Upton turning heads and earning major payday with monster month
B.J. Upton, 28, of Tampa Bay has hit .343 with six home runs in September
He will be a free-agent at season's end and is likely to get $12-15 million per year
Upton has long confused observers who keep waiting for him to put it all together
The name conjures up images of a skinny kid in Coke bottle glasses, pencil in hand, hunched over a book, underwear wedged in an uncomfortable place, maybe dried tears on his cheek. Hollywood's mean that way. The name "Melvin", to those of us of a certain age, meant nerd, meant geek, meant weak and it meant weird.
It's about to mean "crazy rich". Melvin Emanuel Upton -- "Bossman Junior" to his nearest and dearest and "B.J." to the world -- is a free agent after the season. Thanks in part to his late kick this year, he's going to get paid, most likely by a team other than his Tampa Bay Rays. Upton, 28 (27 in "baseball age" because his birthday is in late August), is trying to single-handedly keep the Rays in the AL East and AL wild-card races. His leadoff homer Wednesday night was his sixth in eight games, a stretch that included a three-homer day against the Rangers on Sunday. Upton is hitting .343/.410/.914 in September and is five-for-five stealing bases for the month. It's not that 40 well-timed plate appearances should be the determinant of a player's worth of course; it's that no matter what the statheads say, it very often is.
Upton is a fascinating player. He was the Manny Machado of his time, reaching the majors in 2004 a few weeks before his 20th birthday, barely two years after being taken with the second pick of the 2002 draft. Upton was rushed to the majors, but despite the rough handling, he hit .258/.324/.409, stole a few bases, hit a few homers and acquitted himself well at the plate. His defense was rough -- Upton would be moved off shortstop to third base, and later to second and then centerfield -- but the raw talent carried him. In 2007, at 22, he settled in as the Rays' everyday centerfielder and, buoyed by unusually high HR/FB and BABIP figures, had the best season of his career: .300/.386/.508. Those figures did not match his underlying performance -- Upton didn't have the flyball rate or the contact rate to support that stat line. In some ways, Upton's good fortune on contact that season hurt him; paired with his obvious physical gifts, it created the impression that he could put up Mike Trout's stat line again and again.
Upton, however, was never that kind of hitter. His strikeout rate has always been incredibly high, limiting his batting average potential. Starting in 2008, Upton has never hit higher than .273, and overall he's hit .249. His inability to improve his contact rate is one of the most frustrating aspects of his game. Striking out, however, isn't necessarily a bad thing; we know that strikeouts aren't much worse than outs on balls in play, and that they tend to be a byproduct of things such as power and walks.
Upton, however, hasn't provided enough of either to make up for his strikeout rate. After a strong 2008 in which he hit just nine homers -- but posted a .383 OBP and stole 44 bases -- Upton has been an incredibly disappointing player. From ages 24 through 27, coming off two strong years at 22 and 23, Upton hit .243/.319/.418. Other than adding some power in later years, Upton hasn't developed at all. In fact, he's regressed; his strong walk rate has regressed to a terrible 7.4 percent this year, dragging his OBP down to .307.
This is why Upton's two-week hot streak is exciting, because it reminds us of the player he looked on his way to becoming at 22 and 23. At one time or another, Upton has done everything on a baseball field: he's hit .300, he's slugged .500, he's drawn walks, he's stolen bases frequently and efficiently, he's played excellent defense at a key position. However, he's never done all of those things in a single season, and since 2009, his value has primarily come from his stolen bases and his defense.
There's a case to be made that Upton is one of the great teases in baseball history. At ages 22 and 23, he produced 7.3 Wins Above Replacement, as calculated by baseball-reference.com (bWAR, in the vernacular). Twenty-nine other players have produced between 7.0 and 7.9 bWAR at those ages; two would then have their careers altered by World War II, and a third, Upton's younger brother Justin, is just 24 years old now.
Of the 25 players other than the elder Upton to be seven-win players at 22 and 23, just four were less productive from 24-27 than he was. Three of them are from baseball's early days, the 1910s and 1920s. A fourth, George Scott, was a victim of the Year of the Pitcher in 1968, destroying his numbers and his value before bouncing back when the mound and the strike zone were changed in 1969.
The fifth was Ruben Sierra, whose athletic skills, performance at a young age, immediate falloff and perception as a player who didn't put in a great effort are all frighteningly close matches for Upton:
Upton has markers -- mostly speed and defense -- that Sierra didn't have. However, the strongest link between the two is the idea that neither player is getting the most out of the talent they have. That's usually an unfair charge borne of a misunderstanding of career arcs, but in Upton's case, there's real evidence that he hasn't always put in the effort on the field. There are standout examples of him not running hard to first in spots where running hard to first may have made the difference between safe and out -- he was benched twice in 2008 by Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon for not hustling and confronted in the dugout two years later by teammate Evan Longoria for apparently loafing in the outfield. More importantly, the fact that he hasn't developed as a hitter from his age-23 season is confounding, and when paired with the open discussion of his effort level, make comps to Sierra frustratingly appropriate.
And yet...when you see Upton rock a fastball 15 rows deep into the leftfield grandstand, as he did leading off Wednesday night's game, or glide effortlessly under a deep fly ball, or steal a base nearly uncontested, you forget the other stuff and you just see a 28-year-old about to hit the market. Upton is a true centerfielder who can play the position and steal bases, and even if he never gets any better than he has been at 26 and 27, is worth $12-15 million a year over the next four years of his career. If he keeps hitting pennant-race homers, or perhaps has the kind of October he did back in '08? The sky -- Jayson Werth money -- is out there. There may be no player in baseball with more on the line right now than B.J. Upton. Melvins everywhere, root for this guy.