The Same Ol' Story for B.J. Upton

(Stands up, walks awkwardly to the front of the room)

Hello, my name is Steve Slowinski and I have a problem: I can't stop setting my expectations too high for B.J. Upton.

***

It's like clockwork: a new season begins, and I begin expectantly waiting and hoping for Upton to break out. He's worked hard over the off season, he's got new mechanics, he's fixed the hole in his swing - we hear the same stuff year after year, but apparently it never wear off on me. I should know by now that Upton merely is what he is - an excellent defensive outfielder that will hit for a low average and medium power - but I always trick myself into thinking this is the year.

Upton entered this season with a new stance - his legs are noticeably wider and there's slightly less movement in his swing - and the early results looked good. He hit .293/.339/.500 in spring training, cranking two homeruns and six doubles, and the fan in me couldn't help but begin hoping. Maybe these changes really did work. Maybe he'll be quicker with the bat and be able to make more contact this season. Maybe his batting average will bounce up to around .260 instead of .240. And through the first seven games of the season, Upton was the offensive star for the Rays: he had at least one hit in each game, and he hit two homeruns and two doubles. The analyst in me wanted to be skeptical, but the fan in me was jumping up and down and running circles around the room.

A few weeks later and that excitement has been quenched: Upton's current line is .216/.306/.338 (.295 wOBA). Digging into Upton's 2011 season, there are both reasons to be somewhat optimistic and reasons to be cautious, but there don't seem to be any signs of him taking a giant step forward.

Business As Usual

While it's early in the season and most statistics are still very unreliable, let's start with the few stats that are decently reliable this early in the year: plate discipline statistics.

O-Swing%

Z-Swing%

Swing%

2010

25.3%

68.2%

46.3%

2011

26.7%

70.5%

46.5%

Ho hum, nothing all that crazy here. Upton's swinging at a slightly higher amount of pitches overall, both inside and outside the zone. The differences are small enough to be relatively meaningless this early in the year, though.

O-Contact%

Z-Contact%

Contact%

SwStr%

55.2%

80.5%

73.5%

12.0%

58.3%

86.7%

77.8%

10.2%

This is slightly positive news, as Upton is making more contact than he did last season. While his outside the zone and overall contact numbers are similar how he produced in 2009, Upton is making more contact inside the zone than in any year since 2006. Then again, he's still swinging and missing on 10% of pitches and his contact numbers will likely go back down going forward. He's still striking out in 30% of his at bats, and I see no reason why that should change going forward. And if he keeps striking out at that rate, his batting average will never creep much higher than .240-.250.

Also, according to the pitch type linear weights, Upton is still having lots of trouble with fastballs and sliders, which have been his downfall for the past few seasons. Some things never change.

Somewhat Optimistic

While Upton's overall line looks disappointing, it's interesting which pitchers Upton has been the most successful against this season:

Split

AVG

OBP

SLG

wOBA

vs L

0.150

0.250

0.150

0.199

vs R

0.241

0.328

0.407

0.329

Last season, Upton had a .397 wOBA against lefties and a .294 wOBA against righties, so these early season results are obviously very wacky. It's almost certainly a product of small sample sizes, as Upton only has 20 plate appearances against lefties and 50 plate appearances against righties, but it still starts all these optimistic scenarios bouncing around my head again. What if Upton has improved against righties? What if he can be league-average against righties and much better than average against lefties? He does have a 19% line drive rate, which is higher than he's ever had since 2007.... Ugh, I need to stop.

When it comes to Upton, my mind will latch on to anything slightly optimistic and begin hoping all over again; in the end, though, Upton doesn't look like any different this season than he has in the past. He's swinging at roughly the same amount of pitches inside and outside the zone, and although his contact numbers are up slightly, he's still a very strikeout-prone batter. He is what he is - and he's still a very valuable center fielder with his current skill set - but I need to shake off these unrealistic preseason hopes and dreams. Maybe he'll improve slightly this season, but there haven't been any reasons so far to expect him to break out like never before.

Getting my mind to accept that is easier said than done, though.

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