Reasons behind B.J. Upton's slump

Updated: May 22, 2013, 4:45 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

We've got an early leader for fantasy bust of 2013: B.J. Upton.

Hit Parade

He leads the race by a mile: The No. 49 player selected on average in the preseason, Upton entered Wednesday's action 733rd overall on our Player Rater, that near-700-spot differential the largest of any player who hasn't missed time due to injury.

What's worse, Upton's current .155 batting average puts him in contention for the worst batting average in a season of at least 500 plate appearances -- that record is held by Rob Deer (.179, in 1991) -- and you can be sure that the Atlanta Braves, who are paying him more than $13 million this year and more than $75 million in the next four, will keep trotting him out there so he'll remain batting title-eligible.

Fantasy owners, however, might not be able to afford such patience.

Upton's struggles aren't necessarily news; one month ago, his owners were concerned. On May 22, they're in flat-out panic, and it took a tweet from a fellow Tout Wars competitor to draw my attention -- and we're talking fine-tooth comb attention -- back to Upton's issues. After all, he's a member of my NL-only squad (12-team league), and he was one of the poster boys for the season-opening edition of "Hit Parade," discussing my Tout Wars punt-batting-average strategy.

For full disclosure, Upton is a member of four of my fantasy teams, teams that reside in first (out of 12 teams), third (of 12), fourth (of 10) and fifth (of nine), so his full-season prognosis is especially important from a personal angle. And this isn't reported to draw attention to my own teams -- there's no reason for you to care -- but rather to stress that if you own him, we're in the same boat. Yes, that might be true for most players in baseball, considering the number of teams I field annually, but I'm forced to make specific, strategic decisions about Upton in the upcoming days. Let me share the thoughts behind these.

On Upton and streakiness

[+] EnlargeB.J. Upton
Kevin Liles/Getty ImagesThis has been the aftermath of a B.J. Upton at-bat way too often this season.

"Ride the streak" might be a common expression of mine on the Fantasy Focus podcast, granted mostly a tongue-in-cheek approach, but Upton is a player who annually has presented his fantasy owners with stretches of stats that reside at either extreme. Owning him means accepting such streakiness.

Through Tuesday, Upton had played 41 games this season, and in every one of his big league seasons he has endured a 41-game span of excessively high and low batting averages. In 2012, he had a 41-game span in which he batted .195, and another during which he batted .320. In 2011, his 41-game extremes were .167 and .301. In 2010, they were .203 and .283; in 2009, .190 and .305; and in 2008, .213 and .323.

It's 2009 that represents Upton's greatest prospects at a turnaround. But let's also not brush away the fact that 2009 was also his worst full season as a big league regular, as he batted .241/.313/.373, his .686 OPS easily a career low. Upton sported .191/.288/.283 triple-slash rates through 41 games that year; he managed .264/.325/.413 numbers with nine homers and 28 RBIs in his next 103 games.

Upton's triple-slash rates this season are .155/.246/.264, however, quite a bit worse than they were even in 2009. This argument hardly takes him off the hook.

On adjusting to the new league

This was a thought of mine at the onset of the 2012-13 offseason, and it was behind my surprisingly low initial ranking of Upton. The thinking was that Upton, a player who sometimes showed a lack of focus during his time in Tampa Bay, might have stepped up his game a bit with a payday in his sights, best evidenced by the 18 home runs he hit in his final 50 contests.

Now in his first season with his new team and in the more pitching-oriented National League, Upton might have faced a stiffer challenge battling a new set of pitchers in an unfamiliar set of ballparks. Or at least that was my concern, one partly alleviated thanks to the Braves' acquisition of his brother Justin. (There's little doubt that made the team significantly better.)

The problem is that Upton's statistics don't necessarily support this theory. Approaching it from two angles, the following represents statistics against the 27 pitchers he has faced in at least 25 plate appearances in his career; they're broken down by stats in his first four PAs against each, then in all subsequent PAs:

First 4 PAs: .234 AVG, .340 SLG, 13.8 BB%, 33.0 K%
Fifth PA forward: .255 AVG, .452 SLG, 11.8 BB%, 28.9 K%
Upton's overall career stat line: .251 AVG, .415 SLG, 10.6 BB%, 25.4 K%

Those represent a noticeable increase in power, perhaps supporting the theory, but keep in mind that many of those PAs in the first group came earlier in Upton's career, when he hadn't exactly settled in at the big league level. Upton's slugging percentage in his first 95 games, in parts of 2004 and 2006, was .347.

Now let's look at how Upton has done against unfamiliar competition this year. Out of his 164 PAs, 40 percent have come against pitchers he had never seen before. The stats below are broken down into three groups: Pitchers he had never faced before (through Tuesday's games), pitchers he had faced between 1-4 PAs previously, and pitchers he had already faced in at least five career PAs.

Never faced: .193/.303/.333, 12.1 BB%, 33.3 K%
One to four PAs: .108/.195/.108, 9.8 BB%, 39.0 K%
Five-plus PAs: .140/.214/.240, 7.0 BB%, 29.8 K%

Clearly, Upton has stunk against everyone this year, familiar or unfamiliar. Though the history of players struggling with a league change is significant -- this analysis done for the magazine several years back when Miguel Cabrera joined the Detroit Tigers, then cited when Prince Fielder signed with the same team -- Upton's issues, again, exceed "acceptable" such levels.

