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Saturday, September 11, 2010

Fantastic Thoughts: Bossman Jr.'s Got His Groove Back?

There are perhaps no more tantalizing talents in major-league baseball than the Upton brothers.  They've got it all: the sweet, smooth swings which translate into awesome power, gliding, seemingly effortless speed, shoulder-mounted outfield canons, and Grade A boy-next-door handsomeness.  To the great frustration of fantasy owners who've been seduced by their "tools," however, neither Upton has yet posted anything resembling an MVP-caliber season.  Most of the milestones we associate with top-flight players - 30 HR, 100 RBI, 100 R, 900+ OPS - have not yet been reached by either of them, to our great dismay.

Justin Upton can, perhaps, be forgiven, since, at the ripe old age of 22, his "most similar batters" by age list (according to Baseball Reference) still includes guys like Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Miguel Cabrera.  Already nearing the completion of his third full season in the majors, his maturing process is still light-years ahead of the average "top prospect."

His elder brother, however, though hardly past his prime at the age of 26, has logged more than four full seasons and suffered through consecutive years of declining production in 2008 and 2009.  When B. J. Upton was hitting just .226 with 8 HR and a 703 OPS on August 1, many were ready to declare him a one-dimensional player with a skill set somewhere between Juan Pierre and Willy Taveras.  Upton was again on pace to be among the league leaders in steals and remained one the best defensive centerfielders in the league, but his overall offensive production had reconciled him to the very bottom of the Rays lineup, and he was again looking a possible declines in most of the counting categories.  This was a far cry from the guy who mashed 7 HR and drove in 15 runs in just 11 games during Tampa Bay's 2008 run to the World Series or the guy who batted .300 with 26 HR and 82 RBI in just 129 games in 2007.

B. J. has been prone to streakiness throughout his career, so one cannot read too much into this limited sample size, but for the last six weeks, Upton has again been showing the skills which made him the #2 pick in the draft way back in 2002.  Since the beginning of August he's hit 9 HR, including four in his last five games, meaning that, with 17 HR on the season, this is his best power year since '07.  Over that span he's also hitting .273 with an 897 OPS, while continuing to run like crazy, with 11 steals in 12 attempts.

Unfortunately, his K/BB ratio is still a major source of concern.  B. J. is probably always going to be somewhat prone to the whiff, something common for a guy with some serious power, but over the first two seasons of his career, his K/BB rate was a respectable 1.78 and his OBP was excellent (.384).  In the last two years, he has struck out more, while walking substantially less, causing his K/BB ratio to rise to 2.53, while his OBP has fallen all the way to Jason Kendall territory (.319).  Even during his recent hot streak, Upton has not dramatically improved in this department, striking out 44 times in 37 games and walking only 16.  As such, I fear this production may not be representative of him "figuring things out" finally, as Delmon Young clearly has in 2010, but rather he might be benefitting from the fact that pitchers stopped respecting him.  When they are reminded of what he can do with balls in his wheelhouse (i.e. four homers in five days) they will go back to throwing everything off the plate and, unless he then demonstrates a newfound ability to lay off that junk, his power will go right back into remission.

Those who remember Minnesota's loss to the Yankees in last season's division series, will recall that New York's pitchers seemed to be able to retire Young on command.  He struck out five times in a dozen at-bats and left seven men on base in three games.  He certainly wasn't the only weak link in Minnesota's lineup, but he was the most glaring one, because unlike Nick Punto and Brendan Harris, he was supposed to be in there for his superior abilities at the plate (it certainly wasn't for his glovework).  This very public humiliation clearly stuck with Young and he came into camp this season not only in better shape, but with a more refined approach.

Hitters the caliber of Young and Upton do not necessarily need to be walk machines like Adam Dunn.  Quite to the contrary, players like Miguel Cabrera, Vladimir Guerrero, and Carlos Gonzalez have proven that the hyper-aggressive approach can work, if you've got the superior skills for it.  But, nobody can consistently hit balls well outside the strike zone.  When Young realized that, he didn't dramatically increase his walk rate.  This year he's walking 4.2% of the time, compared to 4.0% from '06-'09.  However, he did dramatically decrease his strikeout rate, down from 22.1% in '09 (and 18.8% on his career) to 12.7% in 2010.  Every time I see Delmon lay off a two-strike breaking ball in the dirt or a fastball at his eyes, I get a little amped about the possible rematch between the Yankees and Twins this October.  He could change the face of that series.

I certainly hope that Delmon Young's breakout season has proven that it's silly to declare top prospect "done" in his mid-twenties. B. J. Upton, I believe, will eventually return, at the very least, to the modicum of discipline he displayed in the early stages of his professional career.  However, he needs to keep producing for another couple months before I'm ready to believe he's finally figured that out.

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