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July 15, 2009

Prospectus Today

The Next Best Ballplayer

by Joe Sheehan

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So, .239/.326/.375. That's not very good. It might be acceptable for a good defensive middle infielder, or perhaps a catcher. It might look good for an outfielder in 1968, when the league hit worse than that as a whole. That's the line, however, of a 24-year-old center fielder in the first half of 2009, and it represents one of the more disappointing performances of the season to date. It's also the first-half line of the player who could well be the best in baseball in the second half.

B.J. Upton, coming off of a fantastic 2008 postseason and subsequent shoulder surgery, was supposed to take a big step forward this season. The raw talent that made him the second overall pick in the 2002 draft was being leavened by experience, not all of it successful. Upton had to fail as a shortstop and as a second baseman and had to flop in his first two major league stints before he broke through in his third season. It was during that season that the Rays made the critical decision to move Upton out of the infield, where he'd been terrible his entire professional life, and into center field. With his great speed and baseball instincts, Upton took to the change. The move turned him from a mediocre player to a very good one in a season when he hit .308/.368/.508 in mostly everyday play.

In 2008, Upton made tremendous strides across the board. He improved his play in center, cut his strikeout rate, improved his walk rate, and stole twice as many bases, albeit without improving his success rate. On May 1, he was batting .294 and slugging .441 when he suffered a debilitating shoulder injury. He played through it the rest of the season, but wasn't the same hitter, batting .268 and slugging .392 the rest of the way. He hit just six homers in his final 520 plate appearances, a far cry from the power he'd shown in 2007. Even at that, his dramatic improvements in other areas showed him to be a coming star, an MVP candidate in the making.

All of those skills are still present, hidden behind that terrible line. As much as we sometimes infer that player development is a linear process, it's not. Players, even great ones, bounce around, they get unlucky, they pick up bad habits. In Upton's case, a look at his season to date shows two notable trends that have affected his performance line, elements that he is likely to correct as we head into the second half.

The first is that Upton is hitting more fly balls than ever before, and it's not close. Upton hits fly balls in 42.0 percent of his at-bats, versus a career mark below 34 percent coming into this season. Upton has lower rates of ground balls and line drives as a result of this. If you're wondering where the missing 60 points of batting average are-as Upton was expected to be a .300 hitter-that's your first culprit. Batting average is lower on fly balls than on other batted-ball types, so Upton's average on contact has dropped from last year's .360 to this year's .340. His batting average on balls in play shows that same drop, from .344 to .317.

Upton has also taken a step backwards in terms of making contact, which was his most dramatic area of improvement in '08. After pulling his K rate down from 32.5% to 25.2%, it's back up this year to 29.9%. That's the rest of the missing batting average. Upton may be striking out more as a side effect of his ever-increasing patience at the plate. He saw 3.7 pitches per plate appearance in 2006, a bit fewer than 4.1 in 2007 and 2008, and is a sliver above 4.1 in 2009. Deeper counts will up your strikeout rate, but should also result in more walks and, for good hitters, more opportunities to hit in good counts. Upton isn't seeing the benefits yet, however, because despite the deeper counts, he's not necessarily making better decisions at the plate. He's swinging at more balls out of the zone than he did last year (up 2.5%) and making less contact when he does (down 14.4%).

There's a term I probably use too much called "consolidation year." It's what happens when a player is integrating learned skills with innate tools, a process that can lead to short-term degradation in performance. Upton has shown most every skill you can ask of a baseball player at one time or another. He's hit for average and for power, and a healthy shoulder has enabled him to display a bit more of the power we've expected from him. He's drawn walks. He's stolen bases. He's shown range in the outfield, and he's displayed very strong arm. Even in a disappointing season, he's posted the best stolen-base percentage of his career, and is on pace for a career high in steals.

Whatever wildly optimistic numbers I would have hung on Upton four months ago are obviously out of reach. However, because of his age, his ongoing development, his freakish tool kit, I think he's going to be that player for the last 10 weeks of the season. Upton is going to hit .330/.400/.530, going to steal at least 20 bases at a high rate of success, going to be a plus defender in center field, going to cut his strikeout rate and hit more line drives.

