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Why I’m Not Buying B.J. Upton

It’s easy to make buy low and sell high calls. Anyone could compare a player’s current season ranking with his preseason and blindly advise fantasy owners to acquire or trade away said player. While that advice sometimes does have value, perhaps more beneficial is identifying players you should not attempt to buy at a discount or trade away at an assumed profit. That is why we sometimes have the “Not a Sleeper, Not a Bust” segment on The Sleeper and the Bust podcast, as we highlight players who should not be purchased at a discount (and are therefore Not a Sleeper) or sold high (and are therefore Not a Bust). So sticking with the Not a Sleeper theme, this is why I am not buying B.J. Upton.

First off is the caveat — of course any player of Upton’s preseason dollar value range should be acquired if the price is right. If he was dropped in your league and it’s not like a 6-teamer or shallower, then pick him up immediately! But assuming your league is of at least average competitiveness, he’s not going to be a free agent and it’s unlikely his owner is giving him away for a player you both expect to earn $5 the rest of the way.

My CBS league tells me that the site ranked Upton 114th in the preseason (which actually seems quite undervalued) and that he currently ranks 689. And that ranking is not due to missed time from an injury. He’s hitting .145 and is on a pace for just 11 home runs, 23 (!!) runs batted in, 39 (!!) runs, and 11 steals (with 11 caught stealings). Yeah, he’s been absolutely horrific.

It’s also easy to point to a career worst K% (33.8% versus career average of 25.4%) and an atrocious .094 ISO as reasons not to bother with Upton at this point. Buy then the buy low in me looks at the .205 BABIP (of course, with a .145 batting average, his BABIP couldn’t possibly be anywhere close to his career average) and think there has to be some sort of dead cat bounce. Then the pessimistic side screams about Upton’s ridiculous 31% IFFB%, which actually kinda justifies that sad BABIP.

Anyhow, none of those statistical explanations relate to why I ain’t touching Upton. There are actually two non-statistical reasons, but are affected of course by his performance. They are thus:

1) Lineup Slot

On opening day, Upton started off in the number five hole, which was a pretty strong spot in a formidable Braves lineup. He would be expected to have strong RBI opportunities behind solid OBP guys in Jason Heyward, his bro Justin Upton, and Freddie Freeman. Plus, the deep Braves lineup would provide some additional power bats behind him with Dan Uggla and their third base platoon partners, which would lead to a solid runs scored total. After a slow start by Andrelton Simmons, Fredi Gonzalez, ever the tinkerer, moved him into the leadoff spot, dropping Simmons toward the bottom of the order.

But all this time and no matter which spot in the order he was slotted into, Upton didn’t hit. Finally, towards the end of April, he was dropped to the seven hole. Aside from three random games when he hit leadoff again or from the two spot, he had hit seventh in every other game until last Wednesday when he batted sixth. But then in his last two games, he was dropped as far as he could be, into the dreaded eighth spot right in front of the pitcher.

This is significant. When we project, rank and draft/purchase fantasy players for our teams, we do so with the underlying assumption that they will hit in a certain position in the lineup. Obviously, a hitter expected to bat cleanup is not going to knock in as many runs if he was instead slotted into the eighth spot. So all of our counting stat expectations need to be adjusted downward when a hitter gets dropped in the order.

The problem now is that the Braves lineup is quite good. Heyward, Upton and Freeman in the 2, 3 and 4 slots aren’t going anywhere. Brian McCann looks clearly healthy again and when he’s healthy, he’s a better hitter than a normally performing Upton. That may lock up the fifth spot in the order. It’s even arguable that Dan Uggla is a better hitter than Upton if you focus on his OBP rather than his batting average, who would take the sixth spot. So what this means is that it will be very difficult for Upton to get back into a favorable lineup spot.

Overtaking Andrelton Simmons at leadoff might be his best bet, as Simmons sports just a .283 OBP. If he would quit hitting so many popups (seriously, what the heck are they doing to the water in Atlanta with all these popups?), his .242 BABIP would jump and bring that OBP above .300 where it belongs.

2) Fredi Gonzalez, the Tinkerer

In a past article, I called Fredi Gonzalez that fantasy owner who makes 200 transactions a season, continually adding and dropping the hot and cold players of the week. Gonzalez has moved Simmons and Upton all around the lineup in reaction to their performances, which is silly. We’ve seen what Gonzalez could do back when Jason Heyward was struggling when he benched the left-hander in favor of Jose Constanza.

Now all of a sudden, Jordan Schafer is back in Atlanta and surprise, surprise, is playing well. He’s showing a strong walk rate and is left-handed, so it is conceivable that Schafer will begin stealing more starts away from Upton, at least against right-handers. That of course will make it even more difficult for Upton to turn things around.

Obviously, given the contract the Braves signed Upton to, he’s not going to outright lose his job to Schafer and become a bench player. But fantasy owners demand as many at-bats as possible and even just getting benched once a week is going to take a bite out of his value.

So Upton faces two challenges now in his quest to deliver fantasy value to his owners or potential owners — the risk that he continues hitting in a poor lineup spot for fantasy counting stats and the risk that he loses more playing time to Schafer. Unless you can get him at a significant discount, you are better off letting him make his current owners weep all season long.