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What’s With B.J. Upton?

Since the Tampa Bay (then Devil) Rays selected him with the second overall pick in the 2002 amateur draft, B.J. Upton has displayed every ingredient necessary to become a five-tool superstar at the major league level.

The 25 year-old has shown excellent plate discipline (12.1 BB% in 2007, 15.4% in 2008). Upton has unleashed feats of strength that belie his lithe 6-3, 185 pound frame, including 24 home runs in 2007 and a 2008 post season (7 HR, .652 SLG%) that appeared to solidify his status as a star. He swiped in excess of 40 bases in 2008, and has a chance at doing so again this season. You name a skill, and B.J. has shown it at one point or another.

Defensively, Upton has acclimated himself very well to center field (11.2 UZR/150 in ’09, nearly identical to his work in ’08). That range has helped keep him a viable starter (1.9 WAR). But why is it that, as the 2009 season comes to a close, B.J. has been one of the worst hitters in baseball?

In 2007 and 2008, Upton posted wOBA’s of .387 and .354, respectively. This year, that mark has plummeted to just .298. Among batters taking at least 500 trips to the plate, Upton has the fourth-worst wOBA in the game. Only light-swinging middle infielders Edgar Renteria, David Eckstein and Orlando Cabrera have provided less value with the lumber. Per Batting Runs (a park-adjusted measure of offensive production), Upton has gone from +27.2 runs above average in 2007 and +15.3 in ’08 to a wheezing -13.2 in 2009.

While he won’t be confused with Jeff Francoeur any time soon, Upton has been less patient at the plate. His walk rate has dipped to nine percent, down considerably from the aforementioned marks in ’07 and ’08.

Upton swung at roughly 17 percent of pitches thrown outside of the strike zone between 2007 and 2008. That figure is up a bit, to slightly over 19 percent this season (still well below the 25% MLB average). Upton is also offering at fewer pitches within the strike zone as well, taking a cut at roughly 66 percent of in-zone offerings from 2007-2008 and about 64 percent in 2009 (66% MLB average). There’s nothing overly alarming about these trends, but chasing more balls and taking more strikes is never a happy development.

From a batted-ball standpoint, Upton’s rate of line drives hit is down considerably. It’s important to keep in mind that the line drive/fly ball distinction is a subjective one made by the official scorer (and the rate at which liners are coded varies greatly by stadium). That being said, B.J.’s liner rate has fallen from over 19 percent from 2007-2008 to 14.1 percent in 2009. Again using a 500 PA cut off, Upton has the lowest LD% among all batters.

Where have those liners gone? Upton has greatly increased his rate of fly balls hit. B.J. hit a fly ball 37.6% of the time in 2007 and 30.6% in 2008, but that figure is up to 41.2% this year. While fly balls have a lower batting average on balls in play than grounders, lofting the ball into the air is obviously a positive trend in terms of hitting for power (fly balls hit in the A.L. in 2009 have a .603 slugging percentage).

Well, hitting more fly balls is usually a positive trend. Upton just hasn’t done much with those fly balls this season. His home run/fly ball rate, 19.8% in ’07 and 7.4% in ’08, is just 6.7% in 2009. That puts B.J. in the same company as Andy LaRoche and Vernon Wells. Upton slugged .952 on fly balls hit in 2007 and .534 in 2008. In 2009? He’s slugging just .396.

When Upton has taken a pitcher deep, he’s not clearing the fence by much, either. Courtesy of Greg Rybarczyk’s Hit Tracker Online, we can see that B.J.’s homers don’t pack as much punch.

Hit Tracker records, among other things, the “Standard Distance” of a home run. This essentially tells us how far the ball would have traveled if it had been hit with no wind, at a 70 degree temperature and at sea level. By factoring out wind, temperature and altitude, Standard Distance attempts to put HR distance on equal footing across stadiums. Here are Upton’s Standard Distances over the past three years:

2007: 394.7
2008: 406.7
2009: 387.5

(The A.L. average Standard Distance in 2009 is 394.7)

In terms of pitch selection, B.J. has scuffled against every type except curveballs. Upton has never had much problem with yellow hammers (+1.18 runs/100 pitches in 2009, +1.15 career). Sliders continue to stifle him, however (-1.8 runs/100 in ’09, -0.67 career). And, his performance versus changeups has taken several steps back (-0.92 runs/100, +0.82 career). Upton’s fall against fastballs has been quite dramatic:

Runs/100 value vs. fastballs, 2007-2009

2007: +1.87
2008: +0.02
2009: -0.24

Overall, Upton has been somewhat unlucky this season. Using this expected BABIP tool from The Hardball Times (which takes a hitter’s AB’s, HR, K’s, SB, LD%, fly balls, pop ups and grounders to give a more accurate measure of XBABIP), B.J.’s XBABIP is .331, compared to his actual .304 mark. Even if all of those extra hits were singles, that would bring his line up from .231/.301/.359 to .258/.328/.386.

Still, that’s a far cry from what many had predicted, myself included. I’m left wondering if Upton has ever been truly healthy in 2009. He was hampered by a sore ankle earlier this month. And, more importantly, Upton openly admits that the off-season shoulder surgery which sidelined him in spring training and early April remains an issue.

Upton’s 2009 campaign has surely been a bitter pill to swallow for owners who expended a high draft pick on him. However, it’s not time to abandon ship. Despite the aggravating season, B.J. is just 25 years old and has already achieved a high degree of success in the big leagues. Given an off-season to mend his aching body, Upton could be a relative bargain in 2010. It would be a shame if such a talent continued to be held back by physical ailments.