Following a mildly disappointing 2010 campaign, Justin Upton is enjoying his best offensive season to date in 2011. Upton has a .299/.384/.522 triple-slash for the first-place Arizona Diamondbacks. Perhaps no longer bothered by the left shoulder injury that hampered him last season, Upton’s power has bounced back (.224 ISO in 2011, .170 in 2010). But there’s another reason why the 23-year-old is having a career year at the plate: he has cut his strikeout rate by nearly a third compared to 2010.
Last year, Upton struck out in 30.7 percent of his at-bats. That was the eighth-highest punch out rate among qualified MLB hitters. But in 2011, the former first overall pick has K’d 20.9 percent of the time. The major league average, for reference, is 20-21 percent. With Upton fanning much less often and typically getting lots of hits on balls put in play (.338 BABIP this year, .344 career average), his batting average has climbed considerably from last year’s .273 mark.
Considering that changes in strikeout rate for batters become significant at 150 plate appearances, a total that Upton has more than doubled, his drastically reduced K rate deserves attention. How has Upton pared down his strikeout rate? By employing a more aggressive approach against pitches thrown over the plate and making more contact with those in-zone offerings.
In 2010, Upton swung at 61.7 percent of pitches thrown within the strike zone (64-65 percent MLB average). This season, he’s taking a cut at 71.5 percent of in-zone pitches. His contact rate on in-zone pitches has increased from 83.3 percent to 86.1 percent (88 percent MLB average).
That sharp uptick in swings on pitches thrown in the zone has led to fewer called strikes and looking strikeouts. Upton took a called strike 30 percent of the time last season, but just 26 percent in 2011 (31 percent MLB average). He was caught looking for a third strike 7.7 percent in 2010. But this year, he has kept the bat on the shoulder while the ump rings him up only 3.6 percent (4.5 percent MLB average).
We often think of strike-zone judgment and plate discipline in terms of laying off pitches. But, as Upton’s big 2011 season shows, sometimes showing better judgment at the dish means not letting a pitch that you can drive go by for a strike.