Tuesday, June 28, 2011

How good is BJ Upton? A Comparison.

Let's get this out of the way - I apologize that three out of my last four posts have been about the Rays, despite the fact that one of those posts was arguing that almost nobody cares about the Rays and that maybe they should move. So if you're annoyed and would prefer it if I wrote about your favorite team/player, feel free to send me a dollar.

Moving on, let's take a quick look at two center fielders who were born 10 days apart in 1984, debuted at age 19, and were once considered building blocks of the futures of their respective teams. Here are their performances since the beginning of the 2009 season (ages 24-26, statistics lifted from our friends at Baseball-Reference):

Player A37714041273160342727261532751051700.2690.3250.3970.7229350628512916
Player B3731545136820832383840158104271583940.2360.3160.3960.71295542266493

So let's take a look. The first thing that jumps out is that Player B steals a lot more bases. Stolen bases are becoming a more important part of the game in recent years, and the stolen base percentage is quite efficient, so that's a plus. Player B also exhibits a bit more power, hitting home runs once every 38.6 plate appearances, while Player A goes deep once every 54. Player B walks a little bit more often, but strikes out more than twice as frequently -once every 3.9 PA, while Player A strikes out only once every 8.4. Strikeouts on their own aren't inherently worse than other outs, but an extremely high strikeout rate like this will keep the batting average down, particularly if it isn't being supplemented with plus power. That's what appears to be happening here, Player B strikes out so much that it drives his batting average down to the point where his OBP and SLG are lower than a guy who walks and homers less often.

The fact that Player B has a slightly higher OPS+ than Player A despite a lower actual OPS shows that he's probably been playing in a slightly harder hitting environment, but neither guy is even an average hitter.

So, can you guess who the two players are? Yes, of course BJ Upton is one, his name is in the title. I'll give you a moment to try to figure out who the other one is. Take your time. Remember, he's a starting center fielder in the major leagues right now.

Figure it out yet?

It's Melky Cabrera. Seriously. BJ Upton is Melky Cabrera with more stolen bases.

Melky Cabrera, if you recall, was such an integral part of the Yankees 2009 World Series that he was a throw in as part of a trade that brought them Javier Vazquez after that season. He was then so bad for the Braves that he was released, and signed as a free agent by Royals GM Dayton Moore, a move that was roundly mocked. Meanwhile, BJ Upton is consistently brought up as a possible valuable trading commodity for the Rays, with the hot rumors having him going to the Nationals. One has to wonder why the Nationals, or any team, would consider giving up prospects to pick up a guy who, over a significant amount of at bats, doesn't hit any better than a guy who was released and picked up by a rebuilding team as space-filler until the real prospects are ready.

Now, Upton IS a better player than Cabrera. Cabrera's power numbers were "inflated" by hitting 9 of his 13 homers in 2009 in the new Yankee Stadium, which is why Upton still has the higher OPS+. Meanwhile, Upton's defense has generally been very good over the same time period, while Cabrera's has not. All things being equal, I would rather have BJ Upton on my team than Melky Cabrera. All things aren't equal though. Upton is probably going to cost some team a lot in terms of prospects, and someone will probably give him a long-term contract in free agency. Meanwhile, Melky Cabrera was released and makes a third of the major league average salary. The stolen bases and superior defense don't do enough to justify the gap in perception between the two.

Part of it is visual - Upton is lanky and athletic, looking every bit the part of a star prospect, and he still has that baby face. Meanwhile, Melky looks dumpy, and his conditioning was a big reason he fell out of favor in both New York and Atlanta. Another is our initial recognition. Upton was a top prospect and had an excellent year in 2007, when he was 22 for most of the season. He then was one of the dominant players of the 2008 postseason, hitting seven home runs in the first two rounds. Cabrera was considered a potential starter but never really a future star, and 2006, his best season, was only impressive in the context of his young age. In reality, they've been remarkably similar hitters since 2009, neither impressive.

Sidenote - I hesitate to use the term "overrated," because it speaks more to our perceptions of players than the players themselves. It's far more instructive to try and simply consider players based on their performance. Getting into a discussion about overrated/underrated can only lead to the inevitable "who is doing the rating" dead end question. There are always players we see in "most overrated" polls, but when everyone agrees they are overrated, they aren't overrated anymore. Calling BJ Upton overrated is meaningless.

Maybe Upton simply needs a change of scenery. As I discussed the other day, Tampa can be a pretty "blah" place to play, and maybe he's just not properly motivated playing there. I just wouldn't be willing to part with a top prospect in order to find out.

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