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July 31, 2012

Western Front

Where Has Upton's Power Gone?

by Geoff Young

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Where has Upton's power gone?
Long time passing
–Not Pete Seeger, or even Kyle Seager and his 11 home runs

In 2011, Justin Upton hit 31 home runs. Fifteen major leaguers hit more. As of July 29, 2012, Upton has hit eight home runs. Nineteen men have hit more... in a single month. Josh Hamilton and Jose Bautista have done it twice. Trevor Plouffe has done it.

Yes, that Trevor Plouffe.

Consider the absurdity of such an occurrence. Here are their career numbers entering this season:

Player

PA

HR

PA/HR

Upton

2402

91

26.4

Plouffe

364

10

36.4

Okay, so Plouffe has more home-run power than I'd thought before I created that table. That is still a sizeable difference. At the very least, it's enough of a difference that this should shock and amaze:

Player

PA

HR

PA/HR

Upton

393

8

49.1

Plouffe

110

11

10.0

The top line represents Upton's season to date. The bottom is what Plouffe did in June.

I repeat this only because it still makes no sense to me: 15 men out-homered Upton last year. Plouffe hit more home runs in June than Upton has hit all of this year.

There are people who earn a living trying to predict the behavior of baseball players and other humans. So, uh, how's that working?

Very well, let us speak no more of Trevor Plouffe. He bothers me.

Upton, meanwhile, is 24 years old and a ridiculous physical specimen who has demonstrated the ability to punish baseballs at the highest level in the world. This isn't supposed to happen.

Forty-five men have hit 30 or more homers during their age-23 campaign, from Don Hurst in 1929 to Upton in 2011. Fourteen of these men are in the Hall of Fame, and several others (Mark McGwire, Frank Thomas, Ken Griffey Jr., Manny Ramirez, Vladimir Guerrero, Alex Rodriguez, Andruw Jones, and Albert Pujols) could join them.

Bearing in mind that 30 home runs is an arbitrary number, but also acknowledging that it's a pretty high total in any era, here is the aggregate line of those 45 players during their age-23 season as compared with that of their age-24 season (slash numbers added for extra fun):

N

Age

PA

HR

PA/HR

30+

BA

OBP

SLG

45

23

28,996

1654

17.5

45

.300

.380

.569

43

24

26,528

1310

20.3

23

.291

.371

.531

Upton is omitted from the latter because his season is not yet complete. Ted Williams is omitted as well because he spent his age-24 season fighting in World War II. (I kept Upton and Williams in the age-23 group because removing them has minimal effect: 17.4 PA/HR and a .299/.377/.568 slash line.)

Among the rest, a little more than half (23) hit at least 30 home runs at age 24. Only six (plus Upton, whom we'll include here for comparison sake; pay particular attention to the PA/HR column) failed to hit at least 20:

Player

Year

PA

HR

PA/HR

Don Hurst

1930

451

17

26.5

Willie Montañez

1972

596

13

45.8

Matt Nokes

1988

425

16

26.6

Jose Canseco

1989

258

17

15.2

Juan Gonzalez

1994

463

19

24.4

Aramis Ramirez

2002

570

18

31.7

Justin Upton*

2012

393

8

49.1

*Through July 29

None failed to reach double digits. The closest thing to a historical analogue for Upton is probably Montañez, who hit 30 homers as a rookie in 1971 and followed it with 13 in 1972. Those were also the first 30 homers of Montañez's big-league career, whereas Upton had 60 to his credit by the same age. So it's an analogue, albeit one with flaws. Montañez wasn't a power hitter; he just pretended to be one for a single season. The same cannot be said of Upton.

Ramirez might not be a horrible comp, either. The interesting point about Ramirez is that the Pirates gave up on him soon after and then used him to solve the Cubs' perpetual third base problem in exchange for a few months of Jose Hernandez. This could be a cautionary tale. When Kevin Towers is tempted to trade Upton (which reportedly isn't now), he should remember Ramirez.

We have a solid understanding of what has happened to Upton this year. His power has disappeared to a degree seldom, if ever, seen in baseball at such a young age. But why has this happened, and will the power return?

We ask more questions. We re-examine our expectations and wonder if they were unreasonable. PECOTA had Upton at .276/.353/.493 with 24 home runs in 613 plate appearances. This may have seemed pessimistic at the time, but to reach his projected homer total, he'll need to hit 16 over 220 plate appearances, or a PA/HR of 13.8. That is a much higher frequency than the career-best 21.7 he posted last year, so although anything is possible, this particular outcome is unlikely.

In our pre-season predictions, we picked Upton as the National League MVP runner-up to Joey Votto. Right now, Upton might not rank among the top five Diamondbacks.

Some have suggested that Upton needs a change of scenery. A few weeks ago, John Perrotto quoted a scout as saying that “I think it's time for a change. He is playing lackadaisically, and when the owner starts questioning you like Ken Kendrick did, then it's probably time to go.” What precisely this means and how one measures it are open to interpretation, but sometimes perception is reality. If enough (and the right) people believe that Upton needs to move, then he needs to move.

