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Why B.J. Upton Never Became One of MLB's Great Hitters

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Why B.J. Upton Never Became One of MLB's Great Hitters
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Looking at Atlanta Braves outfielder B.J. Upton today, it is hard to see what made him one of the top prospects in all of baseball in the early 2000s. Yet that is the beauty, and tragedy, of scouting Major League Baseball players. 

Coming out of Greenbrier Christian Academy in Virginia, Upton was drafted as a shortstop with the second overall pick by the Tampa Bay Rays two months before his 18th birthday. He debuted in 2004 at the age of 19, playing 45 games before getting called up for good at the end of the 2006 season. 

Upton, who just turned 29 and signed a five-year, $75 million contract with the Braves last offseason, has been a disaster in 2013. He is hitting a paltry .183/.265/.291 in 103 games and has basically been relegated to pinch-hit and defensive-replacement duty for one of the best teams in baseball. 

Using FanGraphs' version of wins above replacement, Upton's negative-0.6 mark this year ranks as the third-worst in the National League among players with at least 350 plate appearances. 

Here is a look at how Upton has gone from a top draft pick with MVP potential to one of the worst everyday players in baseball. 

 

The Hype

Courtesy of Gameday Sports Stars

Some notable names from the 2002 draft, aside from Upton, included Zack Greinke (No. 6 to Kansas City), Prince Fielder (No. 7 to Milwaukee), Nick Swisher (No. 16 to Oakland) and Matt Cain (No. 25 to San Francisco), yet Upton stood out from the rest because of his athleticism and five-tool potential. 

Jim Callis and Allen Simpson of Baseball America had Upton ranked as the No. 1 player available and had scouts comparing him to a present-day legend:

Scouts compare Upton to a young Derek Jeter, right down to the swagger. Upton is further along in his development than Jeter at a comparable age. He's more physically mature than Jeter, who developed his physique in pro ball, and has better power. Upton is just 17 and will play at that age throughout his first professional season. 

Pittsburgh held the No. 1 pick but opted to take Ball State right-hander Bryan Bullington over Upton.

Upton signed late and was unable to play in 2002, so his professional debut didn't take place until the next season when he was 18.

The Rays were so enamored and encouraged by his skill set that they sent him out to Low-A right away. Last year, the median age of a player in Low-A was 22, or the equivalent age of when most college players are drafted, according to Baseball America. 

Upton rewarded that confidence with a .302/.394/.445 line, 80 strikeouts, 57 walks, 38 stolen bases and 35 extra-base hits in 101 games before a late-season promotion to High-A. 

Coming into the 2004 season, Baseball America had Upton ranked as the best prospect in Tampa Bay's system and No. 2 overall, behind some catcher in Minnesota named Joe Mauer. 

It's not hard to see why Upton was regarded that highly, especially when you look at that stat line from his first season. It is dangerous to scout stats in the minors, but being that age and putting up those kinds of numbers is incredibly rare and spoke to how well-prepared he was. 

 

The Warning Signs 

The frustration was settling in for Upton, who argued this call. Via MLB Advanced Media

Even though Upton's debut happened in 2004, his defensive woes at shortstop—making 172 errors in four minor league seasons—prompted a position change before the Rays would call him up for good in August 2006. 

Upton played 50 games at third base in the big leagues to close out the 2006 season and split time between second base and the outfield early in 2007 before taking over center field full time on July 13 of that season. 

It seemed like the position change was the missing piece of the puzzle for Upton. The 22-year-old played with more confidence on both sides of the ball, putting together a remarkable .300/.386/.508 line with 50 extra-base hits and 22 stolen bases in 129 games. 

Even though there were some signs it would be difficult for Upton to replicate that success, notably 154 strikeouts in 474 at-bats, the fact that he put up those numbers at that age is incredible. 

His 4.5 fWAR, which provides a snap-shot measure of the total value a player added in every aspect of the game, was the 37th-best in history among outfielders aged 22 (per FanGraphs).

The sky was the limit for Upton, or so it seemed. 

Upton would reach his peak in 2008 at the age of 23 when he posted a 4.8 fWAR even though his batting average (.273) and slugging percentage (.401) dipped substantially. His walk rate jumped significantly (11.9% to 15.2%), keeping his on-base percentage roughly the same (.386 in 2007 to .383 in 2008). 

The reason Upton's fWAR increased was because his defense in center field improved by leaps and bounds. He went from a UZR, which calculates the number of runs a player saves, of negative-2.6 to plus-7.8 in one year (FanGraphs). At a premium position, that made Upton incredibly valuable. 

2008 also happened to be the year Upton had that incredible power surge in the postseason, hitting seven home runs against Chicago and Boston to help Tampa Bay make the World Series. 

After that season, Upton's numbers tailed off, never to recover, and he was done being a star player at the age of 23. His 12.4 fWAR since 2009 ranks 35th among qualified outfielders, behind players like Andres Torres and Angel Pagan, also posting a .234/.309/.403 slash line. 

His weighted on-base average (wOBA), which measures the actual run value of hits and walks, is just .313, 140th among qualified outfielders, tied with Laynce Nix and Nyjer Morgan. 

