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B.J. Upton, Fantasy LVP & Causer of Tears

When Yuniesky Betancourt earns more fantasy value than you, you know you’ve had a bad season. Or in other terms, if you decided to draft B.J. Upton this year, then you’re gonna have a bad time. According to Zach Sanders’ end of season dollar value calculator, Upton broke the hearts of Braves fans and his fantasy owners by generating negative fantasy value, ranking a sad 461st out of 482 players. When factoring in his ADP of 48, he ranked as the most value-sucking player according to our value leaderboard.

Starting back in his first full season in 2007, we notice that Upton’s power has been on a roller coaster ride. After a strong .200+ ISO in that year, his power evaporated, with marks around .130 the next two years. He hit fewer home runs over that time period than he did in 2007 alone. Then his power rebounded and his home run total climbed each season from 2008 through 2012. It seemed like he had found a consistent power stroke and we could now count on him for 20+ home runs along with a .185+ ISO.

Unfortunately, the Braves version of Upton did not include any power stroke. His HR/FB ratio plummeted to just about 10%, its lowest mark since that power trough in 2008-2009, his ISO hit a career low of .105 and his batted ball distance declined from 289 feet to just 275 feet. Of course, the power wasn’t the only thing that disappeared this year.

Upton’s ability to make contact did as well. His strikeout rate was easily the highest of his career as his Contact% dropped below 70% for the first time and his SwStk% jumped above 15%. The most obvious issue was a sudden inability to make contact with pitches inside the strike zone. Before 2012, he had typically posted Z-Contact% marks in the 80%-85% range. Last year brought us the first sign that something was amiss, as his Z-Contact% dropped from 84% to about 78%. This year, that rate dropped again to just 72%. If Upton had enough at-bats to qualify, he would have posted the worst Z-Contact% in baseball.

Earlier this year, Bill Petti introduced the CLIFFORD metric to predict players that have a high risk of experiencing a collapse in their wOBA. He found that the single largest driver of collapse was a decline in Z-Contact%. Looking back at Upton’s case, maybe we should have been more cautious heading into 2013. The further deterioration in Upton’s Z-Contact% this year should give us even greater pause before assuming a full rebound in 2014.

Another warning sign is the dramatic increase in Upton’s IFFB%. He typically posted rates around the league average with a career high of just 10.1%. So, pop-ups were never a concern. But this year, his pop-up rate skyrocketed, nearly doubling to 19.3%. The high strikeout rate paired with the IFFB% jump suggests that his swing mechanics were just completely off this year.

Now the question becomes whether he is going to rebound and whether it’s a full rebound or just a partial one. Does he return as the .240-25 HR-30 steal guy we had grown accustomed to, or is a more reasonable expectation for a .210-15 HR-20 steal season? He’s still on the right side of 30 as he’ll spend the majority of the 2014 season at the age of 29. So age shouldn’t be an issue yet.

He dealt with some minor injuries throughout the season and was placed on the disabled list with a groin injury in mid-July. But it doesn’t appear that any of those maladies can provide an explanation for his struggles all season long. He did have a typical B.J. Upton type month in June, a period in which his strikeout rate was back to normal and he actually hit for power. But that was the only month his bat showed up, as his second best month offensively was August, when he posted just a .294 wOBA.

It’s obviously difficult to figure out what happened this year and how he might perform next year. Given his contract, you’d have to assume he’ll get his starting center field job back and be given the opportunity to prove that this season was just a fluke. While he’ll never contribute in batting average, I’m willing to give him another shot as his upside as a strong power/speed contributor will be more than enough to roll the dice on given his likely draft cost. In OBP leagues, he’ll be an even better gamble.