Jul 29, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Atlanta Braves center fielder B.J. Upton (2) is greeted by Atlanta Braves catcher Evan Gattis (24) after he scored a run in the first inning of the game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

What is Different About BJ Upton in 2014?

In perusing the stat lines today, I noticed that B.J. Upton has already passed up the number of plate appearances he had for all of the 2013 season: 458 vs. 446 last year. That gives an opportunity to make a quick apple-for-apples comparison between his performance in 2013 vs. his numbers this year.

Mind you, we’re all well aware that the numbers are poor – bad, even. But the question for today is whether there’s any actual glimmer of hope – any sign of improvement.

Let’s take a look:

 

The Stats

To further ‘even things up’, all 2013 stats have been scaled up for the extra 12 plate appearances B.J. has in 2014. Here goes…
  • HITS: 13 more (87 vs. 74) in 2014
  • SINGLES: 9 more (59 to 50) in 2014
  • DOUBLES: 2 more (16 to 14)
  • TRIPLES: 5 more (5 to zero)
  • HOMERS: 2 fewer (7 vs. 9)
  • BATT AVG. 27 higher (.211 vs. .184)
  • OPS 47 higher (.604 vs. .557)
  • RUNS: 31 to 30 (push)
  • RBI: 27 to 26 (push)
  • SAC FLYS: 4 fewer (2 vs. 6 in 2013)
  • STEALS: 6 more (18 vs. 12).
  • CAUGHT STEALING: 2 more (7 vs 5)*
  • GIDP: 2 fewer (5 vs. 7)

* – in all honesty, you have to blame instant replay for a couple of those caught stealing instances; that wasn’t available in 2013.

  • GROUNDERS: 116 vs. 113 (more)
  • FLY BALLS: 106 vs. 90 (more)
  • LINE DRIVES: 50 vs. 47 (more)
  • INFIELD POPS: 13 vs. 17 (fewer)
  • INFIELD HITS: 12 vs. 11 (push)
  • BUNTS: 7 vs. 3, but only 1 hit in 2014 vs. 2 in 2013.
  • WALKS: 6 fewer (39 vs. 45)
  • STRIKEOUTS: 16 fewer (139 vs. 155)

CONTACT INFO:

  • SWING% – out of strike zone: 28.2% (worse/higher by 2.9%)
  • SWING% – inside strike zone: 68.5% (better/higher by 0.7%)
  • CONTACT% – out of strike zone: 55.2% (better/higher by 2.4%)
  • CONTACT% – inside strike zone: 73.5% (better/higher by 1.3%)

 

Evaluation

Does any of that surprise you? There are a couple of things that did surprise me:

  • For all the strikeouts and complaints about strikeouts (many of them called third strikes), B.J. still has notably fewer K’s than in 2013. Mind you, he’s still the 4th worst in K% in baseball, but 16 fewer represents an improvement of better than 10%.
  • He’s running more this year. That could be partly due to the leadoff slot, but it is good and appropriate (in my view) to have an effective running game. B.J. is close to the preferred 75% success rate.
  • Fewer Infield Fly balls. This was a big problem last year.
  • Batting Average Improvement: again, .211 isn’t good. But it’s significantly (15%) better.

But that’s not enough – let’s dig deeper.

 

Lingering Concerns

The contact rate. That’s probably 90% of his trouble. Check these numbers:

Season Team O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact%
2007 Devil Rays 49.40% 73.50% 67.20%
2008 Rays 67.80% 83.90% 80.50%
2009 Rays 59.50% 83.50% 77.60%
2010 Rays 52.00% 81.30% 73.70%
2011 Rays 58.00% 83.30% 76.20%
2012 Rays 50.70% 79.00% 70.60%
2013 Braves 52.80% 72.20% 66.90%
2014 Braves 55.20% 73.50% 68.30%

 

2013 showed a dramatic drop in Upton’s contact rates (O-Contact: outside strike zone; Z-Contact: inside). The “Z-Contact” number is most troubling, for these are the balls he has to hit to be successful.  Data via fangraphs.com.

Let’s compare Upton’s 2013-2014 years to those in which he was most successful: 2008-2011.

First: Batting Averages (click to enlarge)

BJHotChart1a

Second: Swing Rates (click to enlarge) - this one is key.

BJHotChart4a

The difference, as I see it, is that B.J. has moved his entire “hot zone” down by several inches. He isn’t swinging at the higher strikes as much – and isn’t hitting them when he does) and he is going after more balls lower in the hitting zone… by considerable margins.  (Data via BrooksBaseball.net)

Think about where “pitcher’s pitches” are thrown: right – low and on the corners. Those are the pitches he’s going after. His entire swing pattern has moved down and gotten wider. He must move that back up about 6-8 inches by recognizing and spitting on the low balls that are killing him.

Chipper Jones had suggested a change to help BJ get his hands through the zone quicker.  That’s good, and may be helping, but I suspect that’s only part of the problem.  If he doesn’t trust himself enough (yet) to go after those higher pitches, then that eliminates a bunch of hittable balls that he should be driving.  Right now, if I’m pitching to BJ, I throw him fastballs high in the strike zone and don’t even bother with anything else.

 

_______________________

So the question really is not whether whether he is better in 2014 – the question is how he can get back to the 2008-2011 version of B.J. Upton.

There are some improvements for 2014, but frankly I would guess this to be akin to getting used to his new swing zone.  Overall, that is still a bad thing since he’s swinging at the pitches that pitchers want him to go after. Until he changes that, I cannot see a dramatic upswing in performance from Melvin Upton, Jr.

 

 

 

 

 

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