What’s Up With B. J. Upton


BJ-Upton-and-Dan-Uggla

After a disastrous 2103, the two biggest question marks for the Braves in 2014 are the bats of Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton. Please credit Photo by Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

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.

in theory, leaves him vulnerable to pitches away. Hopefully the new hitting coach can help Upton adjust next year and in the process make all this worrying go away.

A new hitting coach to fix the swing? That sounds familiar.

Repeating History

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.

bj ba-babip 07-13

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.

Player G PA AB BA OBP SLG OPS R 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB CS
Sam Fuld 119 200 176 .199 .270 .267 .537 25 0 3 2 17 17 28 8 2
Brendan Ryan 104 349 319 .197 .255 .273 .528 30 12 0 4 22 23 73 4 2
Mark Kotsay 104 171 155 .194 .253 .226 .479 8 2 0 1 12 13 25 0 2
B.J. Upton 126 446 391 .184 .268 .289 .557 30 14 0 9 26 44 151 12 5
Roger Bernadina 112 250 227 .181 .250 .295 .545 26 10 2 4 11 16 65 4 0

Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 1/17/2014.

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.

BJ stance compariosn

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.

Here’s what Brooks Baseball says about BJ’s 2013

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.

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  • http://www.tomahawktake.com/ Chris Headrick

    Great piece Fred, and I want to say that up-front before anyone comes here and tries to find holes in your analysis ;-) I sound like a broken record, but I will always maintain it’s purely a mental thing with BJ. He has the talent, but he somehow gets caught up each season in some kind of whirlwind of negative thinking or something. Swings in baseball are “somewhat” similar to golf, in that you MUST build muscle memory. Find what works, and in short, DO THAT. I’m not saying hitters don’t make minor adjustments as they age or whatever, but BJ cannot apply that excuse to why, for mental reason I contend, he keeps making un-needed adjustments to his swing. I’m not a hitting coach either, but it seems that those coaching BJ need to ready your article!

    • fireboss

      He looks like a classic prospect who peaked his first year and has been trying to live up to it since, but has been declining instead. The reason has to be mental, even when he gets it right he can’t stay and his streaks are getting farther apart and less productive.

      • Sealift67

        Thanks for a solid analysis that is backed by visuals. I hope BJ
        has a look this. Changes can start subtly and lead to a caricature
        of our past. Behind those contortions lies a decent athlete.

        • fireboss

          Glad you enjoyed the read. Just trying to add perspective

  • cothjrr24

    Really solid work, Fred.

    I think the peak we can look for in BJ will be a mid-.700′s OPS, 20-25 HRs with slightly above-average defense. If he can do that and steal 30-40 bases a year at a high-success, the Braves will get their 3-4 WAR player. Unfortunately, I don’t think that will be the ballplayer we see the next 4 years. I’d consider it a win if he puts up a 2 WAR year.

    • fireboss

      Thanks. A 2 WAR year would be a 2012 level performance and he’s certainly capable of doing that if he stays focused though a .298 OBP might lead to more bench time from Fredi; lots of variables there. All we can do is hope for the best and that he listens to Walker and doesn’t let his ego get in the way or a slump get into his head

  • Joseph Fain

    All the analysis I read on BJ continues to reinforce my reaction to his contract when he signed it – why in the hell did Wren give that contract to a guy with his numbers? Made no sense even before his disaster of a season in 2013.

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