In Baseball Prospectus 2004, our authors ranked Devil Rays farmhand B.J. Upton as the No. 8 prospect in the game, while Baseball America on pegged him at No. 2 on their preseason list. Since then Upton’s done nothing to make those rankings look foolish, and at the tender age of 19, has already found himself playing shortstop every day at Triple-A Durham, where he’s currently hitting .315/.422/.565. Since being taken second overall in the 2002 amateur draft, Upton has been covered by John Sickels at ESPN.com and by David Cameron here at BP.
Baseball Prospectus caught up with Upton before a recent home game against the Syracuse Skychiefs, where we discussed tough pitchers, being a role model, and what it takes to improve defensive performance.
Baseball Prospectus: I want to start off by thanking you for your time. Now, I’ve read several interviews, and it seems like everyone is really excited to see you progress through the minors. All the Bulls fans I know are really excited to see you play. How have you enjoyed Durham so far?
B.J. Upton: It’s cool. We’ve got great fans, man. I’ve never seen a team like this, besides Montgomery. Because Montgomery was a new team, they drew a lot of fans, but this team’s been here for years, and it’s like, day in and day out, this place is packed. They’re supportive. Of course, you always get those hecklers, you get one or two hecklers, but other than that they’re great fans.
BP: In one interview you said that Cole Hamels, the Phillies prospect, is the best pitcher you’ve faced so far. After more extensive experience in Triple-A, I was wondering if there is anyone else up there, with Hamels, as the most difficult to hit.
Upton: (Pauses) No.
BP: No? Nobody close?
Upton: Let me think…Who have I faced who could have been tougher to hit than him? (Laughs) Nobody. I mean, he throws pretty hard, and his changeup is ridiculous. Something you don’t want to see at all. You just kind of want to go up there, hoping he throws you a fastball.
BP: Our researchers at Baseball Prospectus turned up that you’re the youngest shortstop since A-Rod to make it to Triple-A. Where do you hope to see yourself in the next few years? Obviously you’d like to make it to the big leagues, but how do you see yourself as a player, in terms of your mental approach and your skill set? A lot of people talk about hitting for average, power, speed, fielding, stuff like that.
Upton: Probably the big leagues. All the things you just said: hitting for power, average. That’s about where I want to be…in the same category as those guys, like Miguel Tejada, A-Rod, and Jeter. Guys like that.
BP: What do you think will distinguish you as a player, from others who have come before you? How do you plan to handle the media attention and pressure? I know it is probably pretty imposing now, and this is only Triple-A, so you can only imagine it will get worse as you go through. What do you think you’re going to see in the big leagues?
Upton: I couldn’t tell you, dude. I have no clue. We’ll just see when it happens.
BP: In one of the previous interviews that I had read, you were asked if you saw yourself as a role model. At the time, you seemed a little taken aback, but you wanted to be able to follow up, and I wanted to give you that opportunity. Do you see yourself as a role model?
Upton: Do I see myself as a role model? Uh, (Pauses) maybe to some…of the young kids, back at home. Local kids. I don’t really know who follows what I do, so I can’t tell you exactly.
BP: Do you like to think of yourself as an example of how people can be successful in baseball? A lot of attention among the youth these days is on basketball and football.
Upton: Yeah. A lot fewer kids are playing baseball these days.
BP: What do you think it would take to change that?
Upton: I don’t know. It’s been going on for so long that I don’t know if it can be changed, but I think it’s when you do get kids that want to play baseball, and want to work hard, they’re usually pretty good at it.
BP: A couple more questions before we finish up. Everyone loves to talk about your offense and the success you’ve had so far at Triple-A. The only thing your critics can talk about now is your defense. Do you think that the extra work you’ve been putting in has been paying off?
Upton: Definitely. If I didn’t work the way I’ve been working this season, I would probably have about 35 errors right now. I swear. Yeah, I come out and I work hard at it. I’m getting a whole lot better than I was last year.
BP: I heard you were out here earlier today. We were supposed to originally talk on the phone. I got a chance to come out and actually meet you because you were so busy taking grounders this afternoon.
Upton: Yeah, man. I was out here taking grounders early today. But yeah, I’m working hard at that, and our scouting director always tells me: “It’s like, you’re going to hit. When you work hard on your defense is when you’ll be up there.”
BP: Sure. You think that’s the limiting factor right now? Your defense?
Upton: No. I mean, I don’t know. You never know what’s going to go on. All you can do is come out and play. I think [improving] my defense would probably give me a better chance.
BP: Part of being a prospect is having long term promise, and people believing you can have a lasting impact on a club well into the future. What measures have you taken to make sure you remain healthy? Specifically, stuff like stretching regimen, workout regimen; do you lift heavy, do you lift light with lots of reps, focus on stretching, or something like that?
Upton: I try to eat healthy. I lift hard during the offseason. I’m not a big stretcher–I mean, I stretch, but I’m one of those guys who, maybe once every two weeks, I’ll be just unbelievably tight, and I really have to stretch. But if I go out there and stretch for a solid, maybe, 10 minutes, I’m usually pretty good.
BP: For the last part of the interview, before we wrap up, I wanted to give you a chance to say something to the fans out there who follow you and read Baseball Prospectus. A big part of our business thus far has been tracking prospects and stuff like that, and a lot of people are really interested in you. What’s something you’d like the fans, and people in general, to know and understand about you when they get a chance to read this interview?
Upton: I chill.
BP: You’re an everyday guy?
Upton: Am I an everyday guy?
BP: Is that what you mean by chill?
Upton: Yeah. Just not really one of those–I don’t know how to put it; I’m trying to figure it out.
BP: You think you’re more laid back than most players?
Upton: Yeah. There you go. I’m probably a lot more laid back than most players. I’ll lose it every once in a while, but I’m not one of those guys that really tries to let people know I’m a little frustrated. Usually, when something happens, I’ll probably be frustrated when it first happens, but maybe a minute or two later, I’m fine and back to normal. I don’t get frustrated that much.
BP: Do you think your relaxed attitude is more a product of your age, or just general personality?
Upton: General personality. I’ve been like this my whole life, and it comes off as lazy to some people.
BP: Does it frustrate you when people call you lazy?
Upton: Yeah. I mean, if I was lazy, I wouldn’t be getting better at anything I was doing. But, whatever. However they feel, however they want to take my attitude, doesn’t matter to me. I just know how I am, and I’m not lazy at all. I’m just a really relaxed guy. I’ve never been too “all out,” I’m not that kind of person.
Many thanks to Will Carroll, Vincent Novicki, and Matt DeMargel for their help making this interview a success. Ben would also like to send his thoughts and condolences to Jared Weiss and his family. The world lost one of the most energetic and witty Yankee fans out there.
Ben Murphy is a Baseball Prospectus programming intern and student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, majoring in Mathematical Decision Sciences. You can e-mail Ben at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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