008 (15.4%), and swung at just 15% of pitches thrown outside of the strike zone. That figure tied Cardinals third baseman Troy Glaus for the lowest mark among all qualified batters. With such a judicious approach, Upton fell behind 0-and-1 in the count or put the ball in play on the first pitch rarely, with a first-pitch strike percentage (F-Strike%) of 55.2%.

Power: Sure, Upton’s power output in ’08 was not extraordinary (.401 SLG%, .128 ISO), but the man was playing with a torn labrum in his left shoulder that sapped his pop for most of the year. Improved health during the postseason brought with it a surge in power, as Upton crushed nearly as many long balls (seven) in the playoffs as he did during the regular season (nine). B.J. slugged .508 with a .209 ISO in 2007, showing that he can hammer the ball as well as work the count.

Speed: While Upton’s shoulder precluded him from jogging around the bases with regularity, there was nothing wrong with his legs in 2008. The 6-3, 185 pounder swiped 44 bags, doubling his 2007 total. He could stand to be a little more selective (he got caught 16 times for a 73.3% success rate), but his base thievery still resulted in a positive 3.6 run contribution for the Rays (.22 for a SB, -.38 for a CS).

Contact Ability: This one is a little trickier to predict. Upton’s contact rate rose from 72.8% in 2007 to 80.5% this past season, and consequently his K rate dipped from 32.5% to 25.2%. We know that his power was down during the regular season. Did Upton, perhaps aware that he wasn’t as likely to slam a pitch over the fence, cut down on his swing in an effort to make more contact? And will those contact gains fade as he shows more extra-base pop and presumably swings for the bleachers with more frequency?

You name the skill, and Upton has shown it as some point during his big league tenure. Via Baseball-Reference, I found a very intriguing name among Upton’s most comparable players through age 23: Carlos Beltran.

Like Upton, Beltran is a center fielder who comes equipped with a tool set that would make Home Depot swoon: a very selective eye, solid power and excellent speed. It remains to be seen whether or not Upton’s raw athleticism will translate as well afield as it has for Beltran (per UZR, Upton was 4.6 runs above average in ’08), but the offensive comparison appears apt. Still a very young man and brimming with ability, Upton has future MVP written all over him.

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A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on ESPN.com and Yahoo.com, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton's slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at david.golebiewski@gmail.com and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.

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Everyone keeps talking about Upton….and yes, he has massive upside. But he consistently goes in drafts ahead of another young stud, Matt Kemp. And Last year Kemp hit 17 dingers and stole 35 bases. Isn’t that the kind of season people have been dreaming about for Upton, and Kemp did it last year? Why is Upton still getting picked so far ahead of Kemp?