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Alex Remington

Ask Alex: Will Justin Upton solve his strikeout problem?

Alex Remington
Big League Stew

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We all have questions about the 2011 season and Alex Remington luckily has some answers. The Stew's resident stats guru will address the big questions as opening day approaches.

The Situation: It's hard to believe that Justin Upton(notes) is stil just 23, because this is about to be his fifth season in the majors. Yes, fifth. He and his older brother B.J. have been taking fans on a roller coaster ride for years with both their limitless tools and limited results; both tore through the minors, debuted at the age of 19, and have had some trouble getting the most out of their terrific combinations of power and speed because of an inability to make contact. Last year alone, the Upton brothers combined for 316 strikeouts.

But all things considered, Justin had a fine year on a wretched Arizona Diamondbacks team, hitting 17 homers with a .799 OPS and a fine glove in right field. He was worth somewhere north of three Wins Above Replacement last year, a terrific campaign for a 22-year old by any standard except his own — after all, he was worth about five wins in 2009.

On a strikeout-prone team, he wasn't the worst offender — his total of 152 K was far better than the 211 turned in by third baseman Mark Reynolds(notes) (now with the Orioles) or the 172 from first baseman Adam LaRoche(notes) (now with the Nationals). Upton's tally was roughly comparable to second baseman Kelly Johnson(notes) (148) and center fielder Chris Young (145). The 2010 Diamondbacks were done in by a contact-averse offense and an out-averse bullpen, and if Upton wasn't the biggest part of the problem, he certainly wasn't part of the solution. He was dangled in trade talks this offseason that went nowhere and now his career seems a little less certain than it was before.

The Question: Can Justin Upton cut down on his strikeouts and become a superstar?

The Analysis: The first thing that needs to be addressed is the expectations. Azreous from AZ Snakepit spoke for a lot of D-Backs fans when he wrote, "I think anything less than a breakout year would be a disappointment." If Upton had another season somewhere in between 2009 and 2010, he'd continue to be a very productive major league outfielder. But considering his pedigree, hype, minor league numbers, and the amount he's already achieved at such a young age, it's hard for fans not to want a great deal more. Again, he's only 23.

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The focus on Upton's strikeouts may be a bit unfair. But considering that he's a 23-year old who's already a former All-Star, it comes from an understandable place: he and his team have seen much of their offensive value negated by their propensity to swing and miss. However, to his credit, Upton has hit for a higher average than Mark Reynolds, Kelly Johnson, Chris Young, and his brother B.J.

(Normally, references to batting average are anathema in sabermetric discussion, but average is actually a useful shorthand when discussing hitters who struggle to make contact. A low batting average means that the hitter is making a whole lot of outs, and in order for him to be useful to his team offensively, he either has to draw a ton of walks to raise his on-base percentage, or hit for tremendous power to raise the value of each individual hit. It's true, as Bill James famously said, that the difference between .275 and .300 is just one hit every other week — but Mark Reynolds could go his whole career without hitting .275 again, after having hit .279 in his rookie year.)

Upton's power dipped last year because of a drop in his home run per flyball rate. His batting average dropped from .300 to .273 because of the increase in strikeouts and because of a slight decrease in Batting Average on Balls in Play. But his health is another concern. He missed most of September with a sore shoulder, and he went on the DL in both 2008 and 2009 with injuries to his oblique. If the shoulder was nagging him before they shut him down, that may have sapped some of his power as well as affected his ability to make contact. He has been the team's starting right fielder for three years, but he has yet to play more than 138 games in any season.

It goes without saying that a healthy Upton would be more productive than the often-injured 21- and 22-year old that we've seen the past couple of years, able to draw enough walks and slam enough homers to more than make up for his propensity to strike out. But his inability to stay on the field — and the Arizona Diamondbacks' justifiable paranoia which has caused them to err on the side of letting him heal rather than making him play — makes it hard to predict just when he'll ever be able to stay on the field for 150 games.

As it is, the major projection systems don't believe he's likely to break out just yet. Dan Szymborski's ZiPS projects him for a very solid .292/.369/.505, with 26 HR, 99 RBI, and 161 K in 158 games; the projection also notes that he has a 32 percent chance of 30 homers, so there's a not insignificant chance that he could blow by those numbers. The Bill James handbook is only marginally less optimistic, predicting .287/.371/.498, with 23 HR, 86 RBI, and 144 K in 143 games. Those are fine numbers, particularly for a 23-year old, but they won't placate fans who are tired of waiting for him to improve on his 2009 campaign rather than just attempt to replicate it. Scott Allen of the blog Venom Strikes surmised that the trade rumors were intended "to send Upton a message. Perform or you are gone." A lot of teams would kill for a player of Upton's potential, but after three full seasons, the Diamondbacks want to see that potential turning into results — and 23 homers and 86 RBI won't be what they had in mind.

The Forecast for 2011: Upton didn't have a bad year in 2010, but he didn't have a good one, and if he starts out the year by hitting .250 with a bunch of strikeouts and not too many homers, he'll start hearing trade rumors again. But baseball's a hard sport, and a 25-home run season from a 23-year old — even a prospective superstar — shouldn't be seen as a failure. Because of the doubts about his shoulder, and because his power dipped last year, I find it hard to predict he'll hit 30 home runs. But he has tremendous raw power, and once he's ready, he'll start hitting them in bunches in that thin desert air. As a result, I think it's more likely that he hits 20 or 40 than 30 exactly. Still, the eerie similarity of the Bill James and Szymborski predictions makes me loath to go too far afield. I think he'll hit around .280 with 25 homers and 150 strikeouts in 145 games. Not a superstar level (yet), but again not bad.

Do you have a question about the 2011 season for Alex? Email him here.

Previous questions: Can the Red Sox win 100 games?, How many games will the Astros win?, Will the Phillies miss Jayson Werth?, Will Buster Posey experience a sophomore slump?, Will Trevor Cahill be a Cy Young contender?

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