June 18, 2009

Chances are your anger level is higher than Artie Lange on Joe Buck Live if you were the one who drafted B.J. Upton with a first- or second-round pick in your spring draft.

It's never fun when one of your stud bats, a prime piece of your team's core, is batting .218 with 15 RBIs. What happened to this guy? Last year, ESPN The Magazine had Upton and his brother, Justin, as cover boys. The feature story did everything but insinuate B.J. and Justin would use their vast array of talents to help owners win fantasy titles all by themselves.

Although Justin has met, and possibly exceeded, expectations this year by hitting .306 with 12 homers and 37 RBIs, the struggles at the dish have continued for B.J. He looks lost, strikes out too much and hasn't displayed the power that dazzled baseball fans during the '08 postseason, when he smashed seven homers in the first two series.

You know what this sounds like? A Deconstructing that's been in-waiting for nearly two months. It's time to evaluate what the heck is sapping B.J. Upton's hitting ability.

All statistics through June 14.

2009: .218 AVG, .620 OPS, 39 runs, 3 homers, 15 RBIs, 24 steals

Offseason shoulder surgery isn't the only explanation for his powerless bat. After undergoing a procedure to repair a damaged labrum in his left shoulder, ignorant fantasy owners (OK, me), surmised that only the bum shoulder was what stood in the way between Upton's disappointing nine-homer campaign in '08 and the potential for 25-30 blasts in '09.

His swattage factor during the postseason was so powerful and seemed to build so much confidence in him it was tempting to wonder if he could become the third major leaguer to join the 40/40 club. (Unfortunately, Hanley Ramirez will probably never run enough to join the two-man group of Jose Canseco and Alex Rodriguez.)

Yet after sitting out the first week of action in April to avoid the cold weather in Boston and Baltimore, Upton still hasn't zoned in at the plate. He's had only two notable hitting surges this year. The first was a four-game stretch from May 13-16 in which he went 7-for-19 (.368) with two doubles and two homers. The second was a season-high 10-game hitting streak from May 27 through June 7 when he hit 13-for-35 (.371) with three two-baggers and a home run. And that's it.

The 10-game hit streak is the only time this year he's hit safely in more than five straight games. Only twice has he delivered an extra-base hit in consecutive games. Funny enough, the home run ball shouldn't be as unattainable as it's seemed. His 35.7 line drive percentage is just barely below the 37.6 mark he put up in a 22-home run campaign in '07. To take that a step further, if you were to eliminate his infield fly ball percentage, his fly rate this year (33.9) is even better than in '07 (30.2).

Many friends have tried to talk me out of my fantasy love for Upton, but I can't get over his natural ability. I'm not sure that I've enjoyed watching a single player so much since Ken Griffey Jr.'s heyday with the Mariners. Upton's swing is smoother than The Most Interesting Man in the World and his style of play is bolder than Magic Johnson's suit at Game 5 of the NBA Finals. To watch Upton play is to gain insight into how to execute the mechanics of the game. His swing easily splices through the strike zone, with a slight uppercut. He looks as though he's practiced his swing -- and throwing -- mechanics relentlessly. Anyone who watches him swing would have to admit he has the components of an annual 25-homer player.

On the other hand, how does that explain his .218 batting average? With a batting average on Balls in Play of .306, it's not like he's been especially unlucky. As usual, two other categories deeply explain why he hasn't been the consummate leadoff man. His walk percentage (11.7) is down nearly four points from last year while his strikeout percentage (31.6) is up more than six points. He's making progress with the average, though, raising it 18 points in 14 games from May 30 through June 14.

Perhaps the better question is whether he profiles as the .300 hitter from '07 or the .273 batter from last year. Considering his .399 BABIP from '07, it's looking like Upton's calling is as a .280ish hitter. That leads to a much broader question: If he doesn't retain the power he showed in the '07 regular season and the '08 postseason or the elite batting average he posted in '07, then exactly where does Upton's value sit?

As of now, his only major contribution is with steals. Yet, couldn't you have went with Willy Taveras or Michael Bourn for a much cheaper price if all you needed was speed? No matter how many bases Upton swipes -- and with 24 already he's on pace for 50-plus -- fantasy owners will start to drastically lower his value if he doesn't begin tagging balls like the superstar everyone thinks he should already be.

It seems Upton is a strikingly good buy-low candidate, but he's not. He's still over-valued by his owners not only for the speed he's exhibiting, but for the power potential that we all know is there. Whether or not he reaches that is almost irrelevant in regards to his value. He's a fun player to watch and has loads of potential -- thus he's highly coveted even though other players produce far more than he does for half the price.

His average will spike, no doubt. Maybe he makes it to the .250 range by the All-Star break. He'll probably have 31 or 32 steals by then, with 25 RBIs. It's probable he'll get on a hot streak soon, but his leadoff role will limit the number of runners he brings across. His fly ball percentage is close to where it needs to be for him to become a double-digit home run hitter. Yet, there's no hiding the fact that his brother is a more useful fantasy player. That ESPN Mag cover might have had a double meaning. Not only did it relate to fantasy ball, but perhaps the expectations for B.J. Upton were fantasy in and of itself.

He's clearly a fun player to watch and certainly a behemoth on the basepaths. But any owner trying to sell you on B.J. Upton turning into a 30/30 giant is more likely trying to convince himself of the same thing.

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