Justin Upton and the Allure of Upside

Justin Upton finished the season as the 21st most valuable outfielder according to our valuations. But I can almost guarantee that he’ll be drafted higher than 21st among outfielders next year. The main reason I’m so confident in that is because he finished 2012 as the 19th most valuable outfielder according to ESPN’s player rater, and he was drafted as the seventh outfielder on average on that site in 2013. Someone in your league is sure to believe he has another 2009 or 2011 in him.

Despite finishing consecutive seasons as the 20th best outfielder give or take a spot, Upton got there in very different ways. The long and short of it is that last year his batting average fell in large part due to a big increase in his strikeout rate, his steal total fell almost 60% from where it sat in the previous four years, and a 50 point jump in ISO boosted his homer total and offset the decline in the other areas. Is there a chance those factors change and Upton realizes his upside? Or should you assume the sum of all the parts will continue to equal the 20th best outfielder one way or another?

Let’s start with the steals because that is probably the easiest number to predict. Efficiency wasn’t an issue for Upton as he stole eight bags on just nine tries. In terms of success rate, last year was easily the best of Upton’s career on the base paths. But as fantasy owners we’re more concerned with volume. Atlanta attempted just 95 steals as a team last year which was the seventh lowest total in the league. In 2012 Upton attempted 26 steals on an Arizona team that attempted an almost league average 144 steals. You have to assume that Atlanta will continue to be conservative and something in the neighborhood of ten steals is most likely.

Predicting the power is a totally different animal. If you tried to predict Upton’s home run total in any of the last four years using his home run total from the immediately preceding year as a big predictive factor, you would have missed wildly with each prediction. His homer totals for the last five years in order are 26, 17, 31, 17 and 27.

Three obvious things to consider when trying to predict a home run total are how often a player hits the ball in the air, how far he hits it, and how often it goes out. So here is a chart showing Upton’s flyball rate (FB%), average home run and flyball distance (avg. dist.) and HR/FB rate for the last five years.

FB% Avg. Dist. HR/FB
2009 35.7% 312.34 18.8%
2010 39.4% 295.58 12.4%
2011 44.8% 300.19 14.8%
2012 35.6% 286.8 11.0%
2013 37.8% 285.49 17.9%

It seems fairly safe to peg the fly ball rate in the 36-39% range. And with two consecutive seasons of an average home run and fly ball distance off his peak, it seems safe to say Upton isn’t going to be elite in terms of batted ball distance. But the HR/FB is tough to peg down. It’s been all over the place and it’s hard to say why. Upton found himself on the high side of his HR/FB range last year when he hit eight homers in Turner Field that were considered ‘just enough’ homers by the ESPN Home Run Tracker.

I’m inclined to take his five year average and pick something a shade below that as his most likely HR/FB in 2014, something like 14%. Assuming a similar number of PA to what he’s had the last two years, using those projections for FB% and HR/FB leads me to a projection of 22-23 homers for Upton, which is fairly consistent with the Oliver prediction of 23 HR over 600 PA. That may be a bit conservative, but I would consider projecting anything more than 25 HR for Upton to be an aggressive projection.

The final piece of the puzzle is Upton’s strikeout/batting average decline last year. Upton posted the lowest full-season batting average of his career last year along with a 25% K% that spiked up from about 19% in the two previous years. The culprit was a 5.4% drop in his contact rate, almost all of which was a decline in zone contact. As you’ll see from the chart below, the problem was a spike in whiffs on hard stuff.


Whenever a guy struggles to make contact with fastballs, the first thing that comes to mind is a loss of bat speed. But that’s generally a concern for players much older than Upton. The next thing that comes to mind is some sort of injury. Jeff Zimmerman touched on both bat speed and a possible injury for Upton in July. His bat speed indicator, SLOW,  indicated that Upton had one of the slowest bats in the league. But Zimmerman cited an ESPN piece in which Justin said he was 100% healthy. Either Upton had an unexpected drop in bat speed or he was lying about his health. My bet is that it was just a strange dip in bat speed because, as you’ll see below, his contact on hard stuff improved late in the year.


