Two years ago it seemed as if B.J. Upton was on top of the world. He had just concluded his first full season in the big leagues at age 22 and he posted a .387 wOBA in 129 games. Then the Devil Rays became the Rays and Upton hasn’t been the same since.
Upton didn’t match his 2007 performance in 2008 but he clubbed seven homers in October to help Tampa Bay reach the world series. He experienced some shoulder woes that year and had surgery after the Rays were defeated by the Phillies in the series.
The stage was set last year for Upton to put together a huge season but the exact opposite happened. He missed the first week of the season and the left shoulder that he had operated on in the off season never regained full strength. This all amounted to an extremely frustrating season for Upton as he wrapped up the year with a paltry .310 wOBA over 560 at-bats. His .241/.313/.373 triple-slash was very underwhelming.
Upton has regressed over each of the past three seasons at the plate. Below is his wRC+ trend line over the past three seasons:
That’s a consistent and scary trend. Upton’s production has decreased heavily from each season to the next since 2007 and it’s extremely unlikely that he continues such a dreadful trend in 2010.
Luckily for the Rays his plus defense still makes him a valuable player but if he could ever rediscover his stroke at the plate then he would be an extremely valuable player again.
Upton’s entering his 25-year-old season and there is much reason for optimism. A strong and healthy left shoulder should be helpful but there’s also some interesting and telling information that lays in the data. Upton will always strike out at a healthy clip but his career-low 9% walk rate is a point of concern. He walked at higher rates over the prior two seasons.
Upton’s BABIP cratered to .312 last season. Where is his true talent level? That’s hard to tell from his varying samples over the past three seasons. But the helpful BABIP calculator from the Hardball Times tells us another story. Here are his xBABIPs over the past three seasons according to the calculator:
2007: xBABIP- .338. Actual- .399. Difference- +61
2008: xBABIP- .353. Actual- .351. Difference- -2
2009: xBABIP- .338. Actual- .312. Difference- +26
The calculator cuts down on Upton’s BABIP spread over the past three years. The range of his xBABIPs is 15 while the range of his actual BABIPs is 87. There’s no doubt his 2007 BABIP padded his numbers and it set the performance bar pretty high for him at the time.
Despite the exact same (.338) xBABIPs in 2007 and 2009, Upton, hit the ball with much more authority in 2007. He slugged 24 homers in 2007 compared to just 11 last year and he had a career-low 15.4% line drive rate in 2009. His line drive rate was 19.6% in 2007. He also hit a career-high 13 pop ups last season.
All of Upton’s varying and perplexing batting lines can’t be chalked up to just lucky or unlucky BABIP variations. While it played a role there are reasons for such drastic performances and they cannot be easily explained. We may have a true conundrum on our hands and more data will be essential in determining who the real B.J. Upton is. These varying performances do suggest that his bum shoulder really could have played a big role in his lackluster production.
We do know from our nifty run values that Upton battered and bruised fastballs during his banner 2007 campaign. He’s never hit them so well ever since and this does help explain his performance dip. Perhaps that shoulder could have plagued him when he tried to get around on fastballs?
Upton also has funky O-Contact percentages over the past three seasons similar to his varying BABIPs. He’s made contact at a very below-average rate (except for 2008) when he offers at pitches outside of the strike zone. He was actually above-average in 2008 when he had a solid campaign at the plate.
Finally, what can we expect from Upton going forward? It’s hard to exactly say what Upton will do in 2010. He’s always had the ability, athleticism, and a mouth watering set of tools. Some scouts may not be surprised if he unleashes an MVP like season now that he’s in good health.
I think Upton’s 2008 season (.273/.383/.401) would be a nice modest projection (minus some OBP) for Upton and many of the projection systems here at Fangraphs have him projected in that area. It’s playing it safe but his BABIP should recover and that would push him closer to his 2008 totals.
Upton’s a toolsy player and he should be entering his prime. Barring health I’d expect the power to play and it’s fair to project him to drop around 20 homers next year. The 100 Fan Projections currently available have nailed The Upton Case right on the button. The Fans have him at .273/.363/.442 with 40+ stolen bases and I think that’s a very fair and accurate projection.
If you can grab Upton in the middle rounds of your draft then he would be a steal. But don’t be afraid to pop him a bit sooner than that. He’s ready to put that nightmarish 2009 to rest.