This is not a satisfactory answer, but it's one avenue of insight. Others include a look at how Upton is achieving his results this year. Many, including ESPN's Mark Simon, have done just that. In a nutshell, Upton is taking more called third strikes (43 percent of his strikeouts in 2012 are looking vs. 28 percent in 2011 and 31 percent for his career), hitting fewer fly balls, and driving the fly balls he does hit with less authority. These are results, not root causes, but interesting to note nonetheless.

Why is Upton doing these things? Is he hurt? Are there mechanical issues? Are there attitude or other off-field issues that have caused him to play “lackadaisically”? Has his March 2010 contract extension gotten to him (and if so, why only now)? The trade rumors?

It is comforting to believe that men are machines, capable of producing according to expectations based on past performance regardless of external factors that may or may not be easily measured. Such belief, however, derives from models of the world, which should not be mistaken for the world itself. That's a fancy way of saying “intangibles,” which also is not a satisfactory answer, even though it may be more correct than we care to admit.

Arizona coaches Alan Trammell and Don Baylor, who know a little something about hitting baseballs, recently weighed in with thoughts of their own. Trammell mostly dodged the question, pointing out that Upton is “busting his tail” while offering platitudes about baseball being a “tough game” and observing “some months are better than others.” (Who knew he was a fan of The Smiths?)

Baylor's theory is that Upton “just puts so much pressure on himself to carry this team, it's become a struggle for him.” Which is a different way of saying “intangibles.”

Manager Kirk Gibson notes that he saw Upton “actually putting more work into breaking down his swing, which can be a dangerous thing.” I don't know what to say about this other than when Gibson says you're working too hard, you probably are working too hard.

Gibson also has praised Upton's attitude throughout his season-long struggle:

He's been playing hard and I can't say enough about him. He's been working on all aspects of his game, he's just not getting the results at the plate. He's had a good attitude about it.

Good to know, but still not useful or satisfying. Upton, for his part, lent credence to Baylor's hypothesis when he began speaking in code:

To be honest with you, I don't care anything what the fans think of me.

My teammates, my coaches, they know I come here and I bust it every single day. I try to do everything I can to help this team. My teammates have my back and whatever the fans want to think, they can think.

This veers perilously close to pop psychology, but I'm trying to imagine myself in a position where I wouldn't care what my paying customers think of the work I produce. I can't do it. I can say it and sound like I mean it, but I can't actually mean it.

So Baylor, Gibson, and Upton might be onto something here. The pressure and energy of trying to live up to expectations—not just our cold, unfeeling PECOTA lines, but also the vicarious dreams of those that pay to watch “their” team fight for a return to the World Series—could be very real, if difficult to measure with any degree of accuracy or certainty. And Upton acknowledges that when it comes to the subject of rumors, “it's hard to tune it out.”

But we still haven't gotten any closer to root causes. If there is pressure, then is it manifesting itself as a hitch in Upton's swing? Is he hiding an injury? Not keeping up on his sacrifices to Jobu?

Whatever the problem might be, nobody is talking about it. Upton suffered a bone bruise to his left thumb while sliding into second base trying to break up a double play against the Giants back in April. There could be lingering effects, although if so, it is curious that Managing General Partner Ken Kendrick would choose to call Upton an “enigma” over the radio airwaves rather than address said lingering effects.

The signal-to-noise ratio is low enough that it's hard to figure out what's going on here. Beyond the fact that Upton is struggling and that his struggles (along with other factors) are hampering Arizona's playoff aspirations in a division bereft of dominant teams, we don't know much beyond this:

  • Trammell thinks baseball is tough.
  • Baylor thinks Upton puts a lot of pressure on himself.
  • Gibson thinks Upton has a good attitude.
  • Upton claims not to care what the fans think.
  • Kendrick thinks Upton is an enigma.

Instead of exasperating ourselves further with unanswerable questions, let's take a closer look at those six guys who failed to hit 20 homers at age 24 after having hit 30 or more a year earlier. How did they fare at age 25?

Noting the limitations of such an exercise, here is the answer:

Player

Year

PA

HR

PA/HR

Don Hurst

1931

567

11

51.5

Willie Montañez

1973

609

11

55.4

Matt Nokes

1989

290

9

32.2

Jose Canseco

1990

563

37

15.2

Juan Gonzalez

1995

374

27

13.9

Aramis Ramirez

2003

670

27

24.8

The first three didn't regain their power stroke, the last three did. A coin flip.

But these are past performances of other players. What can they do other than give us some rough range of possibilities? Upton could rebound next year like Gonzalez or Ramirez, or he could continue along the Don Hurst Memorial Path of Irrelevance.

This is a very wide range, which yields a most unsatisfying result. Then again, it's kind of perfect because it mirrors Upton's struggles and the Diamondbacks' hopes that are pinned to them.

I dunno. Maybe I should have written about Paul Goldschmidt.

3 comments have been left for this article.

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