The Upton Conundrum

May 30, 2016

 

 

Justin Upton

Justin Upton is one of the most talented outfielders in baseball. He has a decent chance to finish his career in the 300/300 club (300 homers, 300 steals), of which there are only eight members (Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonds, Willie Mays, Andre Dawson, Alex Rodriguez, Carlos Beltran, Reggie Sanders and Steve Finley). Some others came close Ė Rickey Henderson, Craig Biggio and Bobby Abreu fell a few homers short Ė and plenty of power hitters didnít have the steals but itís a select group that proved to be a threat wherever they were on the field. At only 28 years old, if he continues to average 23 homers and 19 steals in each of the next five years (his average seasonal production in five of the last seven years), heíll have the 300 homers, roughly 210 steals and still be in his prime.

 

Unfortunately, this year Upton hasnít been much of a threat anywhere. This is easily the worst start to a season in his career. Sure, heís had bad months before. In fact heís had at least two months of sub .650 OPS production in each of the previous three seasons; they just didnít happen at the start. However, what makes this year different is the way heís struggling. His walk rate is way down and his strikeout rate is way up. This after last year showing positive growth in both categories despite playing in one of the toughest parks to hit in. So what gives?

 

Part of it can be blamed on the change of leagues. Hitters often struggle initially facing a whole new stable of pitchers. But that doesnít explain this completely.

 

The key to his struggles, I believe, is in his approach and it might have been due to manager Brad Ausmus putting him in the second spot in the line-up to start the year. The thought was that he would see a lot of fastball hitting in front of Miguel Cabrera. However, the top two hitters in a line-up are usually asked to see a lot of pitches in order to get on base and thatís not really Uptonís game.

 

This year heís seeing an average of 4.25 pitches per plate appearance which is significantly higher than his career average (4.02). For many hitters, that kind of developed patience is a good thing; for Upton, I believe it is the source of his failure. Someone has convinced him that he needs to wait for the perfect pitch rather that gripping and ripping, and that has taken him out of his comfort zone. The numbers bear this out. Heís getting behind in the count more frequently than ever and swinging and missing outside the zone more often especially once heís behind.

 

Heís also less pull-conscious than heís ever been - his lowest pull rate since his rookie debut Ė and his lowest home run per flyball rate by nearly 10%. In short, someone, perhaps Upton himself, has convinced him to be a completely different kind of hitter than heís ever been. Huge mistake. As a result, heís getting beaten badly with fastballs Ė a pitch he has always destroyed Ė and now seems to be unable to pull the trigger on them.

 

Upton has always been in the middle of the line-up, a position whose primary task is to kill the first hittable pitch in order to drive runners in.Thatís his game. Hopefully, the Tigers coaching staff has identified this and will be help him rediscover what he does best. Bold prediction: just as Upton has averaged a couple bad months per season for the last five years, heís also averaged a couple of months a season in which heís hit at least 6 homers, with a high of 12 in April of 2013. Hereís predicting he finishes with at least 25 homers.

 

 

Melvin Upton

The other Upton brother has experienced quite the opposite start to the season. Heís been surprisingly productive and in large part that has been due to increased patience at the plate. Through May 14, the artist formerly known as ďBJĒ (for Bossman, Jr, after his fatherís nickname) had walked 17 times in 142 plate appearances for a .282/.366/.460 slashline. Had he continued that would have been his best on base percentage since 2008 and his best slugging percentage since 2007. Since then though heís gone back to his free swinging ways, striking out 13 times in 50 at bats with only one walk.

 

However, the proof is there for him to take notice. His contact rate is at a five year high, but heís also swinging outside the zone more than he has over that same span. He needs to get back to waiting for his pitch and taking the walk if the pitcher is not going to throw it in the zone. If he does, we could see the player he was from 2007-2011: an average of 17 homers, 37 steals, .259/.347/.427. That would be especially attractive to a suitor looking to add a bat to a playoff caliber line-up at the deadline and give the Padres some desperately-desired salary relief.