The Enigmatic Upton Brothers

By Robbie Knopf

Justin Upton is currently at the forefront of trade rumors in baseball right now. Another player with a chance to be traded is his older brother, B.J. Upton. Even as Rays fans, we can admit that Justin is better than B.J. He has one-upped him all-around. B.J. was the second overall pick in 2002; Justin was first overall in 2005. Justin, 3 years younger than B.J., is a two-time All-Star; B.J. hasn’t been to the All-Star Game once. The past four seasons, Justin has never hit below .270 or posted an OPS below .750; B.J. hasn’t hit .250 a single time, let alone .270, and his OPS has been above .750 only in 2011. But what do the two Uptons have in common other than the fact that they’re brothers? Their inconsistency.

That pattern is pretty similar too. The big difference: Justin went back and surpassed his first OPS peak-B.J. never has. Every player has up and down years. But not like this. If B.J. has been inconsistent because he has been a disappointment and never really lived up to his upside, why is Justin, an undoubtedly super-talented player, the exact same way?

Ken Rosenthal reported that teams believe that Justin Upton is not a “winning player.” That sounds exactly like B.J. Everyone has questioned B.J.’s attitude in the past, and although not to the same extent, the same is true for Justin. The potential is there for both of them. Is the question motivation? Do they slack off?

Especially the last three years, Justin Upton has played a huge role in the Diamondbacks’ success. As a general rule, players do better in the games that their team wins, posting a .839 OPS in wins in 2012 compared to .614 in losses. For B.J., the gap is a little farther, .874 and .609. But listen to Justin: .980 in wins, .685 in losses. An annoying question but one that has to be asked is what came first, Justin’s lack of motivation or poor team play? Well, for his career, Justin has a .908 OPS in tie games, a .830 OPS when ahead in games, and a .779 OPS when behind. (We’re talking 800+ plate appearances here for each situation, so this isn’t chance variation.) The MLB OPS is virtually the same in all three spots, .734 in ties, .744 when ahead, and .717 when behind. B.J. has a more startling distribution: .707 in ties, .819 when ahead, .721 when behind. For Justin, it would appear that he’s at his best when games are closer and the pressure is on. His OPS decreases the further the game gets away from either team- .908 when tied, .857 when within a run, .830 when within 2 runs, .818 when within 3. B.J.’s performance isn’t associated with pressure, instead that he is fueled by the team winning, as we saw in his incredible run in the 2008 postseason. When the team isn’t winning consistently, as we have seen recently from the Rays, he struggles. In 2012, Upton has a .845 OPS in wins and just a .496 OPS in losses (37% below league average).

Justin and B.J. are motivated by different things. But the common denominator is that they can’t focus themselves all the time. There is nothing inside them motivating them- they need external factors like pressure or winning to drive them. That’s the problem. The best players will hustle whether it’s the seventh game of the World Series or the seventh game of the season. The Upton brothers can’t, or at least they haven’t.