Jul 31, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Braves center fielder B.J. Upton reacts to a called 3rd strike in the 6th inning against Los Angeles Dodgers. Upton leads MLB in strikeouts so why is he hitting leadoff? Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Should B.J. Upton Be the Leadoff Man

There are significant arguments amongst Braves’ fans about the wisdom of using B.J. Upton in the leadoff spot. Numbers folks and casual fans look at his strike outs and other stats I’ll get to in a bit and say he must go, B.J. however has a loyal group of fans who claim that he’s getting a bad wrap and he’s “been hot” since moving to the top of the order. I don’t know where I’d slot him in if I had to play him so instead of trying to  answer the question I’ll fact check what others are saying.

Just the numbers

‘Cause it’s a numbers game they told me
And I ain’t ashamed to say I’m playin’ to win
(Numbers Game by Shawn Cromwell)

Monday afternoon over at MLB.com Mark Bowman gave his “Five keys for Braves to return to the postseason.” In that piece his second key referenced the leadoff situation

A decision about who truly should hit leadoff: When manager Fredi Gonzalez placed B.J. Upton in the leadoff spot on June 24, there was reason to believe he was joking or at least toying with an experiment . . . Six weeks later, Upton remains at the top of the lineup. He has batted .227 with a .292 on-base percentage and 3.31 plate appearance/strikeout rate. . . . an improvement compared with the (the) rate he had compiled in the previous 197 games . . .(but)  still aren’t fit for this role. . . .Emilio Bonifacio stands as a candidate to be occasionally used as a leadoff hitter and center fielder. ..(Heyward) could serve as the leadoff hitter in games started by righties and Bonifacio, who has hit .403 against lefties, could fill that role in the other games.

Like most writers Bowman keeps the numbers simple for fans not into the deep stats arena. I’m no sabernatrician but I will provide some added context. These are just BJ’s numbers, make of them what you choose. All numbers are as of 9:00PM Monday night. I’ll also address some common statements I hear repeated when he’s being discussed.

Ranking his statistics

According to the Baseball-Reference web site BJ’s:year to date line is .211/.279/.324/.604 making his:

  • Batting average 153rd out of 154 qualifying batters
  • OBP 149th out of 154 qualifying batters
  • Slugging, OPS and OPS+ 150th out of 154 qualifying batters

His 39 RC (runs created) ranks 153 among all major league players and his 3.1 RC/G ranks 390th. His offensive winning percentage (the percentage of games a team with nine similar players would win) is .354 making him147th of 154 qualified batters.

His rWAR of –1.2 is 1070th of 1079 rated players, his dWAR of –1.1 is 1053rd and his oWAR 0.2 is 342nd.  He leads MLB in strikeouts with 139, six more than his closest rival but in five fewer games.

He’s been better in the leadoff spot

A tiny bit yes. On June 24th Upton the elder moved into the leadoff spot. Since them he’s played in all 34 games and put up a line of .227/.292/.319/.611 In that time his WPA (win probability added) is (-0.463) and his RE24 (base-outs runs added) is (–3.29.)

He’s struck out 47 times in 156PA (30%), walked 12 times (7.6%) hit one home run, six doubles and a triple giving him as ISO of .106. His slash line numbers are up except for slugging which is down with a net change in OPS of .007.

In his career he’s hit better batting leadoff

No not really. In his career B.J.’s numbers have been almost the same in every batting order spot except fifth or sixth.

I Split G PA AB HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
Batting 1st 220 1004 888 24 79 103 258 .240 .319 .391 .710
Batting 2nd 258 1142 1005 34 115 114 291 .253 .330 .428 .758
Batting 3rd 145 636 538 13 65 87 161 .258 .356 .383 .739
Batting 4th 85 361 310 14 58 46 89 .268 .361 .439 .800
Batting 5th 75 293 266 9 30 22 94 .199 .266 .350 .616
Batting 6th 152 609 539 18 64 62 162 .219 .303 .388 .690
Batting 7th 114 429 381 8 41 37 119 .257 .322 .383 .706
Batting 8th 83 295 266 10 25 26 83 .241 .311 .410 .720
Batting 9th 65 198 179 4 23 16 53 .263 .327 .430 .757
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 8/4/2014.

