2013 hasn't been very kind to the eldest of the Upton brothers. It's easy to say: "everything has been a problem," but I wanted to try and dig in a little bit to see if I could find one glaring issue. I'm in the camp, that even though he has looked extremely poor this season he should be given every opportunity to work himself out of it on a full time basis, especially with Heyward on the shelf. Jordan Schafer had a very nice run to being the season, but he's ultimately still the player that was DFA'd by the Houston Astros. I'd much rather trust the larger sample size that suggests he's a below average major league player than the 3 month sample that suggested otherwise. Anyways, on to the research.
*I didn't use 2007's data. The reasons for that are: he has never put up another season similar to that and it was nearly 6 years ago. I included 2008 because the study had to start somewhere and because aside from the huge walk rate the other numbers are similar to other season's in BJ's career.*
What did the Braves acquire in Upton?
The Braves may have outbid themselves a little when it came to the winter signing. It was reported that the most Philadelphia offered was $55 million over 5 years. That's all in the past. Upton's signing might have been a slight overpay for his production depending on which WAR (Fangraphs or B-Ref) figure you prefer, but the deal was a perfect match. Upton's WAR totals (Fangraphs) throughout his career are as follows: 4.5, 4.8, 2.1, 3.8, 3.9, and 3.1. If the average cost of a win is $5 million then Upton essentially was paid perfectly for his previous years of production. Upton joined Carlos Gonzalez as the only two players to go 20/20 through the 2010-2012 seasons. He was only 28 at the time of the signing, so he was a much better bet to age better than Michael Bourn. Frank Wren signed a player who has a ton of talent, plays a premium position, and was still relatively young for essentially market value. It sounded pretty good, but what went wrong?
2013: A Year To Forget
Upton's struggles have been well documented. He's worked very hard on trying to change the mechanics (toe-tap) of his swing, but it's very difficult to undo years and years of repetitions in a short span of time. I'll leave that diagnosis to the Braves' hitting coaches, because I'm not smart or qualified enough to open that can of worms.
We can analyze the data though; and there are some good signs to go along with the bad ones.
As you can see Upton's seen his walk rate fluctuate over the years, but his near 10% this year is a substantial rebound to his career norms before his 2012 season. While this development is definitely a good thing, it isn't nearly good enough to offset the dramatic increase in his K% in 2013. Simply put, this trend has to reverse in order for BJ to have much success. Surmounting a K% of that magnitude is nearly impossible. Can we decipher what has lead to the increase in K's?
The chart above has some very alarming things in it. We'll get the good things out of the way first. He's chasing much less than he did in 2012. His 25% chase% (O-Swing%) this year is much closer to his 2010 and 2011 numbers when he was a productive player (113 & 108 wRC+, respectively). His O-contact is also down, which means he's making less contact when he actually does chase. This can be a double edged sword. It's good that he's making less contact on bad pitches, because swinging at balls usually results in weak contact. It is also alarming when you combine it with the fact that he's making less contact when he swings at pitches in the zone as well. I'm not qualified enough to say that he's losing coordination or anything of that nature, but his contact% has declined nearly every year since 2008. The original trade off wasn't necessarily a bad thing, because his power numbers went up every year. BJ has possibly finally reached a tipping point in his approach that has made the results collapse.
His batted ball profile has also seen some sizable changes in 2013.
As you can see, he's hitting a few more groundballs this year than in previous years. With that comes a lower flyball rate and a lower HR/FB rate. Even though line drive percentages can be somewhat iffy at times, it's good to see that his 2013 performance is still in line with career norms. The most alarming part of this chart, in my opinion, is the dramatic increase in infield flies (IFFB%). A remarkable 20.5% of the balls he's put in play in 2013 have been pop-ups on/near the infield. That's an impressive (not in a good way) feat. It's essentially the same problem Andrelton Simmons has had in 2013 (19.3%). That, along with his K%, will hopefully regress to his career norms with more plate appearances.
Lastly, I wanted to take a look at which pitches have given Upton the most trouble in 2013. The graph below contains his pitch values from FanGraphs.
As you can tell Upton has went from crushing fastballs to do nothing with them. He was very good against the hard stuff in 2011 and 2012, not so much this season. Upton has been better against curveballs in his career than I assumed. This trend has continued in 2013 with his performance against curveballs being his only positive number (barely). He's also gotten much worse against the change-up. My rough theory on this is that he has been so late on fastballs this season, due to his timing issues, that he could be selling out to catch up with the heat and subsequently be extremely out in front when a pitcher changes speeds.
What Are We Left With In 2014 and Beyond?
As I stated in my introduction, I firmly believe in BJ's talent. I'm a little more cautious after diving headfirst into the data. I still believe, but I definitely have my doubts. A lot of the signs I've pointed out definitely aren't good, but there are some positives as well (BB%, O-Swing%, LD%). Obviously in a best case scenario we would get 2008 BJ Upton for the next 4 years and be completely satisfied with that, but he hasn't been that player in quite some time. If he can get back to 2011/2012 BJ in 2014, I'll be extremely satisfied.
I've left his defense out of this simply because defensive metrics can be pretty noisy with small sample sizes. The information we do have on Upton in a Braves uniform is essentially the same as we had during his time in Tampa. He's around average; a little more or less depending on your preferred metric. Upton's combination of defense, power, and base running made him a coveted asset during the 2012 off-season, let's hope he can pull it back together.