B.J. Upton: Enjoy It While You Can
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.
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).