Justin Upton Cleared for Take Off
The Atlanta Braves are the hottest team in MLB as the 2013 season gets fully into gear. Many analysts had consigned the Braves to caddie-status to the Washington Nationals. However one off-season move has paid immediate dividends that, coupled with superb pitching, has propelled the Braves to a smoking hot start with the powerful bat of Justin Upton leading the way. Upton’s power explosion has given the Braves’ lineup a massive jolt and put the Braves in the early lead when judging the off-season trade that saw Upton join his brother, the recently signed free agent B.J. Upton, in Atlanta.
The Arizona Diamondbacks were carrying off a curious off-season where they evidently were on a mission to change their clubhouse culture. It seems from the outside that despite saying things that were notionally supportive of Upton, DBacks GM Kevin Towers and manager Kirk Gibson had decided that a player, even as young and talented, like Upton didn’t fit the mold of ballplayer they preferred to go to battle with moving forward. Arizona shipped Upton and Chris Johnson to the Braves in return for Martin Prado, Randall Delgado, 3 other minor league prospects, and possibly a truck full of “Grit and Hustle”. The D’Backs completed the off-season by acquiring light hitting shortstops and the memories of an effective Heath Bell. The interesting thing about the Diamondbacks is that they have enough starting pitching and play in a competitive enough division that they could pitch themselves into contention. The “scrap and grit” will get the credit in the media most likely…..but their pitching depth is their current calling card.
Meanwhile in Atlanta, Justin Upton has been working furiously to put his injury-marred campaign in 2012 behind him. Thumb and wrist problems limited Upton’s massive power last year and this was likely behind the growing concerns about his future. Upton started to rebound in the second half last season presumably as he was putting the power-sapping injuries behind him. Those issues are now nearly forgotten. The power was merely dormant last year….it has come back with full fury in the first 13 games of 2013.
Kelvin Herrera has been a reliever drawing plenty of buzz in certain quarters of late due to his triple-digit heat and place of growing importance to the Kansas City Royals’ bullpen. Herrera has been one of the more stingy at allowing homers in his short career of nearly any reliever in the game. But on Tuesday night Herrera ran into a buzz saw. In a tie game in the 8th inning the heretofore struggling Jason Heyward busted out with an opposite field dinger to break the tie which led to Upton coming to the plate. Upton took an upper-90’s high heater from Herrera and unleashed a frightening blast into the left-field bleachers. Dan Uggla followed with another homerun and suddenly on the strength of three solo shots the 2-2 tie had been broken sending a shaken Herrera to the showers and the Braves on the path to another win.
How has Upton managed this power surge? Some of what he is doing appears sustainable and some, of course, seems like a pace he won’t keep up. Few are projecting him to hit 60+ homers. Indeed, per Fangraphs, Upton is hitting a homer on 40% of fly balls thus far. The league average is typically around 11% if memory serves and Upton’s career high was 18.8% in 2009 with a career pace of 14.4%. Obviously the stunning pace of homers will slow as his HR/FB% normalizes from the Ruth-ian level it is now.
A positive factor that is possibly sustainable is that Upton’s rate of getting the ball in the air is at a career high in the early going. Last year, with the injuries obviously affecting his performance, he had become a hitter producing a lot of groundballs. It seems he was not able to consistently elevate the ball. This year a healthy Upton is hitting a fly ball fully 54% of the time up nearly 20 points from last year’s 35%. You have to elevate the ball to hit homeruns and if Upton can continue sustain this level of fly ball production, its likely his massive power will keep enough balls clearing fences.
Thus far Upton is averaging 422 feet per homer according to Hittrackeronline. He is not hitting many wall-scrapers. All eight of his homers have cleared 400 feet with a high of 460 off a Cole Hamels’ pitch on Opening Day. Quite simply, Upton has the natural power needed to take away a fair bit of the “fluke factor” off this hot start. Not all, the pace will slow at some point as he’s not going to slug .900 for the season. Upton’s K-rate is coming down the last few days sitting at 24% and his walk-rate is over 10%. His success to this point is also being done with a very normal BABIP of .310. Nothing in those number screams “crash coming!”. I feel confident that Upton can continue to be a leading MVP candidate in Atlanta’s lineup for the long haul.
We can’t completely dismiss the “mission” factor either. Upton had been put through the Rumor Mill merry-go-round for over two years with GM Towers never seemingly willing to fully embrace him in Arizona. Upton has to feel at least somewhat motivated to show the DBacks they made a big mistake. (and, hey, Arizona….if your “clubhouse culture” doesn’t seem like a place that can comfortably house a young powerful mega-talent like Justin Upton, maybe you need to re-evaluate the clubhouse culture you’re committed to building. Just sayin’.)
Perhaps a deep breath is needed. April Sensations can lead to May Doldrums very easily (Tigers fans will recall Chris Shelton’s 9 April homers in 2006 and ponder where Shelton is selling cars or insurance these days). Justin Upton, however, is in the sweet spot in his career age-wise at 25. He is still entering his prime where this emergence could be the start of a something special. It seems like he has been around forever since his debut as a 19-year old but there is room for him to grow as a player as we’ve seen the past two weeks. He finished 4th in MVP voting back in 2011 to whet the appetite of his fans…..he appears to be targeting a higher finish in 2013 and beyond.