With that in mind, I think it’s safe to assume a rebound for Upton’s K% and batting average. A return to his career average of .275 seems reasonable as opposed to a bounce back over .280 given that a period of lesser bat speed is still a lingering concern.

So far I’ve projected a .275 average, 22-23 home runs and 10 steals. As for runs and RBI, Upton had a combined 164 last year and Oliver projects him for 160 this season in 600 PA. I’m comfortable using 165 R+RBI as a projection. I can’t help but noticing that projection looks a lot like Ryan Zimmerman’s line from last year: .275. 26 HR, 6 SB, 163 R+RBI. It’s a little more power and a little less speed, but I think that’s a wash. Zimm’s player rater number for the year was 6.86, which was just a hair better than Upton’s 6.68.

Here we are almost 1,000 words later and all I’ve told you is that I think Upton projects to be of similar value again in 2014. The weight of the parts may be a little bit different than they’ve been in the past, but the sum of the parts should be about the same. He’s is a top 20 outfielder but not much more.

In 12-team drafts last year, the 20th outfielder went towards the end of the fifth or top of the sixth round, but there’s absolutely no way Upton is falling that far. I could see him lasting until late in the third (maybe early fourth), and to be worth a pick at the tail end of third round, two of my five roto projections are going to have to be way off. For example, he’s going to have to maintain the high HR/FB and hit 27+ HR and see his steal total jump back up around 20. Or he’s going to have to do one of those and hit closer to .290. I’m not willing to bet a late third/early fourth round pick on two of those things happening.

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You can find more of Brett's work on TheFantasyFix.com or follow him on Twitter @TheRealTAL.

18 Responses to “Justin Upton and the Allure of Upside”

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  1. Dan Ugglas Forearm says:

    It seems odd to hear that he had as many as 8 homers that were just enough. It took until his 19th homer to have one that didn’t go at least 400 feet.

    On the steals front, it’s tough to gauge the impact it will have, but the Braves hired a new 3B coach, Doug Dascenzo, who was a base running coach for the Braves. It can’t be too hard for Frank Wren to see that he’s got speed on the team, and hardly any benefit from it. Hopefully a new coach will help, but it’s unclear how much, if at all.

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    • RC says:

      I think it’s unfair to say that the Braves have gotten “hardly any benefit” from the speed on the team. While they did not steal many bases AT ALL last year, the team was incredibly aggressive with going 1st to 3rd on a hit, and scoring from 1st on a double.

      Or maybe I’m just thinking about Jason Heyward, but it seemed that the entire team seemed to always be looking to “take the extra base”….just not before the ball was put into play.

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      • Dan Ugglas Forearm says:

        That’s true. I think we ended up being a tick or two above league average in both of those regards, but Heyward is particularly good at it. Dan Uggla is also surprisingly good at this. But I think those are decisions almost entirely up to the instincts of the base runner. A steal, or lack of a steal, probably has a little more to do with a coach calling for one.

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  2. Andrew Faris says:

    As a Justin Upton fantasy owner this year, I paid close attention to some of these numbers during his beginning-of-the-year tear, and one thing I distinctly remember was that during that time, Upton was leading the league (or close to it) in avg. HR/FB distance. I just looked again, and here are his avg distances over the course of the year:

    4/1-5/17: Avg HR/FB Distance = 307.5. ft, 14 HR’s
    5/18-7/31: Avg HR/FB Distance = 272 ft, 2 HR’s
    8/1-9/29: Avg HR/FB Distance = 289.6 ft, 11 HR’s

    My only point here is to say that it seems that what we saw in the middle of the season (as you suggest here) was a real slump, not just bad luck. That’s part of the difficulty with projecting him and the appeal to drafting him: when he was good, he was legitimately good, so there is that lingering, “Maybe he’ll get that worked out for a full season, especially considering his age” mentality.

