What's the Matter with B.J. Upton?

Thoughts on B.J. Upton

I started working on a Prospect Retro for B.J. Upton this morning, but ran into a roadblock.

I last looked at him in April 2009, which I will reproduce here.


Not A Rookie: B.J. Upton

B.J. Upton was drafted by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in the first round in 2002, second overall, out of high school in Chesapeake, Virginia. He was considered an excellent all-around athlete, and at the time was rated as an above-average defensive shortstop. Scouts weren't sure how much power he would show at higher levels, but they expected him to hit for average, get on base, and steal plenty of bags, comparing him to a young Derek Jeter. I gave him a Grade B in the 2003 book pending some pro performance, as he signed too late to play in '02.

Upton began 2003 with Charleston in the Sally League, hitting .302/.394/.445 with 38 steals. Promoted to Double-A Orlando for August, he held his own with a .276/.376/.381 mark. Scouts were full of praise for his bat: he showed good plate discipline and developing power. His range and arm strength were evident on defense, but he was having a lot of trouble with routine plays. Some scouts felt this would get better with time, while others were already discussing a move to third base or even the outfield. I gave him a coveted Grade A in the 2004 book, very confident in his future.

Upton began 2004 with Double-A Montgomery, hitting .327/.407/.471 in 29 games. Promoted to Triple-A Durham, he continued to dominate with a .311/.411/.519 mark in 69 games. He also stole 20 bases between the two levels. He made his major league debut that summer, hitting .258/.324/.09 in 45 games for the Rays at age 19, losing his rookie eligibility. His bat was very promising, but defense looked like a big problem. He simply wasn't reliable enough defensively.

He spent 2005 in Triple-A working on his defense, hitting .303/.392/.490. His offensive skills continued to grow, power, strike zone judgment, speed. But he made 53 errors, obviously unacceptable. He returned to Triple-A in 2006 and his bat was less impressive, with a .269/.372/.394 mark in 106 games. He made 28 errors in 84 games at shortstop, then got into 18 games at third base with a .900 fielding percentage. He got into 50 games with the Rays, hitting .246/.302/.291.

If you'll remember back then, there was some concern that Upton might not live up to early expectations. His bat came alive again in 2007, as he hit .300/.386//508 with 22 steals and 24 homers, splitting his defensive time between second base and center field. He finally settled in as a full time outfielder in '08, hitting .273/.383/.401. . .his power dropped off, but that seems to be related to a shoulder injury, and he was devastating in the post-season.

What should we expect from B.J. Upton in the future? That's actually a good question: at his best he's terrific, but his track record is rather erratic. He made a big improvement with his strike zone judgment last year, boosting his walk rate while cutting his strikeouts. That will help. The main concern seems to be the shoulder again. He's expected to be back in game action within 10 days, but you never know what kind of impact that will have, and I'm concerned that durability may be a frequent problem for him.

Projections for 2009:

Shandler:    .281/.377/.442, 40 steals, 17 homers in 545 at-bats.
James         .289/.387/.441, 38 steals, 14 homers in 501 at-bats
PECOTA:   .266/.365/.422,  39 steals, 13 homers in 548 at-bats
CHONE:    .282/.388/.439, 41 steals, 15 homers in 524 at-bats
ZIPS           .271/.377/.434, 36 steals, 18 homers in 532 at-bats

Four of those projections are very close, with the weighted mean PECOTA being the pessimistic outlier. If Upton's shoulder is healthy, I think all of those projections are possibly pessimistic; he's fully capable of a .300, 30 homer, 30 steals season with a high OBP if his shoulder is okay.

Since then, Upton had a very disappointing 2009 (.241/.313/.373, 79 OPS+), and hasn't been much better this year (.232/.323/.393, 92 OPS+). He's been rated as an excellent defensive outfielder at least, but, well...there is no way to spin the bat as anything positive.

Here is the roadblock. People want to know what's wrong with his bat, and I don't know. I could pretend I know, but I don't.

You can look at the Fangraphs data yourself....he's been weak against both fastball and breaking balls the last two seasons. His GB/FB data, LD%, GB%, and FB% have been unchanged in '09 and ‘10. He hit a greater percentage of line drives back in '07 and '08, but that's just descriptive: it does not tell us why this happened operationally. While I love Fangraphs, it doesn't tell us the why. Why is he hitting fewer line drives?

Is it a problem with his swing or his mental approach? Is it a cumulative effect of injuries? I don't know.

Do any of you Rays fans who watch him everyday know?

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