Complete Pitcher's Guide to Shutting Down Justin Upton

Use your ← → (arrow) keys to browse more stories
Complete Pitcher's Guide to Shutting Down Justin Upton
Rob Carr/Getty Images

"It looks like Justin Upton is on a mission," a scout told ESPN's Jayson Stark during spring training.

A couple of weeks into the 2013 season, we have an idea what Upton's mission is: Destroy all pitchers.

Through 18 games and 78 plate appearances, the Atlanta Braves left fielder is leading the National League with a .761 slugging percentage and the majors with nine home runs. Not bad for a guy who the Arizona Diamondbacks seemingly couldn't wait to get rid of.

But Upton's not invincible. Beating him is no different from beating any other hitter. It comes down A) doing homework and B) executing.

If you'll follow me this way, we'll take a look at what pitchers need to know about Upton.

 

Where Are Upton's Happy and No-So-Happy Zones?

From an analysis standpoint, one of the great things about Upton is that his entire career has been in the PITCHf/x era (2007 to now). Thus, his PITCHf/x Hitter Profile over at Baseball Prospectus is able to paint a pretty complete picture of his tendencies.

I can't re-post any graphs here, but I want you to take a look at a couple as we go along here and follow along with my commentary.

The first graph I want you to look at shows Upton's career batting averages in various areas inside and outside the strike zone. You'll see that Upton has done very well on pitches down the middle and inside, but less well on pitches on the outside part of the plate. The only real hot zone he has outside the strike zone, meanwhile, is low and inside.

But with Upton, it's not so much about avoiding his bat. It's more about avoiding his power, which can be done.

Take a look at a graph that shows Upton's career ISO readings—that's "Isolated Power," which is basically a slugging percentage that ignores singles—in and around the strike zone. What you'll see is that he's mainly dangerous on pitches down the middle and pitches down and in.

Those are the pitches Upton can pull. And with all due respect to his power to center field and to right field, Upton's pull power is what makes him dangerous.

Consider his career splits, which come courtesy of FanGraphs.

When Upton pulls the ball, very good things happen for him. Thus, pitchers must not tempt fate by giving Upton anything to pull. That's today's Baseball 101 lesson.

Pitchers should be especially wary of that low and inside zone. That's where lefty hitters tend to be dangerous more so than righty hitters, but Upton is a guy who can do a lot of damage on low and inside pitches. 

Just ask Miami Marlins righty Kevin Slowey, who served up this moonshot earlier this season.

Video courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB's official YouTube account.

Actually avoiding Upton's power altogether comes down to putting the ball where he can't put a lot of oomph behind his swing. Per his career ISO zones, that would be low and away.

Upton's ISO zones for the 2013 season show that not much has changed. The obligatory caveat is that we're talking about a very small sample size, but he still isn't extending much power to the outside corner of the plate.

It's not much, but it's something. Until Upton proves that he can hurt pitchers on the outside corner, that must be their go-to spot against him.

There's obviously more to pitching against Upton than aiming for the outside corner, as that's a weakness that a lot of hitters share. Let's get more specific, shall we?

 

Which Pitches Are Upton's Kryptonite?

Feel like doing Upton a favor?

Then throw the guy a fastball. 

Per FanGraphs, Upton has a 4.08 wFB/C so far this season, meaning he's generated 4.08 runs above average for every 100 fastballs he's seen—he hasn't actually seen that many fastballs, mind you, but these things must be standardized in order to be fair.

In general, Upton has taken quite a liking to fastballs ever since 2009. His 1.69 wFB/C since '09 ranks 13th in MLB among qualified hitters.

The good news for pitchers, however, is that Upton doesn't handle all fastballs equally.

Draw up Upton's career swing rates on hard stuff over at Baseball Prospectus, and you'll see that he's been known to chase fastballs up and out of the zone. Better yet, he's been known to whiff on hard stuff up and out of the zone. That's the old "Can't lay of 'em, can't hit 'em" saying at work.

Now, it should be noted that this has been happening less often so far in 2013. If you go to TexasLeaguers.com and take a look at the pitches Upton has swung at this year, you'll see that he's been laying off the hard stuff up and out of the zone. 

But as Stephen Strasburg can vouch, elevating against Upton can still work. Check out his first strikeout in the following sizzle reel.

Video courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB's official YouTube account.

Other than the high fastball, what other pitches are effective against Upton?

The Baseball Info Solutions data over at FanGraphs reveals that pitchers have been using a lot of sliders and changeups against Upton this year, and that's not a bad idea. Among the pitches he's seen regularly since 2009, those are the two he's struggled against the most. He owns a minus-0.71 wSL/C and a 0.38 wCH/C over the last four-plus seasons.

The slider has tended to be right-handed pitchers' best bet against Upton, especially off the outside corner of the plate. The graph for his career whiff rates against righty sliders shows an awful lot of red off the outside corner of the plate.

The word of warning for righties is that Upton has been doing a better job of laying off sliders this season. That's a reality that shows through when you look at his performance against righty sliders over at TexasLeaguers.com.  

The bright side is that Upton has made more outs on righty sliders than he has hits, even if one of those hits was a bomb to center field.

The changeup, meanwhile, is a lefty pitcher's best bet against Upton.

The graphs for Upton's career swing rate against lefty changeups show that he's traditionally had a hard time laying off them. The graph for his career whiff rate against lefty changeups shows that he's had trouble handling the low ones in particular, which is about par for the course for righty hitters against lefty pitchers with good changeups.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Having a changeup as nasty as Hamels' is definitely recommended.

