Soft Stuff Vexing B.J. Upton
B.J. Upton looked like a Carlos-Beltran-In-Training back in his early twenties. Power, speed, plate discipline and plus defense in center field -- Upton had all of those attributes in spades. Since then, however, we've been left waiting for him to put all of those tools to use at once and turn in another monster season. Upton is channeling his inner Corey Patterson in 2012 instead, seemingly unable to tell balls from strikes when pitchers snap off a breaking ball or pull the string.
It's not really fair to call him a disappointment (second overall picks in the draft produce an average of 12.4 career Wins Above Replacement, while Upton already has 11.2 before his 28th birthday), but Upton's bat is backsliding as he heads for free agency this winter. Upton's OBP is just .302 (lowest since he was a scuffling 21-year-old in 2006), and his OPS+ is just 89. He's still hitting at or near the top of Tampa's lineup, but Upton's strike-zone judgment against "soft" stuff (curveballs, sliders and changeups) has cost him walks during his walk year.
Take a look at Upton's swing rate by pitch location against soft stuff in 2011, and then the league average:
Upton in 2011
Upton swung at a lot of breaking balls and changeups last season, but they were good swings on pitches thrown over the plate. When pitchers tried to expand the zone, he didn't bite. Upton took a cut at about 70% of soft pitches thrown in the strike zone, above the 65% MLB average, but chased just 28% of soft pitches thrown out of the zone (32% average). That quality plate approach allowed Upton to slug .398 against soft stuff. While not elite, that beat the league average by over 30 points.
In 2012, though, Upton looks confused against curves, sliders and changeups:
Upton in 2012
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.
Maybe it's time to stop doting upon the player we thought Upton would become and accept him for who he is: a swift fielder and baserunner who likely won't do more than keep his head above water at the plate. Upton is still plenty valuable when he complements his range and wheels with occasional power and a good number of free passes. But his Patterson-esque approach so far in 2012 won't cut it.