On Upton's free-swinging ways

This is the area of greatest concern for Upton, whose 32.7 percent strikeout rate thus far was exceeded at only one other stage of his career: He whiffed 33.9 percent of the time during his first 42 games of 2007. (Incidentally, Upton batted .308/.384/.555 during that span, a remarkable feat.)

Using our pitch-tracking tool, the statistics below show Upton's gradual decline in terms of plate discipline -- not just restricted to his 2013 numbers (through Tuesday):

2009: 9.1 BB%, 24.3 K%, 24 Miss%, 20 Miss% in the zone
2010: 11.0 BB%, 26.9 K%, 28 Miss%, 21 Miss% in the zone
2011: 11.1 BB%, 25.2 K%, 26 Miss%, 20 Miss% in the zone
2012: 7.1 BB%, 26.7 K%, 32 Miss%, 25 Miss% in the zone
2013: 9.8 BB%, 33.5 K%, 33 Miss%, 29 Miss% in the zone

During the past four full seasons (2009-12), five qualified hitters sported a sub-.200 batting average with a miss rate of at least 30 percent on swings on the morning of May 22: Rickie Weeks in 2012, Adam Dunn, Jonny Gomes and Mark Reynolds in 2011 and Drew Stubbs in 2010.

Here's how that group fared before and after May 22:

Through May 21: .179 AVG, .340 SLG, 29.6 K%, 13.2 BB%, 32 Miss%
May 22 forward: .234 AVG, .433 SLG, 29.7 K%, 11.4 BB%, 31 Miss%

That at least represents "regression to the mean" hope for Upton, who was projected to bat .245 with a .431 slugging percentage in the preseason, but even if he hits those numbers from today forward, he'll finish significant short of his full-season projection considering a quarter-plus of his year is in the books. It certainly doesn't support any part of his buy-low case other than "he has to get better, doesn't he?"

Yes, Upton has to get better, if only because he statistically can't get much worse. Still, let's set his new baseline, considering that there are 116 remaining Braves games, at a .220 batting average, 11 home runs, 43 RBIs and 24 stolen bases, beneath Upton's per-116-games career averages. The dual homer-steals contribution will surely grant him a respectable Player Rater ranking from this point forward, but might you be able to piece together comparable numbers to that merely filling his spot via the waiver wire the rest of the year.

In short, Upton drops precipitously in my rankings this week upon further analysis, and I'm wondering whether, for the rest of the year, he's going to be much closer in value to Drew Stubbs' 2012 stat line (.213 AVG, 14 HR, 40 RBI, 30 SB) than the No. 97 overall ranking I gave Upton a week ago.

Stubbs finished 2012 the No. 226 player overall.

Upton isn't the only player mired in a miserable season-opening slump. Let's take a look at two others in the midst of all-time poor performances, and discuss their rest-of-year outlooks:

Ike Davis: Having a little fun with arbitrary end points, Davis' performance through May 21 of each of the past two seasons is astonishing:

Through May 21, 2012: .161/.218/.299, 5 HR, 6.8 BB%, 27.9 K%
Through May 21, 2013: .149/.229/.248, 4 HR, 8.9 BB%, 30.6 K%

Now, here's a look at how he did the rest of last season:

116 G, 437 PA, .251/.339/.521, 27 HR, 11.7 BB%, 22.9 K%

[+] EnlargeDavis
Andy Marlin/Getty ImagesIke Davis can only hope he can turn things around like he did last year.

Those statistics alone offer encouragement to Davis' fantasy owners, but they're also the only rational thing supporting his cause. Frankly, Davis is subject to the same pattern of regression to the mean that Upton is above, and that would hardly put his numbers going forward within range of what he did from this date forward in 2012 -- and keep in mind that he didn't even heat up last season until approximately the second week of June.

Davis at least seemed not to be totally helpless against breaking pitches last season, hitting 11 home runs against curveballs and sliders combined, three of them by May 21. This season, through Tuesday's games, he's a .135 hitter with a whopping 22 K's in 37 at-bats, going deep only once. He has significant adjustments to make in this area before he can be safely projected even a .250 hitter with 25-homer power going forward.

Danny Espinosa: He's a .159 hitter with a 27.6 percent strikeout rate, but most disturbingly, he has worked only three walks in his 145 plate appearances to date, for a 2.1 percentage. What's more, Espinosa has hit a higher percentage of ground balls this season (51.0 percent) than last (48.5 percent), and made hard contact significantly less often (.114 well-hit average in 2013, .192 in 2012).

The concern with Espinosa is the injury to his non-throwing shoulder, which might have contributed to his sluggish start. Those latter statistics support this case, and the fact that the Washington Nationals are reportedly experimenting with prospect Anthony Rendon at second base in the minors hints that they might have long-term health concerns with their big league regular. That he's excluded from my top 150 hitters this week illustrates the validity of these concerns.

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