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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Better Upton

Maybe you've heard of this man. Say what you want about the most talented players in MLB: Albert Pujols, Hanley Ramirez, or Evan Longoria, exciting young stars like Jason Heyward and Buster Posey, or teenage Hall-of-Famers, like Mike Trout and Bryce Harper -- Justin Upton is a monster of a young player. With talent oozing from his pores, and three MLB seasons under his belt, the baseball world has been waiting patiently for Justin Upton to take his place as one of the best players in baseball, and ten games into 2011, indications are that that time could well be now.

Heading into Wednesday night's game, Upton is raking. He's hitting .300/.391/.575 (AVG/OBP/SLG). Granted, these aren't the best numbers in baseball -- God know, ten games in, a .966 OPS isn't going to lead the league. The difference, however, between Upton's surge and the standard early-season hot streak, is that Upton's isn't based on luck. In the above link, an ESPN sortables ranking, I showed the league leaders in OPS. Leading that list is Miguel Montero, who has a .520 batting average on balls in play (babip), an insane rate. Second on the list is Matt Kemp, of a .516 babip, then Miguel Cabrera, who, while certainly talented, can attribute part of his AL-best 1.248 OPS to a .355 babip. Ryan Braun and Nick Hundley weigh in with babip's of .364 and .500, 30 and 200 points above their respective career rates. These men (with the relative exception of Cabrera, who is a force of nature at the plate), have luck, above all else, to thank for their position on this list. Upton has received no help from lady luck, as his .290 (ten points below career average) babip will attest.

Upton is not new to this game. He was 19 when he made his major league debut in 2007, and, while he struggled with injuries each of the ensuing three seasons, has already cemented himself as a star. Though he struggled in both '08 and '10 (to the tune of an only-slightly-above-league-average .816 and .799 OPS, respectively), he had an impressive 2009 season, posting a .300/.366/.532 batting line while stealing 20 bases in 25 attempts.

Why should we believe Upton is about to step into a role as an elite player? First, the man is one of the best baseball talents on the face of the planet. He was taken with the first overall pick of the 2005 June Draft, one of just six high school-age players taken with the #1 pick in the last quarter century. You may have heard of the previous four: Ken Griffey, Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Chipper Jones, Josh Hamilton. The man of that age picked first since is Bryce Harper, billed as baseball's LeBron James. Upton was billed as a top-ten prospect twice, once as the #2 prospect in baseball. The only reason he wasn't ranked highly more than that is because he was good enough to stop being a prospect and play major-league ball at 19.

Upton hasn't struggled to be successful so far in his career, his 2007 cup of coffee (as a teenager) the exception. Why should 2011 be the year in which he breaks out? He is simply progressing as an athlete and a ballplayer. His at-bats are becoming more professional - the rate at which he swings at pitches outside of the zone has held firm over his career, but when he does chase his rate of contact has steadily progressed, and the rate at which he both swings at and makes contact with pitches inside the zone has improved over his career as well. Most importantly, when describing his plate discipline, however, is his SwStr%, the percentage of pitches swung-on and missed:

2008 - 13.8%
2009 - 12.0%
2010 - 10.2%

This consistent improvement from a man who already boasts a career 10.7% walk rate (8.7% league average) is an indication that as good as he is, he is only getting better.

Plate discipline, however, is not the only tool he brings to the batter's box. He has heaps of bat speed and, as a result, power. Regard: POWER.

(Pictured: power)

The above video was one in which Upton took Chris Carpenter for a 478-foot ride Tuesday night at Chase Field. Sure, everybody hit bombs once in a while, but in 2010, four homers were hit that far, three by notable sluggers Mark Reynold, Josh Hamilton and Adam Dunn. In 2009, only one ball flew that far.

Early on in his career, Upton had trouble squaring balls up - probably to be expected from a 19-20-year-old with 130 minor-league games under his belt. The percentage of fly-ball outs made on the infield has progressively declined each year, from 17% in 2007 to 12% in 2010 and just 11 % this year (13% league average). Similarly, with the exception of 2009, which one could call a sophomore-slump year (just his second season amassing 500 plate-appearances), his HR/FB rate has steadily increased. It is safe to assume that, still just 23, Upton is simply growing, getting stronger, and hitting with more authority. If you don't see it, ask Chris Carpenter. At 60'6", he got a pretty good look last night.

Upton is not an elite hitter, though. Very, very good, but I would not pick him to win an OPS crown anytime soon. The reason he is growing into an elite, elite player is because of his value as a player, overall. In the field, he is a very good center fielder playing right field. He has drawn votes for The Fielding Bible award for RF in each of the last three seasons, has a career +10 rtot/yr, +8 rdrs/yr, and a 2.4 UZR/150. On the bases he's 42-for-60 in career stolen base attempts, but that is hurt, like all of his numbers, but a sub-par 2010.

In 2009 Upton was a 5.2 WAR player, and has only improved since then. Judging by the early going here in 2011, Upton appears ready to take his place as one of the best players in the game of baseball.

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