What to Make of Justin Upton's Defense

USA TODAY Sports

When Justin Upton was drafted as the first overall pick in 2005, the term "five-tool player" was attached to basically every scouting report. Coming up as a shortstop in high school, he had all the tools offensively, as well as superior range, speed and an arm that could hit 90 across the diamond.

Fast forward to 2013 with the Braves, where his defense on the field was largely described as "disappointing" and "below average." Of course, a position change from RF to LF was the main reason given for his defensive woes. It also didn’t help that he was being bounced around between the corner positions as Jason Heyward spent time on the DL and in centerfield. By seasons end, his innings were split almost perfectly; two-thirds left field, one-third right field.

This clip more or less sums up the struggles Upton had on the field.

After failing the eye test, I wanted to see what the "numbers" thought of Upton and if there were any hidden components of whether this might be a trend or a fluke season.

As a brief reminder, metrics like DRS and UZR are a great way to supplement the eye test and also break down defense into components such as a player’s range, arm and the ability to not make errors. As we've stated on here before, none of these metrics are perfect by any means, but until a FIELDf/x type system is ever released to the public, it is the best we got.

First we can look at his overall defense. I chose to take a simple average of the amount of runs saved per year between the two defensive systems over the past five seasons (UZR is rounded to a whole number).

Justin Upton - Defense
DRS UZR AVG
2009 4 8 6
2010 2 5 4
2011 8 8 8
2012 2 -3 -1
2013 2 -10 -4

Right off the bat (or glove), we see Upton’s defense does appear to be getting worse. This goes hand-in-hand with studies that suggest defensive ability peaks early, often for players early twenties. While he is still relatively young and in his peak years overall as a player, losing some value on the defensive side of the equation shouldn’t come as a major surprise.

A component that both metrics attempt to measure is a player’s arm. In Justin’s case, aside from the 2009 season, he has always rated having a below average arm with his ability to throw runners out and allow them to advance to extra bases compared to the average fielder at his position. Last season, there was nothing out of the ordinary with his arm that would cause a drop in defensive value.

Justin Upton - Arm
DRS UZR AVG
2009 -1 5 2
2010 -5 -5 -5
2011 -5 -4 -5
2012 -3 -2 -3
2013 -4 -4 -4

While the next, more classical, metric has its flaws, I do think it is at least important to touch on -- errors. In 2013, Upton tied for the fewest errors he’s ever had in a single season with four. According to UZR’s error component, Upton was right around 0 runs saved and inline with prior seasons. So Upton's poor play wasn’t because he was making any more errors.

But… as we know, one of the biggest problems with errors is that you can’t commit one on a ball you can’t get to. So, many times, players with poor range will commit fewer errors solely because the fewer chances they have. He also wasn’t charged an "error" in the clip above because the ball never touched his glove, so it's really easy to see the misleading nature of the stat. I’ve listed three different components that attempt to measure a player’s range with their respective definitions from FanGraphs and Baseball Reference.

rPM - Plus Minus Runs Saved evaluates the fielder’s range and ability to convert a batted ball to an out.

RngR - Is the player an Ozzie Smith or an Adam Dunn? Do they get to more balls than average or not?

RF/Gm – Range factor per game or, (Putouts + Assists)/Games

Justin Upton - Range
rPM (DRS) RngR (UZR) RF/Gm
2009 10 6 2.2
2010 9 10 2.1
2011 17 16 2.2
2012 7 -1 2.1
2013 1 -6 1.8

This is where we can start to see the root of the problem. All three more or less agree that Upton has lost some range, especially last season. So what is the cause?

Like I said above, defense peaks early. Player who mature, fill out and put miles on their legs and bodies can lose the agility, quickness and arm velocity they possessed in the early part of their careers.

As I stated earlier, the other reason is simply the position and home ballpark change Upton underwent in 2013. Just like any other profession where one might switch companies, location and job position, it takes awhile to get comfortable with your new surroundings, especially for outfielders and specifically corner outfielders. All of a sudden, balls are cutting the opposite way off the bat in a ballpark with different dimensions. It’s like having to take a new route to work and then start using a Mac instead of a PC once you’re there. It is reasonable for production to slip until that person becomes comfortable with their surroundings again.

At the end of the day, like most things, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. He might be losing a step as he ages, but overall I think a second season, where he hopefully doesn’t get bounced around from left field as much, will be beneficial to his reads, reactions and timing on balls coming off the bat. Remembering the chart from above, Upton cost 10 runs in the field last year, (UZR is the defensive component of fWAR). Simply taking and making Upton an average LF’er would have bumped him from a 3 to 4 win player in 2013. Defense matters, and there is no reason to believe Justin Upton won’t more comfortable in 2014.

This is actually one of the more subtle things I am looking forward to as the season gets underway. Last year with Upton, I wondered what effect a healthy thumb would have on a hopeful bounce back in his power numbers. It turned out he got back into form and put up one of the best offensive seasons of his career. This season, it’ll be interesting to see if can put together a bounce back season in the field.

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