There's an element of faith in these statements-after a big June made it look like he'd found himself, he started July by striking out in one of every three plate appearances while batting .175-but I look at Upton's season to date as I look at Tiger Woods' 2003-04. Woods was the best player in the world by the end of 2002, but at 27 had to rebuild his swing to become an even better player. For two years, Woods didn't win a major while changing his game, and came out on the other end as the greatest player ever. Upton hasn't had the success in baseball Woods had had in golf, but the changes to his game in '09 reflect a player trying to get better, trying to maximize his skill set. He gets there now, and will be the best player in the American League down the stretch, and then the league MVP in 2010.

(Information from Fangraphs was used extensively in this article.)

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

26 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

jrdo410

I think you could make a strong case that his brother is the next best ball player. How many 21 yr olds post a .900 OPS. Doesn't play a premium position, but the bat is there and should be real good.

Jul 15, 2009 16:32 PM
rating: 4
 
Randolph314

Upton has hit 16 home runs over his last 1000+ plate appearances. I know he has had some health issues, but I think it's a leap to say he's going to be a premium bat in the immediate future.

Jul 15, 2009 16:53 PM
rating: 2
 
sbnirish77
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It might be obvious to everyone else that the playoffs last year were BJ's power outlier but not to Joe.

Jul 15, 2009 20:23 PM
rating: -6
 
antoine6

Yeah, he's 24, so I wouldn't just write off power potential yet, not when he's flashed real signs of it. In addition to those playoffs, he also hit 24 HRs as a 22-year old. Power usually comes as a guy ages into his prime.

But you're probably right to be skeptical. The thing about the article I didn't like was that there wasn't any real evidence as to WHY Upton would correct the first major flaw. I guess we are supposed to assume that the flyballs will regress back to his normal level, but it's probably dangerous to assume an established baseline for a 24-year old. The point of the article is that at this point in his career Upton is changing his game--why are we supposed to assume the flyball jump isn't a change that sticks? Or maybe we're supposed to jump to the conclusion that the increase in flyballs will lead to power and that will correct his line, but that's a potentially dubious leap to take, and it's never spelled out.

I get the point about the Ks reflecting more patience and how this will turn from a negative to a positive. That makes sense. But I never see any conclusion as to why the first flaw will be fixed.

Jul 15, 2009 20:56 PM
rating: 4
 
amazin_mess

I'll take Justin.

Jul 15, 2009 17:47 PM
rating: 2
 
Wolfken

I think Justin is better. I believe BJ will have a good 2010 season, and he will improve in 2009 second half because it's not easy to make this ugly line even uglier. However, I just can't imagine him becoming the best player in 2009 second half.

Jul 15, 2009 18:15 PM
rating: 1
 
antoine6

Yeah I thought this was gonna be about Justin too. Better power, if less defensive value because of his position (though he's still a strong defender).

Jul 15, 2009 18:52 PM
rating: 1
 
dtothew
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His name is BJ.....hehehehehehe.

Jul 15, 2009 21:02 PM
rating: -30
 
Bodhizefa

It's pretty obvious that Justin Upton is already and should continue to be the better of the Upton Bros. He could already be a 6+ WAR player -- among the top 10-15 position players in baseball -- as soon as this year, and he's not even 22 years old yet. I know you like to try to identify off the map breakouts, J.S., but that's not really what this particular article is about. You try to justify B.J. Upton becoming an amazing player when his younger, more physically awesome brother already is. Justin Upton all the way on this one.

Also, when did Baseball Prospectus become so reliant on FanGraphs? They pretty rarely mention you guys at this point, but you all seem to crib off their stats and work on a weekly basis. I love BP dearly (Nate Silver and Kevin Goldstein are above awesome), but how in the world are you letting a freebie site come within hailing range of trouncing you?

Jul 16, 2009 00:17 AM
rating: 4
 
Ameer

Yeah, BJ might actually be more fun to watch, but I think we're all expecting Justin to be the top bro at this point. I'm a little surprised at Joe's choice of topic. Entertaining article though.

Jul 16, 2009 09:06 AM
rating: 1
 
Adam Madison

How is utilizing FanGraphs a bad thing? It's the job of a responsible writer to use every asset available to him, and no one would deny FanGraphs is a powerful tool.

