Justin Upton Isn’t Trying to Hit Fly Balls

According to Upton, his swing has always just had natural loft.
(Photo: Keith Allison)

Justin Upton hits the ball in the air. Just over 63% of his batted balls were classified either as liners or flies in 2017, the 28th-highest mark among 144 qualified hitters. His career mark of roughly 60% is nearly as high. At a time where launch angle is all the rage, the 30-year-old outfielder is doing what a middle-of-the-order hitter is expected to do. That includes output. Upton is coming off a campaign where his loft-efficient right-handed stroke produced 109 RBIs (yes, those are still counted), a .540 slugging percentage, and a 137 wRC+.

It would be inaccurate to say that J-Up is following a trend.

“I don’t try to hit the ball in the air,” Upton told me recently at the Angels’ spring camp in Tempe. “To be brutally honest with you, I’ve never in my career tried to hit the ball in the air. I’ve always tried to hit line drives, and if you just miss a line drive it becomes a deep fly ball.”

He hits a lot of deep fly balls. The lucrative contract he signed with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in November came on the heels of a 35-dinger explosion. The total represented a career high, but it wasn’t an anomaly. Over the past five seasons, Upton has bopped 148 home runs, 11th most during that stretch.

The swing that produced them is “basically the same one” he’s had since he was a kid growing up in Virginia. Upton explained that he’s always been taught to hit the ball with backspin. He also knows that pitch selection plays a role in lifting pitches.

“Absolutely,” Upton acknowledged when I suggested that it does. “If a ball is elevated and you hit it the right way… those are the ones that carry the most. They go a long way, especially breaking balls up in the zone. The way they’re spinning, they usually go in the air if you can barrel them.”

According to Alan Nathan, the last of those statements is true. The physics-of-baseball expert explained to me via email that “a pitch with topspin (such as a curveball) will more likely be hit at a larger upward angle than ones with backspin, assuming everything else is the same, especially swing plane.”

As for the theory that squared up breaking balls travel farther than fastballs… this is less clear. A 2004 Wall Street Journal piece (based on an article in the American Journal of Physics) claimed that they do, largely because they leave the bat with more backspin. However, a more recent study done by Nathan and published in The Hardball Times, found that they actually don’t. Regardless of the discrepancies, the difference isn’t especially meaningful

And then there is location. At first, Upton’s comments on location might seem antithetical to the results. He told me that “balls down can be a little easier to lift” while also suggesting that “a good elevated fastball, one that’s up-up, can be a little tougher.”

A glance at Upton’s career ground-ball rates by pitch location against four-seamers would appear to contradict his personal observations. (This is from the catcher’s point of view.)

As you can see, Upton’s ground-ball rates are higher on pitches at the bottom of the zone than at the top. He isn’t elevating as much there.

But something else Upton said explains the possible reason for this discrepancy. The chart above includes only balls in play, which means pitches at which Upton has decided to swing and with which he’s made contact. So there’s some bias in the data: it doesn’t accurately reflect the zones with which Upton actually feels more comfortable. And for Upton, a lot begins with pitch selection.

“You have to know which balls you can drive, which ones you can get in the air and get in the gaps” opined the veteran slugger. “You learn what they are, and you challenge yourself to get better at hitting them.

Even if Upton hasn’t necessarily hit more balls in the air on lower pitches, both the data and Upton himself suggest that he feels a lot more comfortable handling pitches in that location. “A good elevated fastball, one that’s up-up, can be a little tougher to backspin,” he told me.

Here’s a heat map, for example, featuring Upton’s career whiffs per swing by zone against four-seamers:

On four-seamers at the bottom of the zone — and, in particular, on the lower and more inside part of the zone — Upton has made much more contact than he has at the top of the zone, recording a whiff rate per swing that’s about a third of what he’s produced at the top of the zone. It’s no surprise Upton targets lower pitches: he’s had a lot more success making contact there.

Upton’s approach isn’t entirely without nuance, either. Different contexts require a different approach. “You have your A swing and your B swing. Your A swing is what lets you drive the ball. You want to maximize those and limit the Bs.”

In order to get pitches to drive, you have to be willing to take strikes. A well-placed bender on the black may cause an umpire’s right arm to go up, but the likelihood of a batter making flush contact with it is relatively small. Upton knows this. He also knows that the more strikes you take, the more susceptible you are to fanning. He accepts that, with a caveat.

“You want to take pitcher’s pitches most of the time — unless you have two strikes — but I wouldn’t completely sacrifice my at-bat to get a pitch I can elevate,” said Upton. “You never want to strike out. And sometimes the game dictates that you hit a ground ball to move a runner. That’s the B swing you sometimes go to.”

Upton is prone to punch outs — he fanned 180 times last year — but he’s not what you’d call a free swinger. His 44.4% swing rate was lower than the MLB average (46.0%), as was his 29.6% chase rate (30.0%). Nor was he overly aggressive on pitches inside the strike zone. He was above average, but by a mere 1.1 percentage points.

If Upton is aware of those numbers, he doesn’t spend much time dwelling on them. A dozen years into his professional career, he knows what works for him and what doesn’t.

“In an attempt to learn the game, you tend to overthink sometimes,” admitted Upton. “You can think all you want, but you have to be able to separate. You have to be able to go out on the field and compete. Where guys become better is when they think the game off the field, then be mindless on the field. It can help to know the numbers, but once you’re in the batter’s box you have to put that stuff aside and just hit the ball.”

In Upton’s case, that usually means in the air and often over a fence. Last year, he hit it over a fence more frequently than ever before, which is further proof that his swing — the one he’s always had — is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do.

We hoped you liked reading Justin Upton Isn’t Trying to Hit Fly Balls by David Laurila!

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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from February 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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This is too good of an article not to have any comments. Nice job.