Is B.J. Upton Back to Being Powerful?

By R.J. Anderson //

Formerly a top draft pick and uberprospect, B.J. Upton broke out in 2007 with 24 home runs and 22 stolen bases. Those stats were accumulated despite Upton missing roughly 30 games with a strained quadriceps muscle and changing positions for the third time. Since then, Upton has played most of the previous two seasons and in every game this year, yet he’s racked up a total of 24 homers.To say Upton’s 2007 looks like a tease is being kind. With four home runs in the first 19 games, is it time to start wondering whether Upton’s power is back?

Early in the 2008 season, Upton suffered a torn labrum while attempting to rob a home run. He fought off surgery until after the season, which helps to explain his zapped homer production as well as his increased number of groundballs hit. The reality is the more groundballs Upton hits, the fewer extra-base hits he’ll rack up. Even with elite speed, Upton’s not turning grounders through infield holes into doubles. In 2009, Upton hit fewer grounders but showed signs of rust and did not hit the ball well when he connected.

Over the winter, Upton spent ludicrous amounts of time with the Tampa Bay Rays’ new hitting coach Derek Shelton. So far, that work is paying off. Upton’s .239 ISO (a metric which is derived from subtracting batting average from slugging percentage so as to not count singles twice) would mark a career high by a good margin. He’s hitting a career-low number of groundballs, with a career-high flyball rate. His homers per fly ball ratio is around the mark he set in 2007.

bj1.pngOnly 28.8% of Upton’s batted balls are turning into hits, a stark contrast from a career 33.8% rate driven partly by his excellent speed. If his BABIP rises toward career norms, that would also boost his batting average. Meanwhile, Upton’s 13.4% walk rate is extremely attractive in leagues that count on-base percentage, especially if his BABIP rebounds.

The open question remains what will happen to Upton’s power, underscored by his current lofty .507 slugging percentage. The common perception is that Upton has began going the opposite way more and dumping balls into right field that he would’ve fouled off or whiffed at in the past. That perception is simply untrue. Using data provided by FanGraphs, we can chart how many balls Upton puts into play, and how many of those are hit to right field (since Upton is a right-handed batter). Here are those numbers:

Year BIP Oppo%

2007 325 28

2008 407 31.2

2009 414 24.4

2010 56 23.2

Upton is actually hitting fewer balls the other way than ever before. Still, Upton’s batting average while going the other way is well over .400, which suggests he’s hitting the ball decently when he does go the other way. That’s an important part of the equation.  

Who knows whether this will continue. Upton certainly has the upside and potential to be a 30/30 threat, but if you value risk minimization over reward maximization, then you should consider selling high on Upton. Remember that you already spent a high draft pick to get him, though. If you can’t find a trade partner who values Upton like the super prospect with 30/30 potential, you can sit tight rather than sell for 80 cents on the dollar.

For more about B.J. Upton and other power/speed threats, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Fantasy Tools.  

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