The Pros and Cons of B.J. Upton
By far the most frequent question I have been asked on the ol’ Interwebs lately pertains to free agent center fielder B.J. Upton. He has been linked prominently to the Phillies already this early in the off-season, and it makes sense. The Phillies need a center fielder, have some money to spend, and B.J. Upton is a center fielder who would like to receive money. Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports shone some light on some of the recent hires the Phillies have made and their relationship to the potential signing of Upton:
Bart Braun, previously a special assignment scout with the Rays, joined the Phillies last month as a special assistant to general manager Ruben Amaro Jr.
Steve Henderson, the Rays’ hitting coach from 2006 to ’09, will fill the same role for the Phillies after spending the past three years with the club as a minor-league coordinator.
The moves did not go unnoticed by the Upton camp, and in the words of one player agent, “there are no coincidences in baseball.”
It just makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it? It’s hard to ignore all of the signs, but in the end, it does come down to Upton’s expectations and the Phillies’ willingness to meet them. Would Upton forgo a fifth guaranteed year to come to Philadelphia and be around some familiar faces? Would the Phillies guarantee that fifth year and go up to around $80 million total to bring in a top-tier free agent? Obviously, we will find out as the off-season progresses as a lot will depend on which teams jump out first and which players budge from their expectations the most.
Should the Phillies snag Upton, they would be getting an enigma of a baseball player. He started his career on fire, posting a .384 on-base percentage and a .166 isolated power in 2007-08 combined. He cratered in 2009, and since then, he has been sub-par in the batting average and on-base departments. In 2012, his walk rate plummeted to a career-low seven percent, down from 11 percent in the previous two seasons. He became overly aggressive at the plate in attempt to hit for power, and it worked somewhat — he finished the year with a career-high 28 home runs and a .208 ISO, nearly a career-best. However, overall, it was the second-worst offensive season of his career going by weighted on-base average (wOBA).
David Golebiewski highlighted Upton’s struggles at Baseball Analytics in August:
His in-zone swing rate against soft pitches has declined to 61%. Upton’s chase rate, meanwhile, has climbed to 34%. With such poor pitch recognition, Upton’s slugging just .238 against soft stuff. Jordan Schafer, Michael Bourn, Jemile Weeks, Carlos Pena and Brandon Crawford are the only qualified batters to show less punch against breaking and off-speed offerings.
The good news is that Upton’s decision-making at the plate is a fixable problem. The Phillies brought in batting coach Steve Henderson from the Rays along with Wally Joyner and Ryne Sandberg, two guys who know a thing or two about a thing or two. The Phillies as an organization seem to have stressed good strike zone judgment as their 17.7 percent strikeout rate in 2012 was tied for the fourth-lowest in the Majors. They had the fifth-lowest rate in 2011 and the sixth-lowest rate in 2010 as well.
Upton, like shortstop Jimmy Rollins, has been chided for his perceived lack of hustle, earning scorn from manager Joe Maddon and third baseman Evan Longoria. The latter incident escalated into a heated dugout argument. While it’s obvious that the complaints about hustle have racist undertones, it is still something to consider. Would Upton have the ability to stay calm, cool, and collected when beat writers, radio loudmouths, and irate fans call for his head when he doesn’t run out a ground ball in a meaningless May game? Would Upton even want to come to a city that so vociferously reacts to anything but constant max effort?
The last negative thing to consider about an Upton signing would be the pick the Phillies surrender. The Rays, as expected, extended a $13.3 million qualifying offer to the center fielder, which means that the Phillies surrender their first round pick according to the new collective bargaining agreement. Giving up draft picks certainly hasn’t stopped the Phillies in the past, but with a mediocre Minor League system, they may become reticent to strip it any further, especially when similar, cheaper options that won’t force the Phillies to surrender a pick — such as Angel Pagan — will be available.
With the negatives out of the way, let’s look at the positives. Upton is 28 years old. That fact alone is huge. For obvious reasons, it is way less risky to sign a player in his late 20’s to a long-term contract. Consider the five-year deal the Phillies gave Ryan Howard. They agreed to the deal two years before he was eligible for free agency and the first year of the deal started in his age-32 season. A five-year deal between the Phillies and Upton would end in his age-32 season. I don’t need to tell you that the expected performances of age 28-32 players is significantly better than age 32-36 players, nor that the former set of players suffers debilitating injuries at a lower rate. Signing any player to a long-term deal is a gamble, but it is much less so for younger players.
On the field, Upton has all the tools to be a premier player. Below is a list of all of the players who hit at least 100 home runs and stole at least 200 bases dating back to 2007 (min. 3,000 plate appearances).
Yup. That’s it. If we lower the stolen base threshold to 150, Rollins and Hanley Ramirez enter the picture. Players who can hit for power and run extremely well are few and far between, and Upton does both very, very well. According to Baseball Prospectus, the only players to have been more productive stealing bases in 2012 were Everth Cabrera, Mike Trout, Ben Revere, and Coco Crisp. Additionally, Upton’s .206 ISO last season was seventh-best among all MLB outfielders, just ahead of Bryce Harper.
Defensively, Upton can obviously cover some ground. Defensive metrics disagree on his value as Baseball Reference’s Total Zone grades him as a below-average defender in each of the last three seasons, while FanGraphs UZR grades him as an above-average defender in every season except 2007 and ’12. I caught up with ubiquitous writer and Rays fan Jason Collette (@JasonCollette), who has watched Upton up close and personal lo these many years. His scouting report on Upton’s defense:
[He is] much better going back on balls than he is coming up on them. Tends to play more of them on a bounce than he does to dive forward on them. Side to side, he’s above average. His biggest problem out there are his throws. His arm is not terribly accurate but he takes unrealistic chances at runners from time to time allowing the trail runner to advance an extra base. Off the top of my head, I want to say he did that at least 10 times this season. He’s better than “Gold Glove winner” Adam Jones in everything except playing balls in front of him.
“I look at who has the best range in the game and I count down from there. BJ Upton has the best range in center in the majors. His reads are flawless, speed incredible. When I see a guy going after a ball, I say, ‘is he as good as BJ Upton?’ Nope. He ain’t an 80 then.”
Upton’s athleticism covers up for some of his decision-making shortcomings, but the gap between the two will have to close as Upton ages and his physical prowess wanes. If Upton doesn’t improve in that area, he would eventually have to move to a corner.
In the big picture, Upton represents an interesting issue to the Phillies. Where would he fit in the lineup? His low average and on-base percentage should preclude him from hitting higher in the batting order, but he hit in the upper-third of the Rays’ lineup in 119 of his 146 games in 2012. Hitting Upton lower in the order, particularly fourth to break up the left-handed Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, would cause the Phillies to lose the value of his speed. Hitting him lower than fifth would cause him to lose too many plate appearances — Phillies #6 hitters took 75 fewer trips to the plate than #1 hitters last season.
Unless the clamor for Upton quiets down significantly, Upton is expected to take home a hefty, lengthy contract that would pay him like an All-Star-caliber player. The Phillies would be hoping that the 28-year-old still has a ceiling to ascend to, rather than having already plateaued. Upton is enough of an enigma that he could realistically do either, and as a result, the Phillies would be taking a bigger leap of faith with him than they have with any of their previous free agent signings in recent times. But for a team that saw its five-year reign atop the NL East ended in 2012, it may be a necessity to exact revenge against the Washington Nationals, who will not enter the 2013 season any worse for the wear.