March 7, 2012; Tampa, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays center fielder B.J. Upton (2) after he struck out in the third inning against the New York Yankees during spring training at George M. Steinbrenner Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

RCG Rays 2012 Season Preview: B.J. Upton

It all comes down to this for B.J. Upton. It’s his contract year. All the pressure is set squarely on him to perform at a high level. We know that Upton has so much upside, and even though he will turn 28 in August, he still could have more potential that has not yet materialized for him except for in transient flashes. Is this the year B.J. Upton puts it all together? Can B.J. Upton finish off his career as a Tampa Bay Ray with a bang?

Upton is coming off his best all-around season since 2007. He posted a .243/.331/.429 line with 27 doubles, 4 triples, 23 homers, 81 RBI, and 36 stolen bases at a 75% success rate. Upton fills up the state sheet. But his batting line is absolutely pedestrian. The MLB average line was .255/.321/.399. In 2011, Upton struck out 161 times, 25.2% of plate appearances, while walking 71 times, 11.1% of his PA’s. That abundance of strikeouts without an outstanding walk rate wreaks havoc on Upton’s batting line. B.J. Upton has power and speed. But can he make contact and get on base more consistently?

Upton’s strikeout rate has fluctuated over the course of his career. For Upton’s homer rate (among his plate appearances) and strikeout rate, the correlation is .86 for full seasons in which Upton has played, meaning that as Upton has hit more home runs, he has tended to strikeout more. We know from watching baseball that this is pretty much always the case with baseball players and the power hitters who don’t strike out at a high rate (Albert Pujols comes to mind) are especially notable. It makes sense that Upton strikes out so much since he has some nice power. But there was a one major anomaly between Upton’s 2010 stats and 2011 stats. Even though Upton went up in both home runs (18 to 23) and OPS (.745 to .759) from ’10 to ’11, less of Upton’s plate appearances ended in an extra-base hit in 2011, 8.4% of his PA’s compared to 9.8% in 2010, and he hit less line drives, 17% of his batted balls compared to 19% in 2010. Upton traded 11 doubles for 5 home runs between 2010 and 2011 and actually suffered a small loss in ISO because of it (.186 compared to .187). Upton may have hit more runs in 2011, but he hit for less overall power. What is going on here?

In 2011, the league average for groundballs to flyballs ratio was .82. (Line drives are included as flyballs.) For his career, Upton’s GB/FB is .81, but in 2011 it was .71, the second lowest mark of his career to only 2010. Players who hit more flyballs tend to hit for a lower batting average because flyball turn into outs more often than groundballs, but they also tend to get more extra-base hits because flyballs turn into extra-base hits way more than groundballs. Upton’s .71 GB/FB was the 48th-lowest among major league qualify but just 76th in terms of extra-base hit rate among plate appearances. Why? Because all groundballs and all flyballs are not created equal.

In 2011, the league averages for batted ball rates were 43.9% groundballs, a 35.5% flyballs, an 18.3% line drives, and a 2.4% bunts. The league averages for BAbip (batting average on balls in play) by batted ball type in 2011 were .237 on groundballs, .137 on flyballs, .713 on line drives, and .392 on bunts. Upton’s batted ball rates were 41.1% groundballs, 40.8% flyballs, 16.8% line drives, and 1.2% bunts, and his BAbip by batted balls type was .271, .131, .723, and .667 respectively. Upton’s BAbips on groundballs and bunts were higher than usual because of his speed, and he also was above-average on line drives, although he was a tick below-average on flyballs. But BAbip is not a be-all end-all stat. The stat we’re looking at here is extra-base hits. 16.5% of all flyballs went for extra-base hits in the major leagues, and 77.5% of all flyball hits went for extra-bases. For Upton, 18.8% of his flyballs went for extra-base hits, and 79.5% of his hits went for extra-bases. But now let’s head to line drives. We see above that Upton hit 1.5% fewer line drives than the league average, which undoubtedly hurt his batting average. In the majors in 2011, 20.0% of line drives went for extra-base hits and 27.8% of hits went for extra-bases. For Upton, 25.0% of his line drives were XBH’s and 34.0% of his hits went for extra bases. But now let’s remove home runs from the equation. 7.8% of all flyballs went for doubles and triples and 36.7% of all hits. For Upton, those ratios were just 6.7% and 28.2% respectively. 18.3% of all line drives hit in 2011 went for doubles and triples and 25.5% of hits. For Upton, his ratios were a bit higher, coming in at 20.6% and 25.5% respectively.

B.J. Upton sold out for home runs in 2011. He tried to lift everything, leading to a low GB/FB and 16% of his flyballs being pop-ups compared to the 14% league average. 20% of the strikes against him came on swings and misses compared to the 15% league average, leading to so many strikeouts. He may have drawn a decent amount of walks, but that had a lot more to do with the Upton being patient as the Rays have taught him to be than him recognizing which pitches he should drive. Upton may have hit an above-average amount of home runs in 2011, but in exchange for that he gave up his batting average, his OBP, and doubles and triples. Is that worth it? No chance.

B.J. Upton can’t force the ball into the air. He has to take what pitchers give him. If he stick his bat head out and go up the middle for a single, he should do just that. If he should protect the plate with two strikes even at the risk of weaker contact, he has to do that- and his speed will get him some singles anyway. B.J. Upton is at his best when he hits line drives all over the field and only swings for the fences when he gets the opportunity.  In 2007, B.J. Upton posted a .300/.386/.508 line with 25 doubles, 24 homers, and 82 RBI. That season, he struck out at the highest rate of his career and just 35% of his hits went for extra-bases, right around the league average, but he hit line drives at a 22% clip and he let his power naturally come out. If Upton is going to break out in 2012, he has to get back to that.

It’s Upton’s walk year. He has to realize what he needs to do to be the most successful baseball player he can be. I don’t think he’ll be able to get back to 2007, but he will improve. I predict a .250/.340/.450 line with 30 doubles, 25  homers, 90 RBI, and 40 stolen bases. B.J. Upton still has all the talent in him. If any of it is ever going to manifest itself in him, 2012 is the time. If this is it, B.J., you better make it count.

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