Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 11/15/14

Things to know before we proceed with this article about B.J. Upton:

(1) B.J. Upton is set to become a free agent after the end of this season, and he is newly 28 years old.

(2) Yesterday, in the last game of a series between the Rays and the Rangers, B.J. Upton slugged three home runs. They were his 19th, 20th, and 21st home runs of the year.

I was tricking you before — this article about B.J. Upton began with the word “Things”. Now let us move on to the rest of it!

Upton is no stranger to transaction talk, and it’s something of a minor miracle that he’s still with the Rays considering how often he’s been in the middle of trade rumors. Now people get to talk about him as a potential free-agent acquisition, and as a potential free-agent acquisition, Upton is as confusing as he’s ever been. I mean, on the one hand, I guess he isn’t confusing at all. He remains an everyday center fielder who is more than capable of handling the position. Here are Upton’s wRC+ figures for the last three seasons:

2010: 113 wRC+
2011: 115
2012: 113

I bet I can guess how projection systems are going to view Upton going forward. But remember that Upton was the second overall pick in 2002, and remember that he’s always seemed capable of more than he’s done. Upton, like his brother, is blessed with more tools than you can keep in one shed, but he only very seldom puts them all to proper use. Additionally, below the surface, there have been changes, and it’s those changes that I’m here to talk about.

I think the easiest way to lay this out is like so: five years ago, Upton finished with 93 unintentional walks and 134 strikeouts. That’s a whole lot of patience, from a very young player. So far this season, Upton has 39 unintentional walks and 144 strikeouts. Forget about the different sample sizes and just focus on the ratios. Clearly, B.J. Upton has changed as a hitter. And the evidence suggests that he isn’t done changing.

Here is a very terrible graphic I whipped up to compare B.J. Upton to Bobby Abreu. I selected Upton because this article is about Upton. I selected Abreu because he was the first guy who came to mind when I thought about a consistent veteran. I put part of Abreu’s name in parentheses because he seems old enough to just go by Bob now. We look at three different plate-discipline statistics:

I warned you before that this was terrible. Upton’s overall swing rate is on the rise, his first-pitch swing rate is on the rise, and his contact rate is going down. Bobby Abreu has been Bobby Abreu. The once selective Upton has become more and more aggressive, and still it continues.

Through August 10 of this season, Upton owned a .676 OPS. The free-agent-to-be wasn’t doing anything to boost his value, and then on August 11, Upton hit two home runs. Upton hit three home runs yesterday, on September 10. FanGraphs leaderboards have a very handy “Last 30 Days” option in the pull-down menu for splits, and the last 30 days capture both August 11 and September 10. Upton has been streaking. Over the last 30 days, Upton has posted the fourth-highest wRC+ in baseball, at 193. He’s right in between Adrian Beltre and Miguel Cabrera, and that tends to be good company as offensive statistics are concerned. Yet at the same time, over the last 30 days, Upton has posted the very lowest contact rate in baseball, at 57 percent. The next-lowest belongs to Chris Carter, at 63 percent. Upton’s hottest stretch at the plate by one statistic coincides with his coldest stretch at the plate by another. Not that contact rate is even close to being as important as wRC+, but this is weird. Upton has hit the crap out of the ball. At the same time he’s posted a lower contact rate than Aroldis Chapman has allowed.

As the Rays have scrambled back into the playoff race, Upton has done a lot to boost his value as a free agent, but even his value boost carries a major red flag. He’s hit, and he’s hit for power, but how much of that can continue if he keeps on swinging and missing? What is the story behind all of the swings and misses?

Let’s break Upton’s 2012 season down, splitting after August 10. A table:

Split O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% Contact% 1st% OPS Through 8/10 29% 71% 50% 73% 44% 0.676 Since 8/11 35% 73% 53% 57% 52% 1.050

I can’t stop staring at the recent contact rate. It is such a low contact rate. That is three whiffs for every seven swings. But one can’t ignore the far right column, and one can’t ignore that the numbers in the far right column correspond with increased aggressiveness in the other columns. Upton’s swung at more balls, more strikes, more first pitches — more everything, and when he’s hit the ball, he’s pummeled the ball. He’s hit the ball some.

Right now, what’s important isn’t B.J. Upton’s free agency. Upton and the Rays are trying to get to the playoffs, and lately Upton has done a lot more helping than hurting. Over 28 games over those last 30 days, he’s hit 11 home runs and also stolen eight bases for good measure. But what matters for Upton’s free agency is also what matters right now. And that’s the question of: how good is B.J. Upton going to be? He’s a tricky one to pin down. Some numbers suggest that right now he’s locked in, and some numbers suggest the very opposite. Some numbers suggest that Upton is beginning to really tap into his abundant potential, and some numbers suggest that he’s going to get exposed once pitchers figure out what he’s doing.

For the final month or so, the Rays will have a player who is very good, very frustrating, or somewhere in between. It’ll probably be the same story for Upton after this last stretch is over and he finds a new home. I don’t know what Upton’s numbers are going to look like between now and the end of the year, but for a month he’s seemingly been all-or-nothing to an extreme degree. B.J. Upton’s hot streak has undeniably been a hot streak, but it’s been a hot streak far different from most.


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