I don't have a video highlight to show you, but one guy who showed how it's done was Philadelphia Phillies lefty Cole Hamels on Opening Day. He started Upton off with a low changeup, and then punched him out swinging on a changeup down out of the zone later on in the at-bat. BrooksBaseball.net has the sequence.

However, this is another case where a word of warning is necessary. Upton has had issues with lefty changeups in the past, but not so much this year. TexasLeaguers.com can show that he's taken more lefty changeups down below the zone than he's swung at.

That may be a developing trend, but it's too early to tell. Lefties don't have much choice but to stick with what's worked in the past.

There is, however, one developing trend that pitchers might be able to exploit.

 

Can Upton's Approach Be Exploited?

In 2011 and 2012, Upton loved to swing at the first pitch. To boot, he was pretty good at it.

In 2011, Upton went fishing at the first pitch 32 percent of the time and posted a 1.052 OPS when doing so. In 2012, he swung at the first pitch 33 percent of the time and posted an .897 OPS.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Zero of Upton's nine homers have come on the first pitch this season. What's to be afraid of?

Upton's doing things a little differently this year. He's only swinging at the first pitch 27 percent of the time, which puts him right at the league average of 26 percent.

The scary part is that Upton's not expanding the zone when he does choose to swing at the first pitch. As TexasLeaguers.com reveals, only one of the first pitches he's swung at this year was clearly outside the zone.

The not-so-scary part is that it's not like Upton's sitting dead-red on first-pitch four-seamers. He's actually let a lot of first-pitch four-seamers go by, and a fair amount of those have gone by inside the strike zone.

This marks quite the departure from 2012, as this table can show.

Year First Pitch FF% Swing% In-Play%
2012 33.0 35.4 12.6
2013 28.6 18.2 4.5

The small sample size caveat applies here, but these numbers suggest that Upton may be making a point not to typecast himself as a first-ball fastball hitter. He's preferred to go chasing other types of pitches on 0-0 counts, making it difficult for pitchers to get a read on how to start him off.

What pitchers should do is take this as an excuse to test Upton. If he's not going to swing at first-pitch fastballs, then first-pitch fastballs are what he should get. If he continues to take them, he's going to be giving away a lot of easy 0-1 counts.

Granted, Upton does have a 1.800 OPS on 0-1 counts and a .962 OPS after 0-1 counts, but that's not going to last forever. The league only has an .806 OPS on 0-1 counts, and a .597 OPS after 0-1 counts. Last year, the league had an .811 OPS on 0-1 counts and a .612 OPS after 0-1.

The point is that 0-1 is not a count that's going to be kind to Upton all season. And as long as he's laying off first-pitch fastballs, that's a count that he's effectively allowing pitchers to have.

He's not, however, allowing pitchers to get away with mistakes.

 

Hit Your Darn Spots

Why does Upton have nine home runs this season?

Well, he has freakish natural talent and tons of raw power, for one. 

Beyond that, Upton has benefited from a couple of mistake pitches having been sent his way. Of his nine homers, I counted five that may have been avoided had the guy on the mound executed his pitch.

It starts with Cole Hamels, who surrendered Upton's first home run of the season and as a Brave back on Opening Day. Hamels had a 1-2 count and was supposed to throw a cutter at Upton's shins, but his pitch drifted out over the middle of the plate.

This image shows where the pitch was supposed to be and where it ended up.

Images courtesy of MLB Advanced Media

Fellow Phillie Roy Halladay also got burned on a mistake pitch in his first start. He surrendered Upton's second homer of the season on another 1-2 pitch that was supposed to be down and in. Instead, Doc's offering drifted over the middle of the plate.

Again, look where the pitch was supposed to be compared to where it ended up.

Images courtesy of MLB Advanced Media

Next we have Upton's fifth homer of the season, which was his walk-off against Chicago Cubs "closer" Carlos Marmol.

On what was—surprise!—a 1-2 count, Marmol threw Upton a fastball that was was supposed to be outside and below Upton's knees. Instead, Marmol's pitch drifted up and was then sent on a ride (please accept my apologies that this one isn't full frame).

Next up: Upton's eighth home run of the season against Kansas City Royals hard-throwing righty Kelvin Herrera. He was going to throw a changeup low and inside to Upton on an 0-1 count. His changeup ended up going up and inside.

Herrera was then reminded that that's not a good place to put a changeup against a right-handed power hitter.

Images courtesy of MLB Advanced Media

Last but not least, we have Upton's ninth homer of the season against Pittsburgh Pirates lefty Jeff Locke. Demonstrating that he had read his scouting report, Russell Martin was looking for a 3-1 changeup on the outside corner. What he got instead was a changeup that drifted too far inside.

Images courtesy of MLB.com

There you have it. Five mistakes, and five mistakes that weren't gotten away with. Upton made Hamels, Halladay, Marmol, Herrera and Locke pay for missing their spots.

In making this point, I'm not trying to diminish Upton's talent. Quite the contrary, actually. The fact that he crushed each of these mistakes goes to show just how locked in he is this season. That some of these pitches didn't miss by much drives the point home even further.

And that's a warning to all pitchers out there. There aren't going to be many cheap outs against Upton these days. To beat him, a pitcher legitimately has to be the better man.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter. 

Follow zachrymer on Twitter

Load More Stories

Follow Atlanta Braves from B/R on Facebook

Follow Atlanta Braves from B/R on Facebook and get the latest updates straight to your newsfeed!

Atlanta Braves

Subscribe Now

We will never share your email address

Thanks for signing up.