Baseball BeatMay 07, 2007
B.J. Upton: Enjoy It While You Can
By Rich Lederer

B.J. Upton is off to a hot start, leading the American League in batting average (.371) while ranking third in SLG (.660) and OPS (1.084). Upton is also among the top ten in the league in OBP (.425), HR (6), RBI (22), and SB (5).

Given that the 22-year-old entered the season with a .251 career batting average (84-for-334) with 5 HR, I believe it would be safe to say that 2007 is undoubtedly a breakout for the highly regarded youngster. But just what kind of numbers can we expect the #2 overall pick in the 2002 draft to put up over the course of the full season?

I don't imagine that anybody thinks Upton will hit anywhere close to .371 but is .300 even a good bet? Let's drill down a bit to see if we can answer that question.

2007 Season:

AB   R   H  2B  3B  HR  RBI  BB  SO   AVG   OBP   SLG    OPS 
97  17  36   8   1   6   22   8  37  .371  .425  .660  1.084 

Upton is obviously off to a phenomenal start. However, B.J. is hitting .556 (30-for-54) on balls in play. That's great but it's also highly unsustainable. His batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is .149 better than anyone else in the league and .161 above last year's leader (Derek Jeter).

If Upton's BABIP was .400 instead of .556, his overall average would currently be .289. If his BABIP was .350, his AVG would be just .258. Now mind you, a .400 BABIP would have been good enough to lead the AL in 2006. And a .350 BABIP would have tied Ichiro Suzuki for sixth place. In other words, I'm being fairly generous attaching these abnormally high BABIP to Upton's numbers this year in trying to determine a more realistic batting average than the one he has generated to date.

When B.J. is making contact, he is stinging the ball. Nonetheless, his AVG will plummet if he continues to strike out in 38% of his at-bats and 35% of his plate appearances. Upton, who is leading the league in strikeouts, is on pace to break Rob Deer's AL record of 186 whiffs and challenge Adam Dunn's MLB all-time high of 195 Ks in a single season.

It says here that Upton will not hit .300 this year. The only way I can be proven wrong is if the 6-foot-3, 180-pound second baseman (1) continues to hit for an almost unprecedented average on balls in play, (2) hits home runs over the course of the season at an even higher rate than the first five weeks, (3) reduces his strikeouts and puts more balls in play, and/or (4) gets hurt and doesn't play a full slate of games.

Taking a closer look at each of the above suppositions, I would be surprised if Upton's BABIP ended up above .400. But, remember, even at .400, his AVG would fall below .300. As far as home runs go, Upton is slugging them at a significantly higher rate (6.2% HR/AB and 5.6% HR/PA) than ever, including the minors when his best rates were 4.5% and 3.9%, respectively, at Durham in 2004. I realize that players get bigger and stronger as they mature and HR rates usually increase over time, but I don't think it is likely for B.J. to improve upon his better-than-30-HR pace. Could he hit 30? Sure. I just can't envision him knocking 35 or 40 out of the park this year.

What this all means is that Upton needs to strike out far less often if he is to hit at least .300 this season. Let's examine the batting averages of the top 20 leaders in strikeouts in a single season.

                              YEAR       SO      AVG    
1    Adam Dunn                2004      195     .266   
2    Adam Dunn                2006      194     .234   
3    Bobby Bonds              1970      189     .302   
4    Jose Hernandez           2002      188     .288   
T5   Preston Wilson           2000      187     .264   
T5   Bobby Bonds              1969      187     .259   
7    Rob Deer                 1987      186     .238   
T8   Pete Incaviglia          1986      185     .250   
T8   Jose Hernandez           2001      185     .249   
T8   Jim Thome                2001      185     .291   
T11  Cecil Fielder            1990      182     .277   
T11  Jim Thome                2003      182     .266   
T13  Mo Vaughn                2000      181     .272   
T13  Ryan Howard              2006      181     .313   
15   Mike Schmidt             1975      180     .249   
16   Rob Deer                 1986      179     .232   
17   Richie Sexson            2001      178     .271   
T18  Mark Bellhorn            2004      177     .264   
T18  Jose Hernandez           2003      177     .225   
20   Mike Cameron             2002      176     .239

Source: Complete Baseball Encyclopedia

Only two players have struck out more than 175 times and hit .300 in the same season. Ryan Howard hit .313 in 2006 and Bobby Bonds hit .302 in 1970. Howard accomplished his feat by slugging 58 HR. That's just not gonna happen with Upton. Bonds, on the other hand, only cranked 26 HR, which seems more in-line with what Upton is capable of doing. As a result, there is a precedent for somebody like Upton hitting .300 despite a historically high strikeout rate. But the margin of error is tiny as Bonds barely reached that magical mark.

