By Marc Normandin
Before the season even began, there was pressure on the brothers Upton. B.J. Upton signed a five-year deal that paid him what some -- fans and analysts alike -- believed to be more than his previous performance deserved. Justin Upton was acquired in the trade we'd all been expecting -- destination unknown, of course -- from the Diamondbacks for the last few years. The elder Upton had to prove he was worth his contract, Upton the younger that the Diamondbacks were wrong to cash out on him shortly after he turned 25, and both also had to deal with being thrown into contention in the competitive NL East.
Roughly one-quarter of the way through the season, one Upton has answered the call, while the other has scuffled. There is more to both of these players than just the first month and change of their Braves' career, however: Justin is in town until the end of 2015 at the earliest, while brother B.J.'s contract will keep him around for two years past that. So, what has this introduction to Atlanta taught us, if anything, and what is it we should be expecting from these seemingly disparate talents going forward?
Justin, as you know if you've done any reading or watching about baseball this season, is leading the majors in home runs with 13. His .285/.398/.635 line has includes a league-leading slugging average, and he's also tops in total bases. The move to Atlanta was supposed to hurt his offense, as he's been so much better at Chase Field in his career than elsewhere, but instead, he's adjusted to help compensate. His plate appearances are longer, averaging 4.1 pitches per plate appearance compared to the 3.8 he put up each of the last two seasons. He's striking out more, but he's also cut down on his grounders -- he just might be finding better pitches to hit by waiting his opponents out a bit more, and it's helped negate the change in environment.
He's been better in just about every situation by count this season, putting up better numbers while ahead in the count, behind in the count, with two strikes, but especially with the pitcher ahead: in 2012, he was above-average by eight percent thanks to a 534 OPS while the pitcher was ahead, but in 2013, he's managed to blow that away with a 979 OPS that's 170 percent better than the average player in that situation. We're not talking huge samples with any of the above, but, given the increase in pitches per plate appearance, it's certainly something to watch for going forward. If waiting out the pitcher a bit longer is resulting in more power, and the cost is just for a few more strikeouts, than it was easily worth the adjustment.
Maybe he won't hit like this all season, but it wasn't that long ago that Justin Upton was hyped in the same way that Bryce Harper and Mike Trout were and are. He was in the majors when he was 19 years old, and had seemingly broken out by the time he was 21, in his first full season in the bigs. He had 75 extra-base hits in 2011 as a 23-year-old and finished fourth in the MVP vote that season. Even with his disappointing 2012 campaign and the shift to a more pitcher-friendly park, projection systems like Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA forecasted him for some impressive lines at the upper levels, such as his .301/.383/.513 90th percentile projection. That makes him worth nearly six wins above replacement -- if he finishes his season with that kind of value, even though it's less than what he's on pace for now, the Braves can consider his first year in town a coup.
Things don't seem as easily optimistic for B.J., however. He's hitting .151/.250/.254 while little brother drives in all the runs, and in the same way the shift of parks was supposed to hurt Justin but hasn't, B.J.'s move to a relatively easier environment has had the opposite effect to this point. Of course, he's not hitting on the road, either, so looking at those kinds of splits aren't going to tell you much now besides the fact that 2013 is not going well for this Upton.
The thing is, we are talking about 35 games and 145 plate appearances for a hitter who has been in a cold streak or two in his day. He's also been in more than a few hot streaks, and it tends to even things out for him. The latest came last season, when he entered August sporting a .244/.305/.372 line. When the season finished, Upton was up to .246/.298/.454 -- don't let the on-base percentage fool you, as Tropicana is not an easy place to hit. Despite the OBP, this was an above-average offensive campaign.
We can't just wish him into a good run at the plate, though, and assume things will be fine. Someday what we think is just a cold run at the plate could just be his skills failing him, but it's too early to say that now about the 28-year-old. There are reasons to be concerned over the way he's approaching things now, but that's only going to be problematic if he doesn't adjust, as his younger brother already has.
Back to the above 2012 splits. Entering August 1, B.J. Upton had struck out out 101 times in 386 plate appearances, or 26 percent of the time. That's not great, but it's not terrible, not even particularly notable given his career punch out rate of 25 percent. In the season's last two months, though, that jumped to 28 percent, with 68 in his last 247, and while it was hard to argue with the 19 homers he hit in that two-month stretch, the fact he struck out more than five times as often as he walked seemed a bit concerning.
Now, in 2013, Upton's strikeout rates have jumped to over 32 percent, and while he's managed to bring his walks back to a respectable level, there's something amiss here. He's swinging less often in the zone and outside the zone according to PITCHf/x, and he's seeing a higher percentage of first-pitch strikes. He's seeing more pitches overall as well, but unlike Justin, he isn't achieving much more because of it. An extra walk here and there is being squeezed out, but he's been an absolute mess whenever the pitcher is in control. With two strikes, he's about 60 percent worse than the league -- down nearly 25 percentage points from last year's already poor performance -- and he's about 70 percent worse than average in general when the pitcher is ahead in the count. The difference between this year and last year, besides the extremeness of his shortcomings in those situations, is that he can't seem to make up for it when ahead in the count this time around, exactly when a batter is supposed to.
The ability is there. We've seen it before, even if he's never quite blossomed into the player many thought he was going to be when he finally broke out back in 2007. He was an athletic, above-average hitter with high-quality defensive skills during his peak, and as he's all of 28, he should still be, at the least, in the tail-end years of that stretch now. Instead, we're left wondering if he's ever going to be useful again.
The reality of the situation is that this is 145 poor plate appearances, so it's too early for those kinds of doomsday questions. Yes, he's striking out too much, he's potentially more passive than he is patient, and his batting average on balls in play is so low it has assured him of a poor line regardless of whether he walks or hits for any power. Those are all problems, but they are correctable ones, much like Justin's own issues from 2012. It might turn out that the extra pitches he's seeing are a bad thing, and that unlike little brother, he needs to be a tad more aggressive at the plate in order to produce the best line possible with his skills. A touch of aggressiveness at the plate certainly couldn't hurt at this point, and with pitchers ramming first-pitch strikes down his throat, there will be plenty for him to get his bat on until they realize they need to respect him at the plate once more.
Both of these hitters will likely finish the year in a different place statistically than where they are now. Justin seems to be on the upswing, finally realizing the potential we've been waiting for him to, but as his recent homer drought reminded us, expecting him to slug well over .600 all year long is maybe asking too much. For B.J., the extreme nature of his season is in the other direction, but if he can adjust just enough, he might be able to salvage what has been a rough first 35 games for the Braves. That would certainly work for the Braves, who are in first place despite B.J.'s struggles -- there is time yet to get the player they expected, and the results they expected, before any real damage is done to their season. They can thank their other Upton for much of that.
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Marc Normandin writes and edits for Over the Monster, a Boston Red Sox blog, as well as SB Nation's baseball hub. He's one of many behind the e-book "The Hall of Nearly Great," and has written forBaseballProspectus, ESPN, and others. You can follow him on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.