Through six major league seasons, we still don’t know what to make of Justin Upton. He’s looked like a budding superstar in 2009 and 2011, and merely an adequate outfielder in 2010 and 2012. A number of fantasy teams invested a high draft pick in Upton last season only to be left disappointed by his production. Coming off another down season, by his standards, Upton now faces a similar predicament. Can he emerge as a superstar player again?
Upton failed to live up to expectations almost immediately. In early-August, Upton jammed his thumb while sliding into a base. The severity of the injury didn’t initially seem to be a big deal, as Upton avoided a DL stint, but reports suggested that it lingered as the season went on. Upton had his thumb drained in late-April after seeing a hand specialist. Upton didn’t blame the thumb for his struggles, instead saying he was simply in a slump. But as the season came to a close, more evidence emerged that Upton was bothered by the injury for a significant chunk of the season. Upton had trouble gripping a bat in May, and also had pain when the would swing, FanGraphs editor Robert Sanchez wrote in a piece for ESPN.com. In that same article, Sanchez mentions that Upton wore a small pad on to protect his thumb until late-August.
Perhaps not coincidentally, his numbers were significantly better in August and September. Upton rebounded late in the year, and posted his two highest slugging percentages of the season during those months. In early-August, I wrote an article about Upton’s struggles, saying that he needed to start pulling more fly balls. He started to do exactly that, increasing his pulled fly ball percentage from 14% on August 2, to 17.8% by the end of the season. The results were also reflected in his home run totals. On August 2, Upton had only hit four home runs to hit pull side and one home run to center. In the final two months of the year, Upton pulled six home runs and hit three more to center. Once Upton removed the pad around his thumb, he mashed eight home runs the rest of the way, and started to look more like the superstar player owners expected.
Upton’s poor return on investment will certainly drive his price down in most fantasy drafts next year. It’s probably not going to take a top pick to acquire Upton’s services this year. And while his numbers did improve at the end of the year, when he was seemingly over his thumb issues, the evidence wasn’t definitive enough to predict a return to superstar levels. Those who continue to believe in Upton will view him as a massively undervalued player next season. Those who have grown tired of his balancing act will find that he’s valued properly. It really comes down to whether you bought into the hype on Upton when he was coming up. Owners who still feel like there’s superstar potential in his bat, we’ll take him earlier than his projected draft slot. Owners that look at his track record and don’t see room for improvement aren’t likely to end up with him. Upton is probably more of a risk than he’s ever been, but if you squint, there’s reason to think he’s in for improvement next season. Proceed cautiously, but slightly optimistic.