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Justin Upton and the Allure of Upside

Posted By Brett Talley On December 6, 2013 @ 10:15 am In Featured,Outfielders | 18 Comments

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.

upton

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.

upton

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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