Jul 17, 2009 19:59 PM
rating: 0
 
Kampfer

I don't have problem seeing BP author using Fangraph stats. Afterall, we are paying to see the work of the author, to learn something new. It doesn't hurt our chance by using more Fangraph's good stuff

Jul 16, 2009 03:30 AM
rating: 3
 
Bodhizefa

My point is that FanGraphs built up a body of stats that they rely solely upon to write their articles. BP used to do that, but their defensive stats are pretty low on the reliability factor at this point and their statistic page and links are almost to the point of being worthless in comparison to a site like FanGraphs. BP used to be the de facto standard, but now it seems like they're playing the respondent blogger to FanGraphs' very strong database of statistics and authors. Sheehan has been the most acutely overt in his cribbings from FanGraphs, too. BP should be working to improve their own statistical language and database, not borrowing from others unless they want to be seen as merely freeloading bloggers as opposed to the progressive statistical mavericks they started out as. All I know is that Joe Sheehan and a few other BP authors had no idea what defensive and overall run values were until FanGraphs came along. I'm happy they're realizing their oversight, but it just seems like they should be figuring this stuff out on their own instead of standing on FanGraphs' ever enlarging shoulders.

And look, I get the Sheehan type of columnist. He's the guy who gets to spout off outlandish ideas and prognostications that have very little chance of ever meaning much but really rile up the masses and occasionally get people thinking. That has its place on any major publication, and I can't fault BP for wanting Sheehan to continue. What I can fault them for is not taking defensive metrics and values and the subsequent changing landscape of the overall player valuations a lot more seriously in the past few years. BP is and has been the gold standard of mass sabermetric reading, and I want them to start ponying up for the next level of player evaluations before it's too late.

If you go to the statistics link on the BP homepage, you get categories defined as Offense, General, Pitching and Team. Nowhere on that page does it list individual defense. Nowhere does it go into detail about the most important pitching information to come along in the last few years either (i.e. PitchFX). For a website designed to analyze players statistically, that's darned near a crime. That page should have PitchFX database analysis along with a defensive database (hopefully based off of UZR or some comparable). It's time to upgrade the stats department for the site if you ask me. And for a site that is based almost entirely on statistics, that's a pretty big deal, isn't it?

Jul 16, 2009 06:49 AM
rating: 17
 
PeteyShoes

This is a wonderful comment and I have to wonder how much this has to do with guys like Nate Silver moving on to other projects. Don't get me wrong, I'm still a daily BP reader - but as far as advanced metrics and accurate performance analysis go, it's way behind the curve now and that's a shame. Sheehan, Carroll, Goldstein, and everyone else are fine writers... but exploring the metrics are this site is not only a waste of time, it's time consuming and clumsy as well. Considering we've really seen how massive a factor defensive performance in baseball is, it's a complete catastrophe that Baseball Prospectus can't keep up or at least challenge UZR and the Fielding Bible.

Also, please give Marc more work to do beyond Fantasy stuff.

Jul 16, 2009 07:11 AM
rating: 7
 
baserip4

I second the notion that BP needs to dramatically improve its offerings in terms of defensive stats. Don't get me wrong, I love the site, but this morning the Baltimore Sun made an assertion that Andino and Izturis have virtually identical defensive stats and there was absolutely nowhere on BP that I could go check on that. I ended up going to FanGraphs, which has great data, but I'd love for BP to offer something as well.

As a side note, does anyone know a good source for Plus/Minus?

Jul 16, 2009 07:37 AM
rating: 2
 
BP staff member Joe Sheehan
BP staff
(17)

+/- is available through Bill James Online, which is a pay service costing $3/month.

It's the closest thing I have to a go-to stat for defense; I usually try and look at a few metrics when making evaluations, as well as considering observational/subjective evidence.

I'm also not sure I understand the idea that BP doesn't appreciate defense. No, I'll rephrase that: it's a fictional notion. We resurrected Bill James' DER as a measurement, and James Click took it further with PADE; we were the ones taking grief for criticizing Derek Jeter's defense before anyone came around to that. We've championed players for their defense, pointing out that a run saved is worth slightly more than a run created.

That there are specific holes in our game--such as the lack of a BP-branded defensive metric based on zone data--is a legitimate criticism. Then again, we've also been criticized over the years for NOT acknowledging the work done elsewhere, so to some extent I see this as damned-if-we-do, damned-if-we-don't. I don't aim at any specific commenter in this thread by saying this, but there's no question that by being the most visible, longest-running active entity in this field, we're a pretty big target.

