B.J. Upton and the Whiff: A Look at the Rays' Centerfielder and his Aggressive Approach

New hitting coach Derek Shelton is getting a lot of attention for his "Get the man in" or "GTMI" strategy. Steve had a great post this weekend going a little more into the strategy/catch phrase. Outside of GTMI, we have heard Shelton's name mentioned a lot in regards to B.J. Upton, with published reports mentioning the two working together as far back as December 2009.

In his first two months as Shelton's pupil, Upton has flashed good power. His .165 ISO (isolated power) is the highest since 2007 when he posted a .206 ISO and 24 home runs. Whether the increased power is a result of Shelton or just being healthy, though, is a question that remains unanswered.

In terms of plate discipline, Upton has certainly been more aggressive. He is walking less, striking out more, and has become a free swinger. Upton has a career walk rate of 11.2% and so far this season, he is walking 9.7% of the time, a noticeable decrease. With his walk rate dropping by 1.5%, his strikeouts have increased from a career rate of 27.8% to 29.1% this year. Neither change is substantial; nonetheless, they are not favorable changes.

Although his walk and strikeout rates remain within career range, Upton has taking hacking to a new level.

This season, Upton is swinging at 28% of pitches out of the zone (O-swing%) and whiffing on 14.4% of all pitches thrown (SwStr%). These numbers are both significant changes from his career rates - 18.1% O-Swing% and 10% SwStr%. Overall, his percent of swings is up to 50.9 % (43% career), but his contact rate is down to 71.1% (76.3% career).

Upton has been much more aggressive especially on first pitches. Last season, Upton swung at 35% of first pitches, whiffing on 22% of those swings. This year he is swinging at the first pitch 41% of the time and missing on 28% of them. With that in mind, it's not surprising to see his first pitch strike percentage jump from 61% career to 68% in 2010.

Upton's biggest struggle has come on four-seam fastballs. He is missing the fastball 16.2% overall and 17.1% on the first pitch. Of the 32 swings he has taken on first-pitch four-seamers, he has missed 13 times (41%). Last season, Upton whiffed on just 8.9% of four-seam fastballs and he he missed just 6.8% of first-pitch four-seamers. And when he swung at first-pitch four-seamers, he missed 19% of them - a far cry from the 41% this season.

As if that wasn't enough, Upton is also struggling against sliders. He is waving at 19.1% this year, up from 13.8% last year. His pitch value thus far against sliders is a -3.4 wSL  (-3.9 for all of 2009). Guess what two pitches Upton has seen the most this season?

In addition to the hacking, Upton has been pretty unlucky on balls in play (see: BABIP). While his line drive, groundball, and flyball rates all remain within five percent of career norms, his BABIP of .271 is .55 points lower than his .336 career number. Going back to last season, his .310 BABIP from 2009 is still .30 above his current level. One would expect him to regress upwards toward the .300 level and potentially beyond, thus raising his batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging . Of course, to see BABIP regression, Upton has to start putting the ball in play.

Without access to Upton's mind, no one can definitely say if this more aggressive model of Upton is by design or not. Maybe he was told to be more aggressive early to avoid getting behind in the count, but if that was the intent, it's backfiring badly. Or maybe it's just a small sample size issues.

That said, I continue to have the utmost confidence in B.J. Upton's abilities and I'm sure Guru Shelton will fix whatever hole Upton may or may not have in his swing. As tough as it is sometimes, keep being patient with him; he may be in a slump, but he's not broken. And until he gets straightened out, expect the Trop to be 72 degrees with a slight breeze whenever Upton steps up to the plate.

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