Upton has been terrific through the first week of May. But his AVG could easily drop into the .260s, .270s, or .280s by season's end. By extension, his OBP could wind up between .320 and .350. B.J.'s more normalized SLG isn't quite as easy to calculate, but it is possible - maybe even probable - that it will approach or exceed .500. If forced to pinpoint my forecasts, I'd lean toward the upper end and go with .280/.340/.500 (which suggests he will hit about .260/.325/.460 the rest of the way).


maybe I'm misunderstanding your last sentence, but why would you lower Upton's stats going forward based on his being lucky so far? That sounds like predicting someone will miss their guess on four coin tosses going forward because they were lucky on their four previous guesses.

No clue for how he will fair for the rest of the season but I was very impressed with his ab's the past week and a half.

He was keeping his hands back and making hard contact going the other way like a seasoned veteran hitter. I wouldn't be surprised if he evolves into a star hitter in the next season or 2.

What about the third option listed above, in which Upton's strikeout rate declines to league average levels over the remainder of the year? It seems likely to me that his BABIP and strikeout rate are both outliers -- that is, artifacts of having a small n -- and that each will normalize given time.

I think it important to note that Upton is striking out more and walking less than at any time in his career, even in his previously limited time in the majors. In fact, throughout his minor league career, he walked a great deal. I see no reason to assume he will not cut down on his strikeouts as the year progresses and perhaps also take more walks.

One explanation I have heard about his hitting style this year is that the organization wanted him to be aggressive and trust his natural ability more to build his confidence. As a result, he is simply seeing the ball and hitting it rather than working pitchers as he normally does. As he becomes more comfortable with himself in the majors, he may maintain his confidence while being more selective at the plate, knowing that he can hit at this level.

Re comment #1: I have included Upton's stats to date in my year-end projections so I am giving him the benefit of his fast start (and "luck" if you'd like to call it that). However, on a go-forward basis, I have factored in a lower BABIP (or somewhat less "luck"), albeit one that would still rank high based on league-wide standards. Upton's final stats are simply a weighted average of what he has accomplished to date and what I expect him to do over the rest of the season (based on a lower BABIP and perhaps partially offset by a lower SO rate as well).

Re comment #4: Upton actually leads his team and ranks 19th in the AL in pitches per plate appearance (4.00). In his two previous seasons, Upton averaged 3.7 pitches per PA.

Interestingly, one could point to Upton's high line-drive rate (22.0%, which ranks 15th in the league) as a reason for his new-found success but, if so, how would that same person explain Alex Gordon's numbers (.175/.316/.278 with a .238 BABIP and a 21.5% LD rate)? I believe Upton's and Gordon's rate stats will converge over the course of the season. They may or may not meet, but I would be surprised if Upton's don't go down and Gordon's don't go up.

I was not aware of the pitches per plate appearance. They may indeed be significant. Further, I certainly do not expect Upton to hit .370 all year; I rarely expect anyone to do so. Nor do I expect him to hit 30 home runs. But I do think he can continue to get on base at a good clip and hit for good power. Except for last year, he always did so, and always when he was young for his league. And while he has always struck out a lot, he is doing so now at an unusually high rate while walking at a somewhat lower rate than he has previously. I think it just as likely that as he gains experience in the majors, he adjusts (just as the pitchers will, of course) and cuts back on the Ks while upping the walks as that he will fall as far as you suggest. Given his combination of talent, hot start and performance history, I see no reason not to think he cannot maintain an OBP over .350 with 20 or so home runs, and for a second baseman, and a 23 year old virtual rookie, that is pretty good.

Look no further than here to realize how difficult it is to strike out a lot and hit .300. Upton and Alex Rodriguez are the only two players in the AL hitting .300 while whiffing more than 20 times in the early going. Nearly half (16 to be precise) of the 33 hitters with 20 or more SO are batting under .250 and four are below .200.

