The Braves' outfield of Justin Upton, B.J. Upton, and Jason Heyward is perhaps the most exciting trio in baseball. All three possess a rare combination of power and speed. In fact, each one already has at least one 20-homer/20-steal season on his resume.
Granted, 20/20 seasons are a lot more common than they used to be before Willie Mays came along; 10 players posted 20/20 years in 2012, compared to a total of 9 such seasons before Mays' first in 1955. Still, if only around 10 players post a 20/20 in a given year, it must be rare for a team to have three players capable of reaching that dual plateau, as the Braves do.
Indeed, this is quite rare. Only twice in MLB history has a team had three 20/20 players in a single season: the 2009 Phillies (Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, and Jayson Werth) and the 1988 Mets (Howard Johnson, Darryl Strawberry, and Kevin McReynolds). No team has ever had three 20/20 outfielders. The closest any team has come is the 1996 Rockies, who had two 30/30 outfielders (Dante Bichette and Ellis Burks) plus Larry Walker, who went 18/18 despite missing much of the year with injury.
In fact, the Braves are only the second team to have an outfield consisting entirely of young (no older than 28*) players with prior 20/20 seasons. The previous example is the 1987-1988 Blue Jays, with their outfield of George Bell, Lloyd Moseby, and Jesse Barfield. Bell and Barfield, however, never came close to stealing 20 bases again; Moseby had another 20/20 year in 1987 but never hit more than 14 homers after that.
* More than 2/3 (68%) of all 20/20 seasons since 1947 have been posted by players 28 and younger.
The Rockies and Blue Jays examples serve as excellent examples of the two biggest threats to the Braves' 20/20 chances: injury and maturing skills. Obviously, if anyone misses significant time with injury, as Larry Walker did in 1996, that probably ruins his 20/20 chances. Heck, even if someone plays through an injury without missing time, that can still prevent a 20/20 season (just look at what happened to Justin Upton in 2012 and Heyward in 2011).
Maturing skills prevent 20/20 seasons in a different way. As players reach their mid-20s, they tend to acquire greater power, but they also tend to lose the speed of their youth--sometimes, seemingly, all at once. This is what happened to George Bell; after his 20/20 season in 1985 (at age 25), he never stole more than 7 bases again, though he did hit 47 homers and win an MVP in 1987. Similarly, Barfield never stole more than 8 bases after his 20/20 year (also in 1985 and at age 25), though he led the AL with 40 homers just one year later.
There is one other factor that must be considered: random chance. Because 20 is such an arbitrary (and difficult to reach) cutoff, it will be very easy for one of the Braves' outfielders to end up a bit short one category or the other. All it takes is a couple over-the-wall catches or great throws by a catcher to make a player's total come up short. Just ask Justin Upton, who has twice finished with 17 homers and 18 steals in a season.
The Braves' 2013 outfield has 6 total 20/20 seasons between them. B.J. Upton did it in 2007, 2011, and 2012; Justin did it in 2009 and 2011; and Heyward posted his first 20/20 year last year. Below, I'll break down each player's chances of going 20/20 this year. Then I'll combine those probabilities to figure out how likely an all-20/20 outfield is. Let's start with the most likely 20/20 candidate.
Bossman Junior leads the pack mainly because he led the Braves' current outfielders in both homers (28) and steals (31) last season. It also helps that he has a history of taking the field almost every day, having reached at least 610 plate appearances in each of the last 5 seasons. Based on this, he seems like a safe bet to reach 20/20 in 2013.
However, there are a few causes for concern. First, while Upton has not missed much time with injury in his career, injuries have had an impact; Upton played with a torn labrum that sapped his power, limiting him to just 9 homers in 2008 and 11 in 2009. Such an injury could easily recur (though hopefully not!).
