Justin Upton - Aggressiveness

Q.  Upton's plate discipline numbers were different in his breakout year, and now they've flipped back again.

A.  It's tough for sabermetricians to grok this, but the "plate discipline" coin has two sides.  (1) Not swinging at the wrong pitches.  (2) Swinging, with gusto, at the right pitches.

You'd never get the charming li'l guys to sign a confession to this effect, but by "plate discipline" they are really thinking of walking more.  Or maybe of reducing their swinging strike percentages.  ... More elusive, and maybe more important, is the idea of swinging with gusto at the right pitches.

Eric Wedge has talked about this second side of the coin.  It has gotten him buried in a hail of crinkled paper Dixie cups.  But it was the key to Justin Upton's breakout 2011 season.


Q.  A batter can take a plateau leap by swinging more?

A.  On this point, let's defer to the Bill James mailbox.  If you're not paying $3 per month to access to baseball's Aristotle, you're just missing out on the finer things of life (as well as a Ph.D. in verbal logic and systems analysis).  Subcribe here.

A reader asked, incredulously, how Andrew McCutcheon could be bustin' out despite walking less.  Bill steered him, sabermetrically, to the issue that Eric Wedge has been trying to address in physical terms ...


McCutchen's BA is up 100 points despite his BB rate dropping by 30 percent. Isn't that most unusual?
Asked by: 3for3
Answered: 7/10/2012
Well. . .understanding that everything MOST unusual happens in smaller samples.   McCutchen's won't be hitting .362 at the end of the season.   But Luke Appling in 1936 increased his batting average 81 points (.307 to .388) with a decline in his walk rate of almost 30%.    Ivan Calderon in 1989 increased his batting average by 74 points with a decline in his walk rate of almost 50%.   
Craig Counsell for the Accused increased his batting average 59 points in 2009, with a 40% drop in his walk rate.   Rob Deer Crossing increased his batting average 68 points in 1992 with a 30%+ decrease in his walk rate.    Erubiel Durazo in 2004 had a 62-point increase in batting average with a 40% decrease in walks.   Nick Esasky in 1985.. .I'll skip the details.   Richard Hidalgo Not the Horse increased his batting average 87 points in 2000, with a 30% decrease in his walk rate.    Bug Holliday in 1894. . .I'll skip the details, and the puns as well.    Johnny Kling in 1912 had a 105-point increase in his batting average with a drop in his walk rate of almost 50%.    John (I am not a) Kruk in 1989. . .skip the details.   Jim Landis in 1958, 65 points and almost 40%.   Charlie Moore in 1977, 57 points and a full 50% decline in walks.  Gene Moore in 1940. . .65 points and 40%+.   Dave Nelson in 1973, 60 points and a decline in the walk rate of significantly more than 50%.   Paul O'Neill in 1993, 65 points and 40%.   Johnny Pesky in 1953, 67 points and a 56% decline in the walk rate.   Desi Relaford in 2001, 87 points and a decline in the walk rate of almost 50%.   Cal Ripken in 1992, 73 points and a decline in the walk rate of more than a third.   Dave Robertson in 1915, only 28 points but a decline in his walk rate, if the stats are accurate, of almost 80%.   Jimmy Ryan in 1894. . .skip details.   Snuffy Stirnweiss in 1944, 100 points and 30%.  Joe Uribe in 1987, 68 points and 40%.   Elmer Valo in 1955, 150 points and almost 20%.   Mickey Vernon in 1953, 86 points and 30% (won AL batting title in 1953).   Don Zimmer in 1960, 93 points and almost 50%. 
Those are just the ones I can remember off the top of my head (kidding.)   It does appear that certain players, sometimes, make a decision to attack a certain pitch that they have previously been letting go past, leading to hits replacing walks. 


Q.  Meaning what?

A.  Take Paul O'Neill, for example.  His career took a huge leap up, from 115 OPS+'s to 140's, at precisely the moment he took the cotton-pickin' bat off his shoulder.

Of course, the BB's returned, once pitchers realized that he was a .525 SLG'er and no longer a .425 SLG'er.  The walks don't disappear in the long run.  But it's a different kind of walk for the guy slugging .525.

Don't try explaining these "types of walks" to a Trekkie.  But "grovelling" walks and "danger here!" walks are the crux of the matter.


Q.  Upton did this in 2011?

A.  In 2011, Upton saw the lowest BB% of his career.  He also posted a 140 wRC+ and racked up +64 runs hard on the barrelhead, no UZR bonuses need apply.

Plate discipline is NOT taking more pitches.  Plate discipline is being able to tell a ball from a strike.  That means going after your pitches when they are there, which the Seattle Mariners, for example, fail to do.


Q.  What happened in 2012, then?

A.  The sore thumb, the depressing local environment, who knows what all do I look like Nostradamus to you .... this we know:  Upton's swing percentages have reverted to 2009.  He's no longer standing in the box DIALED IN BABY, waiting JUST WAAAIIIITING! for that pitch.

Along with the lack of alertness at the plate, goes the dreaded High Contact % On Pitches Outside The Zone.  He hacks at whatever he sees, clips a pitch leaning over with no leverage... he ain't in the zone.  But you knew that.


Q.  Maybe he'll never get it back.

A.  This is truly an on-stage situation that calls for a rollout of Ron Shandler's National Anthem.  "Once a player shows a skill, he owns it."

Think it through for a minute.  Upton has visited Paradise City, knows what it looks like, from the batter's box, to perform like a HOF'er.  Which pitches show up, and when, and how to be ready.  

He's out of synch in 2012.  He'll get back to the place where he was.  Maybe not in 2012.  But he knows how to do it.  

Thumbs are not known for ruining careers.  They've been known to ruin seasons.



ghost's picture

"Once a player shows a skill, he owns it"
Yeah...that did the Mariners a TON of good with Beltre at the plate those five long years. Thanks. (end sarcasm)
I'm sorry Doc...I just can't get excited about Upton...he seems like a player who got hot for a second and then forgot how to be hot again because he's too much of an idiot. The Upton brothers never knew how to play baseball.


Too much Benadryl goin' on?  ;- )
Once Beltre showed a skill, he DID own it.  His first two seasons away from Safeco were 7.0 and 5.9 WAR.  
He's an absolutely perfect example of Shandler's principle.  Maybe the best one of the last decade.
Safeco Field is an independently-operating variable that does not compete with Shandler's principle.  Gotta clarify - gotta see the variables in isolation, without distorting context noise, if we're going to keep them straight.

ghost's picture

But...Safeco is still an independently operating variable for Upton, no?
I am awaiting some kind of retort to the physics I mentioned (7% gain in loft for fly balls in altitude). Zona is Colorado South...it should be treated as such.


The problem I have with Upton is this: If he really were a potential HOFer, why would he ever be available? Especially on his (relatively) reasonable contract, with good D and good wheels?
Almost too good to be true, it feels like.

Taro's picture

Upton has made negative remarks to the FO and pissed off the GM. GM struck back by calling him an 'enigma'. Hes dealt with injuries as well. Significant shoulder injuries like in 2010.
Hes sort of a sensitive version of Josh Hamilton, though not quite as injury prone. Really responds badly to boos and negative feedback. A place like NY/Boston would probably be terrible for him, but he could fit in here.

ghost's picture

That sounds WONDERFUL for the current Mariners...a guy who not only plays baseball like an idiot savante but is also super-sensitive to criticism, fragile, egotistical and prone to angry remarks about the front office. WHHHHEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Sorry...but I have very recent memories of Parker Brothers swirling around in my head.

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