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Toss Up: Justin Upton vs. Andrew McCutchen

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Justin Upton and Andrew McCutchen are currently two of the brightest rising young stars in the majors. Both have had large impacts for both their real and fantasy teams before even reaching age 24. With their similar projected impacts in 2011 and similar ages (Upton is ten months younger than McCutchen), it is only fitting that they have similar average draft positions in mock drafts. According to Mock Draft Central, Upton's ADP is 41st and McCutchen's ADP is 44th. If you are looking to draft an outfielder in the fourth round, there is a real possibility you will have to decide between these two players on draft day. Let's try to decide which one should be taken if you end up in this spot.

In 2010, Upton's development hit a bit of a snag as his numbers across the board took a step back. His triple slash line went from .300/.366/.532 in 2009 to .273/.356/.442 in 2010. While most people expected him to continue to improve each year, Upton's 2010 performance looked more like his 2008 performance than an improvement on 2009. Was his 2010 season a blip on the radar in the rise of one of the best players in the league or a sign that he may not have the ceiling we once thought he had?

 

Upton's largest weakness over the past three seasons has been his strikeout frequency. Over the last three years, he has had the sixth highest strikeout percentage in the league among the 138 qualifying batters, according to Fangraphs. It's not rare for players to have strikeout issues at Upton's age, but it is important for these players to improve in that area. Upton has not yet shown the ability to make those improvements. Below are his BB/K ratios his first 3 years in the majors:

2008    0.45

2009    0.40

2010    0.42

Upton has been consistently below average in this area of his game. He has also struck out in nearly 30% of his plate appearances throughout his career. This stems from his struggles with plate discipline and contact rates. Below are the percentages of pitches outside the strike zone at which Upton has swung and how many pitches he has seen in the strike zone, also according to Fangraphs.

                       O-Swing %       Zone %

2008                23.8%              50.1%

2009                24.3%              47.2%

2010                24.0%              46.6%

While Upton's O-Swing% is consistently pretty close to league average, he has not shown any improvement in this area. Possibly as a result, Upton has seen a total of fewer pitches inside the zone each year of his career. Upton does seem to be improving his overall contact rates, but is still not close to the league average in percentage of swings resulting in contact. If he continues to strike out at a clip around 30% it would significantly hurt his fantasy value. He would need a very high BABIP to hit near .300 with that strikeout rate and less time on base could hinder his ability to rack up steals and runs.

Andrew McCutchen, coming off his second season, does't share Upton's strikeout issues. In fact, his control of the strike zone is one of his largest assets. In 2010, he struck out in 15.6% of his plate appearances which is about half as often as Upton. He was also able to walk in 10.7% of his plate appearances. His BB/K ratio was good enough for 17th in the majors in 2010. This is an encouraging sign from a fantasy perspective for a player with McCutchen's base stealing ability. In 2010, McCutchen stole 33 bases in 43 attempts. Upton has not yet attempted more than 26 steals in a season. McCutchen was also able to total 94 runs to Upton's 73 despite being on one of the lowest scoring offenses in the league.

The area where Upton should provide more fantasy value than McCutchen is in the power department. In 2009, Upton hit 26 homeruns to show that he is a legitimate 25/25 threat. McCutchen hit 16 home runs in 2010. He may not have the power upside that Upton possesses, but does have some pop of his own. My main concern for Upton the next few years is whether or not he can improve his approach at the plate. It is difficult to develop into a star while striking out as often as he does. As far as 2011 is concerned, I would rather depend on McCutchen in a 5x5 league because he doesn't share those same strikeout issues. I believe this would make him more dependable in the average, run, and steal categories. While Upton and McCutchen will probably walk at similar clips, Upton's high strikeout total will force him to rely on a high BABIP to get on base at the same rate. If his BABIP drops, his performance in those three categories could be very disappointing. Both outfielders will probably provide similar value in 2011. Upton provides better upside while McCutchen comes with less downside risk than his counterpart. In the first 4-5 rounds of the draft I like to focus on minimizing risk so I would probably favor McCutchen slightly if the decision came up.