All I can do is write and talk, backing everything up with evidence and being entertaining in the process. If I hit those marks, whether here, or in SI, or on the radio or TV or at a Pizza Feed, I sleep at night. The rest is out of my control.

Jul 16, 2009 07:56 AM
 
baserip4

Thanks, Joe. My criticism is simply that BP doesn't offer any player-specific data. You guys do an excellent job in communicating the value of defense; I just wish that I had numbers to look at on my own. I definitely think that, especially with defense, there is value to be gained from you guys discussing the other metrics that are out there.

And you're quite entertaining and informative. That's why I pay my money annually.

Jul 16, 2009 08:10 AM
rating: 0
 
Shaun P.
(676)

Folks' mileage may vary in terms of the value of things like FRAR/FRAA and Rate/Rate2, but those things are and have been on the players' individual DT cards for ages. And this year, that data (well, FRAR/FRAA) is even in an a standard BP stat report, under WARP leaderboard. I don't play around with the custom reports much, but I bet you can get it from there too.

Just looking at their DT cards, Andino has a FRAR/FRAA of 11/3, Rate2 of 108; Izturis is 12/4 by FRAR/FRAA, Rate 2 of 110 - so there you go. Again, MMV as to whether FRAR, FRAA, or Rate2 have any value, but there is some information there.

Jul 16, 2009 09:09 AM
rating: 1
 
Evan
(47)

By making reference to other people's work (a great step forward for BP, in my opinion), you draw attention to any gaps in your own statistical library. I think this is also a good thing, but it seems to rile up people who feel some sort of loyalty to BP.

Jul 16, 2009 10:31 AM
rating: 1
 
hessshaun

Well, IMO, you cannot possess top percentile HR and SB production in one body. I don't know why people don't realize that. We have all been waiting for years for Crawford, Reyes, now Upton to have this insane speed power combination. NOT GONNA HAPPEN! Your body is built one way or another and the players who really achieve the milestones markers need a variety of factors to go in their favor in order to accomplish something like this. Example, playing for the Washington Nationals doesn't hurt.

Jul 16, 2009 07:40 AM
rating: 0
 
baserip4

I think Barry Bonds would disagree with you. And so would Rickey Henderson, Grady Sizemore, Alfonso Soriano, Willie Mays, Bobby Bonds, Daryl Strawberry, Ron Gant, Sammy Sosa, Jeff Bagwell, Carlos Beltran, David Wright, Hanley Ramirez, Jimmy Rollins and Brandon Phillips, just to name a few.

Jul 16, 2009 08:15 AM
rating: 3
 
Drew Miller

While it is true that such players are rare, I wouldn't say it "cannot" happen. 30-30 seasons are uncommon but not tremendously rare. 40-40 seasons have happened. Eric Davis had a 30-50 season. How many steals would it take for you to consider someone to have top percentile SB production?

Jul 16, 2009 09:56 AM
rating: 1
 
Drew Miller

"Upton was expected to be a .300 hitter."

To me, that was always an unreasonable expectation. Upton always had high strikeout rates, which tend to depress BA. Unless he explodes (which he might well do, being only 24 and having all those raw skills), he'll probably settle in as a .280 hitter with lots of walks, power and speed.

Jul 16, 2009 07:57 AM
rating: 0
 
Edwincnelson

I think you have to worry about a young power hitter with a shoulder injury. The injury, despite being treated, is never truly and completely healed. After my knee operation to repair a damaged meniscus it became clear to me that it would never really be the same ever again. What happens when your shoulder is never really the same again at 24? I think some players get past it altogether, while for others the injury changes them.

Jul 16, 2009 08:57 AM
rating: 0
 
camram003

I just don't see it. I want to be a believer that BJ Upton is going to turn into a superstar but he strikes out too much and seems to be regressing in some key areas. Someone please convince me he's going to post an incredible line for the second half.

Jul 16, 2009 09:04 AM
rating: 0
 
EnderCN

People are reading a lot into Justin Uptons 2.5 week hot streak. He has been an .825 OPS player the majority of the season and the hot streak was mostly a big BABIP spike. I still think BJ will be the more valuable player long term and Justin is due for a pretty sizable step back in the second half.

Jul 18, 2009 08:40 AM
rating: 0
 
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