Tampa Bay Rays (22 days until pitchers and catchers report)
Rays Anatomy is up with their next installment of “The Great Debates”. This time it is BJ Upton versus Robinson Cano. Before we get to Upton, let us say that we would take either on our team. In fact, for those of you that have not watched many Yankees games the past three years or have been blinded by the lineup filled with $15-25 million dollar players, Cano is one of the best hitters in baseball. Not one of the best young hitters. One of the best hitters. Period. If he laid the bat a little bit flatter in his stance, we would swear Rod Carew came out of retirement.

However, today we want to rant about BJ Upton and all the nay-sayers that think Upton is in for a big let-down in 2008. We are going to pick on EJ Fagan from “The Great Debates” series, but rest-assured, we have seen this exact same argument in a dozen different places.

For people that have not seen Upton play on a regular basis and try to evaluate his 2007 season, they must rely on new-age stats to try and poke holes in his breakout performance. This is fine with most players, but may not necessarily work for a player like BJ Upton. These stats often look at factors like, where the ball landed, fly ball vs. ground ball, lined drive percentage, etc. Fagan uses three of the most common stat lines (BABIP, HR/FB, LineDrive%) when evaluating Upton. In all three cases, Upton’s numbers in 2007 were higher than normal/expected and on paper indicate that Upton was the beneficiary of good luck.

The problem with these stats is that they cannot account for one factor that could explain Upton’s numbers. That factor is speed. As in bat speed and foot speed.

First bat speed: Upton hits the ball hard, more consistently than almost any other player we have ever seen. Upton is able to generate an enormous amount of bat speed and as a result, when he does make contact the ball explodes off of his bat. This can very easily lead to inflated states that make it appear as if Upton is “lucky”. Take a hard ground ball, five feet to the left of the short stop. Upton hits the ball hard enough that a ball in that spot has a good chance of going through for a base hit. If a player like Dioner Navarro hits a ball in the exact same spot, it is probably an out. In other words, Upton can hit the ball to more parts of the field than average player in which the swing results in a base hit. He has more room for error. That is not “luck”. It is talent.

Now consider foot speed: Upton is fast. One of the faster players in baseball. Now take the same ground ball in the previous paragraph and let’s assume the short stop fields the ball. He is moving to his right, towards the hole and away from first base. There are not many shortstops in baseball, if any, that will throw out Upton. Now again, let’s consider Navarro. In his case, the shortstop has a chance to set his feet and make a strong throw. Navarro will probably be out.

Those two factors have a direct bearing on stats such as BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play). In 2007 Upton posted a .393 BABIP, which is very high. His expected BABIP was .316. As we have shown Upton’s BABIP should be higher than an average player, and should be higher than would be expected based on where the ball was hit. In addition, Upton’s bat speed can explain his high rate of home runs and line drives. Plain and simple, the guy hits the ball hard. More fly balls will end up as home runs and more balls will be rated as line drives.

It is natural to be skeptical of breakout performance such as Upton’s. But in this case, the regular stat line does not lie. Upton is that good. He will continue to strikeout a lot, but it will not keep him from becoming the first 30-30 player in Rays history in 2008.

The “Great Debates” – BJ Upton vs. Robsinson Cano [Rays Anatomy]

DEVIL RAYS WEBTOPIA

  • The Heater is reporting that the Rays will announce a long-term contract for James Shields. A 2 p.m. press conference has been scheduled. The deal is believed to be for four years and $12 million, with three option years that would bring the total package up to $38 million with another $2 million in incentives. As was noted in the comments of yesterday’s post the deal is not likely to have a significant impact on the Rays’ payroll in 2008 or 2009. Shields was set to make close to the league minimum the next two years, and the new contract may give him a slight boost, but it will not be for more than $0.5-0.7 million each year. [TampaBay.com]
  • Rocco Baldelli was in Scotland last week and took in a Celtic football match. The Daily Record interviewed the Rays center fielder DH. We love how they refer to Baldelli as “a man who has made his name and his fortune from agility, pace and handling skills.” Sometimes it is hard to remember that Rocco is a pretty good baseball player. [DailyRecord.com via TBO]
  • The Sporting News ranks the Rays outfield as the 7th best in the AL. [The Sporting News]

Crawford and Upton have a rare combination of speed and power. Upton could grow into a 30-homer , 30-steal performer. Gomes, like many Rays, strikes out way too much.

  • BJ Upton, Justin Upton and Michael Cuddyer are set to build an indoor sports training facility in Virginia Beach, Virginia. [PilotOnline.com]
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2 Comments

  1. Robert Rittner says:

    I think you make excellent points about Upton. I have great respect for the progressive statistics and their usefulness in projecting what players and teams may do. But they are useful primarily as generalizations and are less accurate in each specific case. That is, if we take a group of players with similar skill sets and performance markers, we can reasonably anticipate what their average performance will be, but may not be as accurate in any one case because he may have special circumstances not accounted for by the model.

    Upton is an example, as you point out. I think too that looking at his minor league numbers, we may anticipate a slight drop in Ks and rise in BBs. He did improve in both a bit as the year progressed, and I think some of his K problem came from his patience at the plate. He took a lot of marginal pitches that were called strikes, and as he familiarizes himself with the umpires' strike zones, we may see his Ks decrease a bit.

    Actually, Cano is another example of the same phenomenon. His BB rate was awful and some thought that meant his performance would decline as a result. But he makes such good contact and hits the ball so hard that he has overcome that weakness somewhat. And simultaneously, while his BB rate remains poor, it improved last year.

    There are a lot of major leaguers whose peripheral stats belie their success. Ichiro really doesn't walk much either but remains a star hitter. Upton has the talent to succeed even if he continues to strike out a lot.

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  2. EricSanSan says:

    I don't know if it is because the sheer amount of Yankee fans or because some Rays followers don't know about the piece, but I was genuinely suprised by the dominance of Cano in this debate.

    As I mentioned in my piece, these are two special players and while there is technically no wrong answer, in the end I can't see how logically you don't choose Upton.

    He has had great success earlier in his career, and posseses superior tools to Cano. While the "hit" tool is in Cano's corner (that's debatable), every other facet sees BJ with an advantage.

    I'm glad I've gotten such strong response in terms of comments and thoughts, and that was ultimately the purpose of these debates I created.

    This was harder, and that was the point. If you just compare to similar players who play the same position, than it becomes about numbers. I wanted people to think hard about the difference in where they play and the skills they possess, than force you to choose one.

    Thanks for linking to this Professor, and I obviously agree with you. Bossman Junior is that good.

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