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Monday, February 4, 2013

BBR^2 Part Three: Justin Upton

Unless you've been living under a rock, you're aware that the Justin Upton trade rumors are finally dead.  They aren't dead because someone finally talked sense into Kevin Towers, however.  They are dead because Upton is now paired with his brother in the outfield in Atlanta.  With a new ballpark to play in and a new uniform to wear for each game, Upton's next goal is to rebound from what was a rather disappointing 2012 campaign.  After putting up MVP numbers in 2011, Justin found himself playing injured throughout a lot of the 2012 season, which helped hinder his performance.  For many reasons, I believe that Upton's performance last year is not what we can expect in the future.  In fact, I expect several seasons similar to his 2011 season.  Because of this, Justin Upton is our first rebound candidate for BBR^2 2013.
Part One: 2012 Troubles

The root of Justin Upton's problems in 2012 was a thumb injury he suffered in mid-April.  Upton jammed his thumb sliding into 2nd base to break up a double-play and was never the same after.  He went on the 15 day disabled list, had fluid drained from his thumb, and dealt with a bone bruise that lingered throughout the season.  In my opinion, this thumb injury is what led to his biggest issue in performance in 2012: a drastic loss of power.  Upton posted a career-worst in Isolated Slugging Percentage (ISO) (.150), home runs (17), fly ball percentage (35.6%), and HR/FB ratio (11.0).  I don't know everything there is to know about swing mechanics, but I can say with confidence that the thumb injury Upton dealt with definitely was the thing behind these numbers.  Due to the drops in these power numbers, Upton came up with the following line in 2012:
628 PA/ 10.0% BB/ 19.3% K/ 108 wRC+/ 2.5 fWAR
Needless to say, that is a big step backwards from his monster 139 wRC+/6.4 fWAR breakout campaign in 2011.  To be fair to all players and to Upton himself, the thumb injury isn't all there is to blame here.  Justin posted career-worst numbers in the field as well.  His troubles at the plate carried over into the field and on the bases.  His numbers were down across the board.  Also in an attempt to be fair to Upton, his 2011 was scary good.  He did things at 23 years old that only once-in-a-generation talents do.  He posted a crazy 32 win value against fastballs in 2011, which is just absolutely nuts.  And really, his performance against breaking pitches wasn't all that bad last year as he had positive win values against all pitches except for curve balls.
One thing that might have impacted Upton's 2012 performance was his aggressiveness at the plate.  He swung at far fewer pitches both in and out of the strike zone.  Even though this led to increased contact rates and lower swing-and-miss rates, it's possible that this is a sign that Upton was rather passive in his offensive approach.  For a player who bears the calling card of power, passive isn't something he wants to be at the plate.  Whether this was related to his thumb, mental issues, or simply seeing different pitch types is unknown, but it absolutely impacted his performance as a player.
Part Two: Re-Emerging as an MVP Candidate and Fantasy Value
One thing about Justin Upton is obvious: he has the talent to be one of the best players in baseball.  He's got good speed, phenomenal power, and even a knack for playing the outfield.  His health is the biggest key to putting it all together like he did in 2011.  I can try to break down approach at the plate and BIP rates, but I think everything eventually rolls back into his thumb injury.  As minor as it seems, it's the kind of injury that can mess up a swing, mess up a throwing grip/motion, and create large amounts of negativity towards a player's performance.  So sticking with this, what is it that we expect from a healthy Upton?  Are we to simply assume that he will revert back to 2011 right away?  Really, I don't think the answer is that simple.
For many MLB players, the injury recovery process lasts a lot longer than just the time to recover from the injury (in terms of producing).  I don't know Upton's individual timetable, but his ability to do things like lifting weights was undoubtedly impacted by the injury.  However, I am comfortable making the assumption that he's far enough along to where the injury won't be an issue and has passed.  I think he'll go through his normal off season training routine and be perfectly fine for spring training.  To understand what that means for a 2013 campaign, let's look at what Upton provided for fantasy in 2011:
.289 BA/ 31 HR/ 88 RBI/ 105 Runs/ 21 SB/ .898 OPS
Now, for the skeptics in the crowd, here's what he did in his injured, power-depleted state in 2012:
.280 BA/ 17 HR/ 67 RBI/ 107 Runs/ 18 SB/ .785 OPS
What's really nice here is that we essentially get a "floor" and a "ceiling."  I put them in quotes because it's possible Upton out-produces 2011 and it's possible injuries make it tough for him to put up the playing time necessary to repeat 2012.  However, what can be done is that we can make some pretty comfortable assumptions.  Let's say for instance that Upton misses some playing time and isn't quite back to his old self, but he is better than last year.  If we split the difference (what I think is probably fair), we can expect this from Upton in 2013:
.285 BA/ 24 HR/ 78 RBI/ 106 Runs/ 20 SB/ .840 OPS
Now, it's important to take two things into account:
1) Upton isn't in Chase Field any more.  He's out in Atlanta.  This might negatively influence his numbers since it's pretty nice to hit out in the desert.
2) Upton has moved into a lineup that has a LOT of potential.  He's surrounded by B.J. Upton, Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, Brian McCann, and Dan Uggla.  This is a group that can score a bunch if they figure everything out.
With those conditions in mind, this is what I'm predicting from Upton in 2013:
.285 BA/ 28 HR/ 105 RBI/ 100 Runs/ 15 SB/ .865 OPS
Ideally, Upton benefits from the players around him and thrives in the number 3 or 4 spot in the Braves order.  He's got an incredible ceiling that will likely be seen if he can avoid injury.  I'm not sure that I would spend a first round pick on him due to injury concerns, but it's justifiable to select him in the 2nd round and be comfortable.  After all, he's got the talent to play like a first-rounder.
Due to all of this, Justin Upton is a rebound candidate in 2013.

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