I’ve been as critical as anyone of BJ Upton, and critical of the Braves organization for going after him at such a high price tag, when his career numbers don’t suggest to me that he was worth what he’s being paid. We all know the downside, and the negatives. BJ has a career BA of just .251, and the last time that he hit for that average was 2008 when he hit for a .273 average. BJ Upton has never been a player that has hit for high average, and his numbers in almost every respect are, to be frank, terrible. Those numbers are worse now in his first year as an Atlanta Brave than they’ve ever been, but I don’t wish to dwell on his numbers just now. Rather, I have been wondering lately whether or not BJ can turn things around, and what he might be able to do to help the Atlanta Braves in the 2013 season. I’m a stat geek myself, so I know the sabermetric guys, the statisticians, and the nut-cases who just love to rag on any player not producing for the Braves, will rip me a new one for saying this, but I’m going to suggest to you that as bad as things are right now for BJ Upton, there is still hope that he can be productive and help the Atlanta Braves.
First of all, join with me in at least attempting to set aside all the current bad numbers. As hard as that is, it is a prerequisite for being able to see how BJ might still be able to help the Braves. You’ve heard the old adage about how some people cannot “see the forest for all of the trees”, and I would suggest to you that in order to try and look at how BJ can help the Braves, you have to set aside his current numbers for a moment, and look at who BJ Upton is as a player, an athlete, and a person. Don’t misunderstand me now. We’ll look at some numbers, because some of the numbers give us hope, and those are the figures I’m going to concentrate on, even though they will have a negative flavor as well.
Let’s look for a moment at BJ’s infield fly percentage (IF/FB) in 2013. It is currently somewhere around 24%, and has been as high as 29%! That number is terrible to be sure, and if you look at BJ’s career, you will notice that that number has steadily increased over time. From 2004 to 2008, his IF/FB was just an average of 6%, but beginning in 2009, we saw his IF/FB increase to 15%, where it hovered around that average up until 2012. If you’ve been reading carefully, you will already be aware that his IF/FB has dramatically increased this year with the Braves. Now, all that sounds quite negative, and the numbers really don’t seem to be able to suggest anything else. I would submit to you though, that a hitter’s tendency to popup to infield fly-balls is often a bad habit of some sort that CAN be corrected! I’m not going to talk about whether it will be, but hold out hope that it can be. I know that the Brave’s hitting coach, Greg Walker, is working with BJ on that and many other things. If anyone can help turn that dismal stat around, I have confidence in Greg.
Some of the problems, in my opinion, with BJ Upton’s swing is that he is having trouble hitting anything effectively that is not smack-dab right in the middle of his wheelhouse. He has trouble with the slider, and hasn’t hit better than .191 on sliders since 2009. He has trouble with pitches away, and hasn’t hit better than .190 with those. Pitches up in the zone? Sadly, BJ hasn’t hit better than .187 when pitchers go high on him. I am going to argue that all of those things are completely correctable. No, I am not suggesting that his swing problems can be corrected, necessarily, to the extent that suddenly BJ becomes one of the most prolific hitters in the NL East. I am simply suggesting that the we could see him hitting again for the standard .251 career average that he’s been successful at in previous years. One other thing to note is that generally speaking, when a hitter has such a high IF/FB rate, it can often be attributed to an injury, current or former, that is still plaguing a hitter. Recently, BJ was hit by fastball delivered by Wade Miley during the sixth inning of Monday night’s 10-1 win over the Diamondbacks. This was the same shoulder where Upton’s partially torn labrum was surgically repaired following the 2008 season. The good news is that although sore, the Braves don’t believe there was any further damage. The question I have though, is whether that shoulder might still be at issue with his current swing, and whether there needs to be some major adjustments rather than minor ones? I don’t know, but if the shoulder is not the issue, then I still maintain that BJ’s swing problems can be fixed.
BJ Upton is just 28 years of age, and is still a talented, highly athletic baseball player with a great set of skills in the outfield. The value he adds to the Atlanta Braves defensively is no small potatoes, and if he can just correct some issues with his swing, I still believe the young center fielder can turn things around and get back on track to contribute. Only time will tell, but I’m going to hold out hope. As I said at the start of this article, no one has been any more critical of BJ than I have been, but we can all decide to support him the way that Fredi Gonzalez does. He may never hit at the level of his brother Justin Upton, but they feed off each other. I think that BJ’s struggles have motivated Justin to play that much harder, and I think Justin’s continued success will continue to motivate BJ to get back on track. I know he has the support of his fellow Braves, and support from the fan base goes a long way as well.