B.J. Upton’s bat caused concern in 2013 and not for the first time. His seven full seasons in the majors are marked by expectations unfulfilled. His first full season (2007) is his best to date. He slashed .300/.386/.508/.894, hit two dozen home runs, drove in 82 and generated a 4.4 rWAR largely due to a .393 BAbip hiding a 154 strikeout campaign . That year generated fan expectations that he’d continue in that vein. Baseball Prospectus thought differently;
If he went 30/30 this year we wouldn’t be surprised in the least, but if he hit .300 again, we would be. You just can’t hit for a consistent average when you strike out nearly once every three at-bats.
They were right but 2008 was still a pretty good year. The BAbip dropped (you’ll see that again) to a still above average .343 and he was heading towards a .280/.395/.405 kind of year when he injured his shoulder. He struggled in July but had hot August and a hotter September to lead the Rays to the post season where he limited his strikeouts to about one a game .288/333/.652/.985 with seven homers,a double, a triple and 16 RBI. His 2009 saw a drop off of 34 points in BAbip resulting in a 32 point drop in average and a 70 point drop in OBP. His slugging suffered as well slugging dropping 28 points. He hit his usual 30+ doubles but his home run output slipped to 11. It was pretty obvious that Upton tinkered with his swing. A post in Drays Bay on Oct 18 2009 pointed out that he was hitting off a stiffer front leg and that his shoulder is flying open.
A new hitting coach to fix the swing? That sounds familiar.
The 2010 season saw BJ’s BAbip drop again though only slightly but enough to take all the other numbers with it. Although his K/BB rate dropped a tiny bit the his strikeout total rose again but some of his power returned as he posted a .237/.331/.429/.745 line with 18 homers and 38 doubles. The following season saw his numbers remain about the same.and . . . his BAbip dropped again. He did managed to increase his home run output to his 2007 level but his doubles total slipped below 30 for the first time since that year.
In a post at Rotowire Jason Collette took a look at BJ’s New Swing
Late in 2011,. . .he changed was his where he put his hands in his swing. In July, he held his hand up at his eye level at the start of the swing with the bat more vertical but lowered his hands a bit in September.. . .The other change. . . was to change his lower half movement. . .(he had always). kept that front foot on the ground and done a funky ankle twist with that front foot . . . but late last season, he incorporated more of a pronounced front leg left and less of the ankle twist
Collete found more differences in BJ’s swing in 2012 noting that Upton had gone to a more open stance at the plate and it paid dividends.
Since September 1st, Upton is now hitting .316/.397/.541 which includes nine home runs, 19 stolen bases, 35 runs scored, and 36 runs driven in. .(the,only thing he) . was doing differently at the plate and found that Upton is being more aggressive at the plate while not compromising any contact.
During the time the post covered (Sept 2011-May 2012) BJ was flashing a .396 BAbip. Unfortunately that didn’t last.
In spite of his hot start to 2012 (he hit .303/.356/.471/.826 with a .356 BAbip through May 26th) it wasn’t to be a repeat of 2007. From May 27- through August 1 he slashed .211/.274/.316/.590 because his BAbip dropped to .281. His slugging numbers were saved only because of a a surge of seven homer in August and 12 in September. He hit seven homers in August of 2007 but had never before hit double digit home runs in any month. In spite of that power surge his slash wasn’t good – .252/.292/.584/.876 and BAbip continued to drop finishing at .270 during that stretch. He ended the year .246/.298/.454/.752. It was the first time his OBP slipped below .300 for a season..
We all know what happened in 2013; the bottom fell out. His BAbip dropped again this time by 30 points and he ended the year as a $15M fourth outfielder. Here are BJ’s peers at the plate in 2013.
The Only Thing Constant is Change
BJ Has always tinkered with his swing and as he slipped from can’t miss prospect to okay center fielder and the pressure grew on him to be the guy he was projected to be he tinkered more often.
The result of those changes has been a steady decline in BAbip, average and OBP. The challenge for the Braves is to retrain BJ’s swing without the benefit of live pitching and get it back to where it was in 2007.
That’s a Wrap
This off season the Braves have sung the only song they can. They tell us that BJ was changing leagues. That’s true and the National League is a breaking ball league where the sliders BJ has never hit well are seen in abundance. However, it isn’t just sliders.
Against All Fastballs (1,131 seen), he had an exceptionally good eye and a steady approach at the plate with a disastrously high likelihood to swing and miss (29% whiff/swing).
Against Breaking Pitches (393 seen), he had a league average eye and a steady approach at the plate with an exceptionally high likelihood to swing and miss (48% whiff/swing).
Against Off speed Pitches (157 seen), he had a league average eye and a steady approach at the plate with an above average likelihood to swing and miss (41% whiff/swing
The data also shows the number and type of pitches seen is not significantly different that in any year since he reached the majors,
The Braves expect the hitting coach will fix whatever ails BJ.- where have I heard that before? They have said Greg Walker is going to work diligently with BJ and Dan Uggla and they expect a rebound year from both. Walker said he looks at it as a challenge and that there isn’t much to be done; nothing else he could say in public is there?
I’m not a hitting coach and don’t claim any insight into the mechanics of his stance – or any stance for that matter. I’m not sure the problem is even stance related. We’ve all seen a lot of talented players come and go. Those that are willing and able to adapt stay longer and have more success. Those that aren’t – no matter their raw talent – generally vanish relatively quickly from every day lineups (see also Jeff Francoeur et al ). If off season trips to a sports psychologist weren’t included in his training regimen I’m not convinced BJ can permanently be “fixed” in any way. If he comes back next year to a .240/.305/.400 ballplayer it will be a success. I’m just not sure he can.