    One more thing with Upton: pretty massive platoon splits this year:

    Vs. L: .268/.427/.567/22% BB/22% K/164 PA/10 HR
    Vs. R: .262/.328/.434/8% BB/26% K/479 PA/17 HR

    Pretty stunning how well he hits lefties and how average he is against righties.

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  3. Phil says:

    In a 12-team mixed keeper (every team keeps 6, no $), is Upton a keeper?

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  4. Brian says:

    If you’re predicting a lift for Upton in the K% department, you need to adjust your HR expectations too as there are going to be more balls in play.

    Also poster above nailed it with this:
    4/1-5/17: Avg HR/FB Distance = 307.5. ft, 14 HR’s
    5/18-7/31: Avg HR/FB Distance = 272 ft, 2 HR’s
    8/1-9/29: Avg HR/FB Distance = 289.6 ft, 11 HR’s

    He’s not as good as April-May-September Upton, but he’s probably a 28-30 HR guy next season. These things cannot all be projected linearly and regressed like Oliver.

    You have to make calls using your brain too and a combination of these factors makes it look like Upton is a better bet than any to take at least a small step forward.

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  5. bcbryan says:

    As a Braves fan, I watched every game he played last year. I didn’t see many of his games as a non-Brave, but from what I’ve watched, it’s hard to make sense of his K%. I honestly believe that he was hiding an injury at some point, because at the beginning of the year, he was on EVERY fastball, or so it seemed. Then there was that good 2 month slump where his bat speed was just awful. It got to the point where guys with 89-91 mph fastballs were challenging him down the middle in hitters’ counts and he wasn’t even close. It just doesn’t make sense that his slump would include a temporary loss in bat speed.

    If a hidden injury was the culprit, I’d definitely expect a drop in K% back to around 18-19%, which may mean more dingerz. And we all love dingerz.

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  6. dirck says:

    Was Arizona’s undisguised desire to trade Upton away based more upon talent/ability evaluation or upon personality ? I suspect that both were factors ,but am not sure which was more important .In a 16 team dynasty league I traded Upton and Lincecum for Harper last winter before Upton went to Atlanta . I still feel pretty good about that .

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  7. Jason Kubel says:

    My personal projections:
    Jason Kubel- .389/.561/.720
    Paul Goldschmidt- .277/.291/.587
    Aaron Hill- .240/.440/.440
    Patrick Corbin- 12 W, 3.41 ERA, 287 SO
    Miguel Montero- .443/.487/.465
    Rafael Betancourt- 1 SV, 4.47 ERA, 8 SO (injured by me)
    Clayton Kershaw- 27 W, 3.89 ERA, 176 SO (due for regression)
    Adam Eaton- .280/.340/.420
    Ichiro Suzuki- .271/.323/.387
    Tommy Hanson- 7 W, 4.89 ERA, 106 SO
    Carlos Ruiz- .261/.389/.470
    Derek Jeter- .387/.420/.487
    Alex Rodriguez- .000/.000/.000 (suspension)
    Craig Biggio- HOF 77% of vote
    Barry Larkin- signs 2 yr extension with ESPN
    Yadier Molina- .317/.382/.490
    Allen Craig- .279/.329/.810
    Gary Sheffield- .160/.241/.298
    Greg Maddux- HOF 88% of vote
    Rickie Weeks- .301/.489/.426 (due for bounce back)
    Dustin Pedroia- .723/.925/1.287
    David Ortiz- .000/.000/.000 (can’t get work visa)
    Lance Berkman- .500/.500/.500 (suspension after 1 game)
    Jhoulys Chacin- 14 W, 3.74 ERA, 45 SO
    Yu (Sausagehead) Darvish- 10 W, 1.02 ERA, 210 SO (injured)
    Nolan Arenado- .261/.323/.410
    Manny Machado- .223/.980/.223
    Tommy Hunter- 57 SV, 1.90 ERA, 67 SO
    Albert Pujols- 1.000/1.000/1.000 (suspension after 1 game)

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