In the meantime, Upton leads the league in batting average and strikeouts. It is a paradox unlike anything we have ever seen. Of the two, I believe it is much more likely that Upton leads the league (or ends up closer to the lead) in strikeouts than batting average.

I am not arguing that Upton will lead the league in hitting or that he will not continue to strike out a lot. I am simply saying that just as his .371 BA is almost certainly not sustainable, so his high K rate is somewhat out of character as well (although not entirely), and that he has a reasonable chance to improve it, and therefore, that he can maintain a decent BA, OBP and Slugging % all year.

You note 4 circumstances in which Upton might maintain a .300 BA. # 3 is " reduces his strikeouts and puts more balls in play...." I think that is entirely possible. In any case, I am not sure why, after identifying a number of elements of his hot start, you then focus almost entirely on a BA of .300. The real issue is can he continue to get on base and hit for power, and I do not see that striking out necessarily obviates those possibilities. Upton is playing second base for the Rays. Given his talent, hot start and history, can he end the year with a .350-.360 OBP and 20 home runs, and if he does, is that a successful year? If so, who cares about hitting .300?

My previous comment wasn't directed at yours. I'm not that quick. I was in the process of looking up the stats and putting together my comment when you posted yours. It wasn't until after I published mine that I even saw your most recent comment.

Upton is a talented player, a gifted athlete who can run and hit for average and power. He has had a fantastic start to the 2007 season.

The purpose of my article was to show *why* B.J. is unlikely to sustain his numbers as everyone would agree that he is not going to end up hitting north of .350/.400/.600. Like you, I'm more interested in OBP and SLG than AVG. However, I contend that his AVG *is* important because it currently makes up 87% of his OBP and 56% of his SLG. As Upton's average drops, his OBP and SLG will drop as well. I realize it is a given that his rate stats will decline, but it is my position that they will fall more than most might expect because his BABIP is totally out of line with historical norms.

If Upton winds up hitting .280/.340/.500 as I forecasted in the last sentence of my article, he will indeed have had a "successful year."

I wanted to comment on what I felt was a fallacy in your reasoning: I think the analytical community would be the first to point out the flaw in logic of over-emphasizing the results of the first month more than anyone, yet here, you're saying (as comment #1 points out) just because he's been lucky so far that's an indication that he's going to continue to produce at the same level from this point on, minus the luck. What if, from this point on, he hits .300 /.360/.480 with some speed from this point on, as the league adjusts and he consequently adjusts as well over the course of the next five months--a lot can happen. Upton is a world-class talent and everyone knows it. He has been bored these past few seasons and although I think he has been lucky so far, that is in no way is an indication of what will happen from this point on and anyone who's anyone knows BJ can hit.

I actually think the opposite is true. Those who think Upton is going to hit .300 from this point on and, therefore, .310-.320 for the season are the ones who are "over-emphasizing the results of the first month." I don't know anybody who thought Upton was going to put up such numbers this year.

Here are the pre-season projections from a couple of reputable sources:

                       AVG   OBP   SLG
Bill James Handbook   .265  .348  .396
PECOTA                .268  .347  .412

It's OK to think Upton is going to exceed those forecasts based on his hot start. Heck, I have him slugging at .500 for the year (which is well above the projection systems), partly because of his torrid April and first week in May. My article was simply pointing out that his BABIP is unsustainably high and that his rate stats will likely fall rather dramatically from artificially elevated levels.

We'll know the answer in another five months.

Miguel Cabrera always seems to have a ridiculously high BABIP.

Yes, Cabrera has consistently had a BABIP above the league average. But he never has had a BABIP of over .400 (which seems to be about the upper end for even the best hitters). That is the main reason why I believe Upton's AVG will steadily drop over the course of the season. B.J. is talented and has the potential for becoming a very good hitter, but he is striking out too often and has been a bit fortunate when putting balls in play.

So, right now Upton has 41 hits in 119ABs with 11BB, 7HR and 6SB.

Where do you see those numbers ending up?

I was as specific as I could possibly be with respect to Upton's year-end rate stats. One could take my AVG/OBP/SLG and come pretty close to backing into the appropriate counting stats.

B.J.'s numbers have been coming my way ever since I published this article. He's gone from .371 to .345 in eight days. I continue to stand by my forecasts for all the reasons I mentioned.