Many of us have expressed our thoughts on B.J. Upton's strikeouts from time to time throughout his career with the Rays.
- "It’s always been that crappy tinted thing, but whatever it is with him, it is frustrating to see. He does appear to be fooled by strikes more than other guys. I don’t care if he swings and misses because it isn’t like he’s up there taking huge hacks."
- "With his ridiculously long swing,he NEVER will consistently hit for a high average.Sure, he may have the bat speed, but his swing leaves far too much margin for error.The vast majority of successful hitters swings are short and quick to the ball."
- "...he is a guess hitter, plain and simple. There is little attempt to recognize pitches and even less to understand how the pitcher is trying to work his at bat. The watching of so many hittable pitches that he takes, especially down the middle, and the missing of just as many sliders away and out of the strike zone, to me means he is looking for a certain pitch and his mind is usually made up that he will either swing or not swing."
Whelk and the artist formerly known as Sandy Kazmir both did excellent articles last year examining Upton's struggles on called third strikes as well as his struggles to predict pitch movement. But has anyone stopped to consider what a season might look like if Upton were to cut down on his strikeout rate and how much of a gain could be made this year if that was his primary goal?
Luckily, we do not even have to look back very far in Upton's own history as he made significant progress in his second full season in the league. His 2007 season was fun to watch as he posted a .387 wOBA in 129 games but also struck out in 28 percent of his plate appearances while walking in 12 percent of them. The 2008 season was one Rays fans will never forget, but one Upton might want to forget as his season was marred by a shoulder injury that eventually led to off-season surgery. He injured the shoulder on May 1st that season. In his own words, he could not swing with power after that, so the side effect of that was making more contact.
"If I could swing the way I wanted to, there would be less doubles and more homers," Upton said. "A lot of my doubles have been off the wall or they one-hop the wall. If I could have really put a full swing into it, I think the story would be a little different."
Since recovering from that surgery, his strikeout rate has climbed back up to the mid-20 percent range but never as high as it was in that 2007 season while his wOBA over the past two seasons is 50 points lower than it was in 2007.
Anyone who has watched or listened to a Rays game has heard a local or national announcer point to Upton's high-maintenance swing, its length, or a combination of both. We have also seen Upton tinker with his own swing within a season, most recently around this past Labor Day when he made this subtle change:
Upton's K% in September was 24 percent, but that was also where he was at in June and July last season so the change in swing may have helped him make better contact as he OPS'd nearly 1000 during the final weeks but not necessarily helped him make more contact.
In trying to visualize what a single season improvement could look like, I had the guys at Baseball Prospectus pull a pool of 500 players over the past five seasons (minimum 400 PA) that showed single season changes in strikeout rates. The largest improvement by any hitter came from arguably the largest hitter in the sample pool: David Ortiz.
In 2010, Ortiz struck out 145 times in 606 plate appearances - a rate of 24 percent. In 2011, Ortiz struck out just 83 times in 605 plate appearances which dropped his rate to 14 percent (a 43 percent improvement). From 2004 to 2008, Ortiz's strikeout rate improved each season from 20 percent down to 15 percent. In 2009 and 2010, that rate spiked back up over 20 percent to the career worst 24 percent last season. In one season, Ortiz turned around a career-worst strikeout rate into a career best strikeout rate while raising a strong .380 wOBA to a hearty .405 wOBA last season.
The next best improvement is from our old friend Delmon Young. Young struck out in 22 percent of his plate appearances in 2009 as he struck out 92 times in just 416 plate appearances. In 2010, Young reduced his strikeout rate 40 percent by striking out just 81 times in 613 plate appearances and had the best season of his young career.
Overall, only seven percent of the player pool showed at least a 25 percent improvement in their strikeout percentage from one season to the next. Those players were Ortiz, Young, David Eckstein, Aramis Ramirez, Bengie Molina, Miguel Tejada, Martin Prado, Jose Reyes, Dioner Navarro, Vladimir Guerrero, Pedro Feliz, Corey Patterson, Marlon Byrd, Carl Crawford, Mark Teixeira, Troy Tulowitzki, Jose Bautista, Justin Upton, Jacque Jones, Michael Young, David Murphy, Vernon Wells, Brian Giles, Kevin Youkilis, Joe Mauer, Troy Glaus, Mike Napoli, Austin Kearns, Ryan Theriot, Jamey Carroll, Hanley Ramirez, Jim Edmonds, Jeff Kent, B.J. Upton, and Billy Butler. A cornucopia of young, old, sluggers, and slap hitters if you will. The one common bond with most of them is that they had a reputation as high contact hitters at one stage or another in their career and many of them were/are free-swingers with little plate discipline.
74 percent of the player pool showed a positive improvement from one season to the next with the average improvement of the group being 13 percent. Even if you wanted to have faith that Upton could make significant improvements in making contact with his swings, simply improving at that 13 percent rate would still leave him with a 22 percent strikeout rate.
Upton may never be a guy that strikes out less than 20 percent of the time in his career, but this also may be the last season Rays fans get to scrutinize his at bats with him just one year away from free agency. ZiPS has Upton hitting .240/.329/.411 with 19 home runs and 42 stolen bases while striking out a team-leading 169 times.PECOTA is more pessimistic showing a .237/.326/.391 line with 16 home runs and 36 stolen bases while the fan projections at Fangraphs say he will hit .253/.335/.446 with 23 home runs and 42 steals. If we look at Upton's final four months of 2011, we see a player whose wOBA improved each month from .285 to .294, to .305 to .449 to close out the season, all while essentially maintaining the same strikeout rate.
If you are a believer in contract years (you shouldn't be) then you should be happy in 2012. If you think that theory is poppycock, then try to appreciate what is to come rather than what may not.