MLB Network’s Harold Reynolds and others have said that BJ hit leadoff a lot in his career before coming to Atlanta. As a major league player that is simply inaccurate. His longest stint as leadoff man prior to this year was 98 games in 2009 (.241/.318/.372/.688.) He also hit leadoff in 37 games scattered through the 2010 season but never consistently in other years.

He’s having a hot start to the second half

No. Since the All Star break he’s slashing .188/.288/.234/.522.

He has the worst contact ratio in baseball

No though it is pretty bad. According to Fangraphs his 68.3% contact rate is 150th of 153 qualified players ahead of Ryan Howard, Chris Davis and Chris Carter. His in zone contact rate of 73.6% is dead last however.

He swings at 68.5% of in zone pitches so in round numbers he swings at 69 of every 100 in zone offerings and makes contact with 51. His out of zone swing rate of 28.2% is however 63rd of that same 153 man group.

Statistically then considering his lack of power he’s one of the three worst hitters in the MLB at this time.

Defensively I’ve already said that BBR gives him a –1.2 rWAR. Fangraphs uses a different system that gives his fielding including positional adjustment a grade of –3.0. His defensive runs saved number –11, his UZR –4.6 and his UZR/150 is –7.2. Of 42 players with at least 250 AB in center field those numbers give him a rank of 39th, 33rd and 30th respectively.  I’m not much of a UZR fan but all defensive metrics say he’s below average.

So why is he there?

I posted what I see as the reasons in response to a comment on yesterday’s post about the Braves recent slide. That comment in fact caused me to put this post together.

There are essentially two reasons BJ is still playing center field and leading off; money and politics. General Manager Frank Wren is certainly on the hot seat and needs his $15M man to play in the hope that he’ll succeed. That’s the obvious one, the other has been completely unnoticed or at least not written about; the effect BJ playing well has had on Justin Upton.

Since BJ began leading off and presumably feeling better/happier, Justin is hitting .307/.371/.507/.878. In the 34 games prior to that he hit .244/.313/.407/.720.  From the beginning of the season until the change he hit .272/.344/.496/.840. The  numbers appear – and I stress appear- to show that Justin was  sliding in to a mid season slump as he did about this time last year. Then BJ was inserted into the leadoff spot Justin became the stud we know he can be.

This is as I said conjecture and could be a coincidence. However it stands to reason that brothers as close as they are to each other would be affected in some way by each others ups and downs. It’s really impossible to know for certain. Obviously Justin would never consciously allow this to be a factor but he is human and he loves his brother.

The way numbers are crunched these days someone has almost certainly noted this and let Fredi Gonzalez know about it. Gonzalez is supposed to be knowledgeable in the use of statistics though we’ve all seen him do things that don’t fall in line with that. In the heat of a game managers often go with their gut and that may well be what Fredi has done when he disregarded the statistics. Nevertheless, being presented with such numbers would certainly influence his decision making.

That’s A Wrap

I’ve watched the Braves closely for a long time and since Wren took over he’s been consistent in his dealing with struggling players. He leaves them in to try and succeed longer based on how much they are being paid. In a business sense he’s trying to extract value from his dollar. In baseball language he’s being loyal to his guy. Neither is wrong as long as it doesn’t cause an adverse reaction on the field.

Last year when post season rolled around Wren was in the office with Gonzalez when he told Dan Uggla he wouldn’t be on the post season roster and Uggla implied the GM was the man who actually gave him the news. It’s reasonable to assume with everything swirling around the team right now that the GM is once more in hands on assistance mode. Any GM worth his salt would and should be. There’s no question in my mind he’s a factor in the order of the current lineup.  Gonzalez isn’t the world’s best manager but he is a solid baseball man and might do things differently on his own. Justin’s upswing muddies the waters a bit.

Coincidental or not Gonzalez and his staff know these numbers and it would be very old fashioned gut management not to change a thing while Justin is hotter than that dancing bobcat we’ve all heard about. Whatever the reason, barring injury or a complete collapse I expect B.J. to continue to lead off for a while.  Of course as soon as I post this Fredi will give him a day or two off but it won’t be, can’t be permanent.

Tags: Atlanta Braves B.J. Upton

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