Wednesday, May 29, 2013
Who should the Braves play in center field?
By David Schoenfield
So, the way I see it, there are two answers here for the Atlanta Braves, both equally defensible:
1. You signed B.J. Upton to be your center fielder for the next five years. You're paying him a lot of money to do that. You can't give up on him so easily, so quickly, even if his batting line is a horrifying .148/.236/.252 after 176 plate appearances.
2. The object is to field your best team possible. Right now, that doesn't include B.J. Upton playing center field, at least on a regular basis.
What do you do if you're Fredi Gonzalez?
Of course, it's not even as easy as either/or. The Braves could keep playing Upton out there. They could play Jordan Schafer, who is hitting .299/.419/.455 in 95 PAs after hitting his second home run in Tuesday's 7-6 win over the Blue Jays.
The most interesting scenario is finding a way to keep Evan Gattis' bat in the lineup with Brian McCann back catching. The only way to do is that is to play Gattis in left, Justin Upton in right and move Jason Heyward to center. Gonzalez tried out that trio for the first time on Saturday.
What makes this so fun to debate is that all of these scenarios have issues. Is Gattis' bat for real -- he hit his 12th home run on Tuesday -- or will the league catch up to him? And how brutal would he be defensively? Heyward is a Gold Glove right fielder but has only played three games in center in his major league career, so how well could he handle the position? Schafer's track record suggests he's playing way over his head, but what if his improved walk rate is for real? There's also the worry -- it can't be ignored -- that benching B.J. Upton could upset his brother.
But the biggest question: What's going on with B.J.?
As Lee Singer of ESPN Stats & Information reports, Upton has been working with coaches to eliminate the excessive load in his swing, which Braves hitting coach Greg Walker said has caused Upton to be late on fastballs all season. Indeed, Upton is hitting .159 against fastballs after hitting .254 against them from 2009-12. Just 16 percent of his balls in play against fastballs have been "well hit," compared to 33 percent over those previous four seasons.
Upton said it's an easy fix, although you have to why has it taken 175 plate appearances to fix it? "Just kind of a bad habit that developed," he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "That happens in the game, man. Nothing you can do but just keep going, man. It's not the first time I struggled, won't be the last time. Just keep working. My thing is, just don't give up. As long as I do that, I'll come out of it.
"There's still time left. I'll get it turned around."
But will he? I went to the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index and looked at the past 25 years and found 18 players who hit below .175 in the first half of the season while getting at least 175 plate appearances. (Obviously, Upton has time in the first half to get over that .175 mark.) Of those 18, only four ended the season above .200, the highest being .219.
Now, most of those guys weren't 28-year-olds in their supposed primes who had just signed $75 million contracts. The most interesting comparison is one Braves fans might be familiar with. In 2006, Andruw Jones hit 41 home runs and drove in 129 runs. He hit .222 the next year, and in 2008, after signing a two-year, $36.5 million deal with the Dodgers, plummeted to .158 in 238 PAs. He hurt his knee in late May but was already well under .200. He was also out of shape and three years older than B.J., but was also better than B.J. at his best.
If anything, this speaks to the Braves' depth, a key reason why they are 4.5 games up on the Nationals in the NL East. That lead means Gonzalez doesn't have to panic. But I would suggest that Upton has been so bad that I don't believe he'll find an easy fix to his problems. And money certainly shouldn't be the deciding factor. I'd keep platooning Schafer and Upton and find a way to play Gattis a few times a week in left field. The big picture says you let Upton work his out of his slump, but baseball is also a game of streaks, and right now you ride Schafer and Gattis while they're hot.