Fantasy Baseball: Is Justin Upton Elite?

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Following a career year, Diamondbacks outfielder Justin Upton has been a disappointment for owners who drafted him with a top 10 pick in 2012. I examine if he bounces back next season.

If you asked me prior to the season which Upton brother would be the better fantasy baseball player in 2012, I wouldn’t think twice about it. That’s a clown question, bro. It’s Diamondbacks outfielder Justin Upton.

But as the season winds down, it’s Rays outfielder B.J. Upton, not Justin, who’s been the better Upton bro, checking in at No. 13 on ESPN’s Player Rater in the outfield. Justin, meanwhile, currently ranks 26th.

While both players offer a rare combination of speed and power, it’s Justin who’s widely been considered the Upton brother with the higher upside. And after last year’s 31-home run campaign and a .289/.369/.529 triple slash line, few if any savvy fantasy owner would have drafted B.J. ahead of his younger brother and felt particularly good about it.

With less than two weeks to go, Justin is batting .277/.354/.426 with 15 home runs, 100 runs, 62 RBI and 16 stolen bases. Justin may or may not find himself on the Diamondbacks next season – as his name was dabbled in trade talks at the deadline – so debating his value in 2013 is made even harder, but I’ll try.

What’s not to like about Justin Upton? He can do it all. He can give you solid average, solid power, solid run production and solid numbers in the steals department. He’s a complete player and one that was drafted as such with great confidence.

Courtesy of Baseball Reference, here are Upton's career stats.

2007 19 ARI NL 43 152 140 17 31 8 3 2 11 2 11 37 .221 .283 .364 .647
2008 20 ARI NL 108 417 356 52 89 19 6 15 42 1 54 121 .250 .353 .463 .816
2009 21 ARI NL 138 588 526 84 158 30 7 26 86 20 55 137 .300 .366 .532 .899
2010 22 ARI NL 133 571 495 73 135 27 3 17 69 18 64 152 .273 .356 .442 .799
2011 23 ARI NL 159 674 592 105 171 39 5 31 88 21 59 126 .289 .369 .529 .898
2012 24 ARI NL 141 590 519 100 144 24 4 15 62 16 60 116 .277 .354 .426 .780
6 Yrs 722 2992 2628 431 728 147 28 106 358 78 303 689 .277 .357 .475 .832
162 Game Avg. 162 671 590 97 163 33 6 24 80 18 68 155 .277 .357 .475 .832
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 9/25/2012.

While he has a shot to match or top his 105 runs scored from a year ago, Upton's production has dipped in each category. But let’s face it: if you’re an Upton owner, you’re not worried about his run production. It’s the power that’s the biggest concern. After hitting 31 home runs in 2011, Upton finally appeared to join the outfield elite. Now he’s seemingly on the outside looking in.

Whether it’s an injury that’s slowing him down or it’s simply just a down year, Upton’s power outage certainly reminds me of the one he experienced in 2010 after hitting 26 homers in 2009. Looking at his ISO over the last five years (.213, .232, .170, .240, .148), there’s not much there that makes me comfortable predicting what kind of power he’ll display in 2013 – it’s just all over the place.

Looking at his HR/FB%, his current 10.6% is the lowest of his career and it’s below the league average of 11.2%. In 2009, his HR/FB% reached a career high of 18.8% before dropping to 12.4% in 2010. But what really stood out to me was looking through his career ground ball and fly ball rates:

Year: GB%, FB%, number of home runs

2008: 37.2%, 41.9%, 15

2009: 45.5%, 35.7%, 26

2010: 41.4%, 39.4%, 17

2011: 36.9%, 44.8%, 31

2012: 43.8%, 35.0%, 15

As you can see, there’s not much rhyme or reason to the number of home runs and his ground ball and fly ball rates. Upton hit 26 home runs in 2009 with his highest ground ball rate and second-lowest fly ball rate, and in 2012 the numbers are similar but the results (15 home runs) are not.

When I look at Upton’s career so far, it’s a bit confusing. I know he can be one of the best outfielders in the game, but there’s also serious doubt. If he stays in Arizona, I expect Upton to bounce back nicely like he has done in previous years, but I’m not willing to go completely nuts with a prediction here. I’ll bet on a .280/.360/.475 season with 23 home runs, 100 runs, 80 RBI and 17 stolen bases and be happy if there’s more.

I think it’s time we start thinking of Justin Upton as an above-average fantasy outfielder, but not one of the elite. Until he puts together back to back great seasons, that’s how I’m going to approach it.

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