What Happened to Justin Upton?
In a season where the Dodgers went from the laughing stock of baseball – panhandling to the tourists in Hollywood – to the team with millions between their couch cushions, Justin Upton’s struggles have barely even registered on the NL West Radar. But what happened? Where did his power go? One year removed from a 4th-place finish in the NL MVP voting (.289/.369/.529), Justin Upton went from an emerging superstar to being shopped at the trading deadline, booed at home, and placed on waivers.
In Justin Upton’s short career, his seasons have vacillated between good and great. In 2009 and 2011, he showed the talent that made him the number one overall pick in the 2005 draft and a trendy pick for the 2012 NL MVP award. In 2010 and so far in 2012, he has had the kind of season that drives fans crazy. Over the last four years, he has been the Larry Ellison version of Aubrey Huff – with Huff vacillating between good and atrocious from season to season.
Inconsistency between seasons has been a trend of sorts for Justin Upton, but why has his power fallen off after his breakout 2011 campaign?
Looking briefly at his peripheral statistics, his .279 batting average and .360 on-base percentage are slightly above, but largely similar, to his career averages. His BB%, K%, and BABIP are also in line with his career averages and 2011 numbers.
Delving a little deeper, his plate discipline and contact rate statistics are also similar to his career numbers.
He has seen a dip across the board in swing percentages suggesting a less aggressive approach at the plate compared to 2011, but is that the cause of his drastic decline in slugging percentage? I would guess minimal, although he has been striking out at an inordinate rate.
Sidenote: To put Upton’s power outage into perspective, the difference between his slugging percentage this year and last (123 points) is about the same as the difference in Hunter Pence’s slugging percentage in Philadelphia versus his underwhelming stint in San Francisco (131 points).
The answer to Justin Upton’s power outage most likely lies in his groundball/flyball ratio. He is hitting more groundballs and less flyballs than any other season in his career. Compared to 2011, he is hitting 8.9% more groundballs and 12.6% less flyballs. In fact, his groundball/flyball ratio has essentially reversed since last year.
Why is he pounding more balls into the ground and hitting less in the air? I don’t know. Maybe he needs to make a mechanical adjustment. Maybe his thumb injury is still bothering him. Maybe he’s having more problems with his troublesome left shoulder that sent him to the DL in 2009 and 2010. Maybe the 2012 season is just an outlier.
With Justin Upton’s struggles and Ian Kennedy’s regression, the Diamondbacks have essentially been a non-factor so far in the NL West race. The Giants are hoping it continues. The Dodgers have already proven that they’re going to be a handful. They don’t want to have to deal with a resurgent Justin Upton and the multiple blue chip prospects that are coming down the pipes as well.
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