Another issue relates to the maturing of skills that I mentioned above. While B.J. has great natural stolen-base ability, he is not immune to this trend:
That's a pattern that anyone can identify. As he's reached his prime years, B.J. has started stealing a bit less but has reached new heights in the home run category. While he'll still likely steal at least 20 bases this season (if healthy), the downward trend in that category makes a sub-20 total seem more likely. I'd bet that he'll end up with more homers than steals, in fact. The Braves seem to sense this, too; B.J. will likely be ticketed for the 5th spot in the order to start the year, a spot that traditionally is more associated with power than speed.
Factoring in all this information, I'd peg B.J.'s chances of going 20/20 at around 80%. That's about a 10% injury chance and a 10% chance that aging & randomness will keep one of his totals (probably steals) just under 20. Next up, let's look at his brother.
Justin has played four full seasons in MLB, and each year, he has had at least 17 homers and at least 18 steals. So he's a really good bet to at least get close to 20/20.
Like his brother, Justin hasn't missed a lot of time with injury. However, also like his brother, a nagging injury has impaired him in the past. Last season, in fact, Justin injured his thumb early on, causing his numbers to suffer for most of the first half. Once the injury healed, he did very well, but the damage was done, and he fell short of 20/20.
While Justin is only 25, and his speed should not yet be on the decline, each player is different. Both Bell and Barfield, for instance, saw huge SB dropoffs in their age-26 seasons. At any rate, Justin's speed has always been borderline for 20/20 (his high is only 21), so it wouldn't take much of a dropoff (or much bad luck) to push him below 20 steals.
While I'm optimistic about Justin Upton's future, and while he certainly has huge potential, his history suggests that he's only about a 50/50 bet to return to 20/20 levels. If he has a great year, like 2011 and 2009, he'll likely get there, but if he has just a good year, like 2010 and 2012, he likely won't*. So let's assign him a 50% chance.
* Homers and steals seem unrelated, but they're not; in fact, every time Heyward or either Upton has topped 20 homers, that player has also had at least 20 steals. Whenever Justin or Heyward has fallen short of 20 homers, he has also failed to reach 20 steals.
Next up, the third (and youngest) member of the Braves' outfield.
Heyward has the fewest 20/20 seasons among the trio, but he also has the advantage of youth. At just 23, he's likely at or near his peak speed, and his base-stealing prowess may even still be on the upswing.
Though he "only" stole 21 bases last year, there's reason to think that Heyward will steal even more in 2013, especially since he'll be hitting in the #2 spot in the order (and we know how Fredi loves his #2 hitters to do #2-hitter things). There's certainly a good chance that he'll fall a little short, but he'll probably get to 20 if he stays healthy. He also seems like a safe bet to hit 20+ homers if he's healthy.
That's the rub with Heyward, though--health. Injuries helped to ruin his 2011 season, and they also contributed to his not-so-awesome second half in his 2010 debut. If he's healthy like he was in 2012, he seems very likely to post a 20/20 season, but his health is probably a bigger risk than it is for the Uptons.
Putting that all together, let's say that Heyward has a 70% chance of going 20/20; that allows for a 20% injury risk and a 10% chance of just falling short in one category or the other.
Doing the math based on my (rather generous) estimates, we get the following probabilities:
- 3% chance that none of the 3 reaches 20/20
- 22% chance that just one of the 3 reaches 20/20
- 47% chance that two of the 3 reaches 20/20
- 28% chance that all 3 players reach 20/20
So, while this year's Braves may have the best chance of any team in a long time to have an all-20/20 outfield, about 1-in-4 is still not what I would call "likely." While the Braves do seem well-positioned to be the first, remember that a lot can go wrong over the course of a long season. In fact, something probably will. Still, I plan on tracking this story all season to see if they can beat the odds.
Besides, it's not like 20/20 is a particularly meaningful feat, especially from a team perspective. If all 3 outfielders reach 20/20, that's a great sign for the team, but only because it means that all 3 will have stayed mostly healthy. Homers and (especially) steals are not the be-all-end-all of a player's contributions. Any or all of them could fall short of 20/20 but still have a great season.
Regardless of how many homers and steals they end up with, this outfield should be extremely fun to watch all year--and in 2014 and 2015, too.