According to Zach Sanders’ unassailable list of outfield rankings, B.J. Upton scored dead last with a whopping negative $12 of value in 2013. A player in a different contract situation would likely be out of a job, but Upton has four years and $60 million remaining with the Braves. We’ll be seeing more of him in 2014.
Upton the Elder has been a solid fantasy asset since 2007 – back when the Rays were still consorting with the Devil. He was always a good bet for 50 home runs plus stolen bases, although the distribution of those counting stats was anyone’s guess. Batting average was usually a problem category, but a .240 rate is forgivable when it comes with plenty of home runs and steals.
As you know, 2013 bucked the trend. Upton struggled mightily, posting all kinds of terrible numbers. Most stomach churning for Braves fans and fantasy owners was the .184/.268/.289 slash (.252 wOBA) that resulted from too many strikeouts and a lot of bad contact. Some hopeful few will look at his career low .266 BABIP and .105 ISO and see brighter days ahead. But those days will need to be substantially brighter for Upton to help fantasy owners.
It’s at this point that I’ll remind you that there are two plays that generate near-automatic outs – strikeouts and infield flies. Upton went bananas for these two plays last season. He struck out 33.9 percent of the time and 19.3 percent of his fly balls failed to leave the infield. Combined, Upton made an automatic out in roughly 40 percent of his plate appearances. That fully explains the low BABIP and terrible triple slash line. Based on his outcomes, he wasn’t unlucky.
The low power numbers are a little trickier to analyze. Upton hit more ground balls and fewer fly balls than usual (despite the high infield fly rate) and posted his lowest HR/FB ratio since 2009 (because of the high infield fly rate). He’s always been quite inconsistent with his HR/FB, and we should probably expect that to continue. Taken together, it’s not surprising that his power numbers were poor based on his batted ball outcomes. It’s uncertain what we should expect in 2014, but regression to the mean is always the safe bet.
That’s what the Steamer projection system prophecies. Fewer strikeouts and more power lead to a .223/.301/.382 projection. That includes a five percent drop in strikeout rate (slightly above career norms) and 50 point boost in ISO. That’s still all kinds of terrible and a good reminder that paying for the privilege to own Upton in 2014 is foolish. Steamer is confused about his role next season, since the 430 plate appearance projection is more than a platoon bat but less than a full time player. For what it’s worth, Upton hasn’t shown much of a platoon split throughout his career.
The one area where owners can cast their hope is with his batted ball outcomes. Earlier, I mentioned that his season wasn’t fluky based on those outcomes. But it’s entirely possible that the outcomes themselves were fluky.
His infield fly ball rate was 10 percent above his career rate (and that career rate includes 2013). It’s possible that he’s seen a change in talent where he pops up more often, but it’s more likely that an additional 10 percent of his fly balls will go to productive purposes next season. More outfield flies probably means more HR/FB leading to more runs, RBI, home runs, and even a better batting average. Positive power outcomes will result in a better spot in the lineup, more plate appearances, and more opportunities to steal bases.
All of which leaves us in an awkward position. Talking about a positive feedback loop is one thing, actually getting value out of a guy who projects in the negative is another.
At the end of the day, we have a player with a long track record as a stolen base threat who can contribute to some other categories as well. That player bottomed out so heavily in 2013 that some owners can probably blame him for losing their league. Usually, this is a sign of age related collapse or major injury. Upton is entering his age 29 season and didn’t sustain a notable injury until midseason. So what do we believe?
This is the sort of situation where I recommend taking a flier and no more. If someone is willing to use a mid-round draft pick or more than a couple auction dollars to acquire Upton, wish them well. As the Steamer projection implies, even a good healthy dose of regression will see Upton perform similarly to Brandon Barnes or Vernon Wells. There were worth about negative $3 last season.
In other words, buyer beware.
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