 

Lack of Progress

J. Meric/Getty Images

It goes to show the fragile nature of prospects and the development process that even someone as highly regarded as Upton can do everything right in the minors and in his first exposure to big league pitching only to see it fall apart in his mid-20s. 

There are tangible reasons for Upton's problems, from the high volume of strikeouts—he's never punched out fewer than 134 times in a full season and has more than 150 strikeouts every year since 2009—to unsustainable BABIPs, the player's average on balls put in play, in 2007 and 2008 (.393, .344). 

But some things run deeper than just saying a player struck out a lot or got lucky on balls in play. It is about making adjustments and changing as the league figures you out.

That is one area in which Upton didn't seem to excel, despite carving out a decent career, 2013 excluded. 

Evan Longoria had an interesting take on former teammates Upton and James Shields in an interview with the Tampa Tribune last February. 

They were really the only ones that were left in here that were here before the Rays were in 2008 when we started to be the team that we are now. I think some of those things kind of stuck around, and as much as you try to instill the new way, some of those things, it was tough to get some of those thoughts out of their head. And so, I think, obviously they were great players, but as far as an overarching belief in what we try to do here, I think with the new people that we have now, it’s a completely new belief in what we’re trying to do here.

That is an interesting angle to look at, because we look at the Rays today, marveling at how good they are, how well run they are, and think they can do no wrong. 

But there was a time, right around when Upton was drafted and for a few years after, when the Rays were the biggest joke in baseball. The ownership group before Stuart Sternberg bought the franchise in 2005 had no idea how to run a baseball team. 

At one point in 2001, there were doubts that the artist formerly known as the Devil Rays could make payroll because Vincent Naimoli was such a cancer to the franchise. 

Upton came in shortly after that, but the aftershock was still there. Who knows what the environment for the Rays affiliates was like in 2003 and 2004? Upton was brought up as the star for this team before the franchise had any kind of direction or guidance. 

Yes, Upton was performing well in the minors. But how much of that was the raw talent that led him to be the No. 2 pick and how much was he trying to make adjustments to maximize his potential?

Longoria and Upton had their differences, most notably during a game against Arizona in 2010 when Longoria questioned Upton's effort and the two got into a shoving match in the dugout. 

Via MLB Advanced Media

There's another item that needs to be discussed: attitude/character.

Upton did have moments with the Rays when he looked bored playing the field or at the plate. He would appear to jog casually after fly balls hit over his head or flail at a pitch way outside just to get back to the dugout, for example. 

No one has ever said Upton is a "bad guy." There hasn't been a media spectacle to bring him down the way there is with Yasiel Puig right now, but Upton did acknowledge prior to the 2010 season that it was time for him to bring a more positive approach to the clubhouse and on the field.

There's been kind of a cloud over my head, and I just kind of want to push those things behind me. From 19 to 25, just forget about it and move on from 25 on... Last season just humbled me, opened up my eyes to a lot of things. Made me go into the offseason and think about some things.

That kind of talk is great for the image, but you have to start showing results on the field in order for things to stick. 

Upton proceeded to hit .237/.322/.424 that season, which was an improvement over a disastrous 2009 campaign but hardly worth bragging about. 

What is B.J. Upton's future role in MLB?

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Diving into the stats, Upton has never been a player with a high line-drive rate. He posted a career-high rate of 19.6 percent in 2007, but it has hovered around the 16-18 percent range every season since and dipped as low as 15.4 percent in 2009. 

Meanwhile, Upton's strikeout rate has increased since the 2008 season, when he appeared to make some adjustments by cutting his swing down and working counts, which also led to an increased walk rate.

He's struck out more than 25 percent of the time every year since 2010 and has a career-worst 33.2 percent rate this season. 

In an excellent breakdown of Upton's issues making contact by David Golebiewski of Baseball Analytics, he put together two different heat maps showing how Upton's contact rate had dramatically decreased from his final peak season in 2008 compared to 2012. 

Golebiewski also hypothesized that a big part of Upton's issues last year were the result of deliberately trying to sell out for power because, as we all know, teams will pay more if you can hit the ball over the fence. 

 

Is There Still Time?

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The point of all this is that at some point you fall into a pattern that is hard to escape from. There comes a point where you go from potential and upside to facing reality.

Because Upton was so young when called up, he was going to be given the benefit of the doubt for a number of years. But by the time we got to 2010, he was 25 with three full seasons under his belt and 2,180 plate appearances.

It is so hard to write Upton off because he is just 29 years old, plays an up-the-middle position and is still a solid defensive player who is just one year removed from hitting 28 home runs and stealing 31 bases in 146 games. 

Some of Upton's issues this year could be attributed to bad luck, like a .260 BABIP that is 57 points below his career average. But he's also striking out at an insane 33.2 percent clip (126 times in 333 at-bats). 

Write this 2013 season off and look towards next season to see what Upton does. If it is another year like this one, then we know he's probably done. If he can at least get back to where he was in 2012 with the Rays, that player is a valuable commodity—though probably not worth $15 million per season. 

 

Note: All stats courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference unless otherwise noted. If you want to talk baseball, feel free to hit me up on Twitter with questions or comments. 

 

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