Last winter, I wrote a fairly lengthy piece over at Dynasty Guru detailing my frustration with Justin Upton as a longtime owner in my primary dynasty league. The verdict: The move to Atlanta in 2013 had been a net negative for Upton’s fantasy profile, as organizational philosophies emphasizing swinging for the downs and limiting stolen base attempts were poised to restrict Upton’s batting average and stolen base contributions. I later doubled down a month into the season with a pretty brutal deconstruction of Upton’s successful-on-the-surface April efforts, ultimately recommending a sell-high on account of an exploding swing-and-miss rate on in-zone fastballs and an unsustainable BABIP. My conclusion, which mind you was not necessarily unwarranted by the numbers, suggested “an ugly dossier of negative indicators for performance going forward—one that does not at all suggest that Upton’s strong surface start is evidence that he’s finally turned the corner as he enters his physical prime. Nigh on every indicator of successful hitting has not only failed to improve over the past couple of seasons, but is instead regressing at a fairly rapid pace right now.”
So, what happened next? Well, from that sell recommendation to the end of the season he maintained a .259/.330/.462 line with 21 homers, 147 R+RBI, and five steals en route to the 37th-most valuable fantasy season overall (14th among outfielders). Not on par with his April campaign, when he was the second-most valuable outfielder behind Jose Bautista, but certainly well-above average numbers across the board. The batting average was a slight liability and the steals were token contributions. His power production, on the other hand, was highly valuable even after he tore through a good bit of his full-season value in April. His .313 TAv was the second-best mark of his career, checking in 21st among all qualified hitters. Here’s the real kicker, though: I wasn’t particularly wrong in any of the analysis I offered of Upton’s offensive flaws in either of those articles. He logged the numbers he did despite a whole bunch of glaring red flags. So what do we make of him as a fantasy asset going forward, and how should he be valued come draft day 2015?
Well, let’s start with the bad. After seeing his swing-and-miss rate on fastballs leap by over four and a half percent in 2013 Upton was even worse this year, whiffing on a nasty 12.65 percent of the heaters he saw. With the increased propensity to swing and miss at fastballs has come a subsequent increase in the amount of fastballs pitchers have thrown him. He saw about three and a half percent more hard pitches this season than he did in 2013, and that number has grown over six percent since 2012. Pitchers have been less afraid to challenge Upton in the zone, and yet at the same time they haven’t had to go out of their way to do so. He became a dramatically more aggressive hitter in 2014, swinging at about four and a half percent more pitches overall. And he was indiscriminate within that upward trend: his O-Swing rate jumped by over four percent, while his Z-Swing rose by five. So pitchers have had plenty of options in how they attack him, and they’ve been able to exploit his in-zone weaknesses on their terms.
He’s a guy who has absolutely feasted on change-ups in his career, with a monstrous .262 ISO (.409 over the past two seasons). Pitchers have begun to significantly curtail their deployment of offspeed pitches in response, which means less opportunity for Upton to feast on change-ups going forward. Overall Upton’s contact rate rebounded a bit from its 2013 crash landing, but he still ranked 132nd out of 146 qualified hitters at getting wood on the ball.
Meanwhile, Upton’s speed scores have tumbled dramatically over the past couple seasons, and he’s hitting more and more fly balls. That generally doesn’t bode well as a combination for sustaining a consistent BABIP, and yet so far Upton has done just that, with last year’s .332 rate dead on his career rate. And beyond those negative linear trends Upton’s basically been two different players from a fly ball distance standpoint. Good Upton (2009, 2011, last year) has put up fly ball distance figures around and above 300 feet, good enough to log top-15 figures in each of those seasons. Bad Upton (2012, 2013) checked in way down in the mid-280s. That’s a significant amount of variance for a player so heavily dependent on the long ball for his bread and butter.
And yet the bottom line underneath all of this is that Upton has still managed to produce remarkably consistent results over the past couple seasons despite a remarkably inconsistent process. He seems to have settled into the role of a very good but not quite elite fantasy asset, and in so doing he serves as an important reminder that it’s possible to produce strong value without doing it by the under-the-hood books. His power production (27.7 HR and 169.8 R+RBI per-150 since arriving in Atlanta) in today’s depressed offensive environment is extremely valuable, and the batting average, while not great at .267 in a Braves uniform, certainly won’t kill you. There are enough warning signs in his swing and batted ball profiles to worry about modest batting average regression going forward, but the track record is consistent enough at this point over a large enough career sample that despite a strikeout rate drifting into the northern twenty percent range it’s probably unlikely we’ll see him suddenly collapse and hit .210 any time soon without some very, very bad luck. The steals don’t look like they’ll be coming back anytime soon, so he’s lost the five-category upside he flashed earlier in his career. But three category contributors who at least give you something in the other two don’t grow on trees, and Upton’s proven himself quite capable of reeling off steady roto production despite whatever flaws his game may have.
It may be that as Upton enters his fabled age-27 season in 2015 we’ll see a spate of “he’s finally due for that massive breakout!” pieces sprout up all over the internet, and they’ll help drive up his ADP. But the numbers and the profile just don’t seem to support that kind of expectation as anything other than wishful thinking. I don’t see much reason to believe there’s surplus value to be uncovered here, but if his 2014 ADP of 33 more or less holds into next year and you’re able to pay an early-third round price for him in a standard 14-16 team league he’ll make for an attractive target on draft day next spring as a decent bet to return that level of ceiling value.
Meanwhile, I’ll shut up with my warnings of doom and gloom for Justin Upton and instead enjoy him for the tender and unique flower of fantasy baseball production that he is. I promise.
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