If he were playing for a club that had just missed the playoffs, fans would be calling for his head. Instead, the Braves are wrapping up a tremendous year, and Upton's horrible performance is relegated to a footnote rather than a screaming headline.
It's not common for a player to sign the largest free-agent contract in a team's history and then proceed to have a historically bad season, but that's what has happened for the Atlanta Braves and Upton.
Here are a few of the reasons why Upton's season has been a major disappointment:
A black hole at the plate
Upton's 2013 season is, unfortunately, well-characterized by his horrible first few games and his current awful streak to close out the year. He was 0-for-14 out of the gate, which included nine strikeouts, one walk and one stolen base. In his last 20 plate appearances, he has no hits, four walks, zero stolen bases and one caught stealing. And, unbelievably, the 400 or so plate appearances in the middle were not much better.
His 2013 numbers currently sit at 9 home runs, 12 stolen bases, and a .557 OPS. He has been arguably the worst offensive everyday player in the major leagues. He's been bad enough, in fact, that he's no longer the automatic start in center field.
In 2012, Upton put up 28 home runs, 31 stolen bases, and a .752 OPS. This represented above-average offensive production to supplement his great defense and baserunning. This was the type of player the Braves were hoping to play center field for the next half decade.
Much of Upton's offensive value during his time with the Tampa Bay Rays came from his combined threat of power and stolen bases. He never put up the kind of on-base percentage or RBI totals that jumped out at you, but he hit a lot of home runs and was one of the elite base runners in the league. Upton's 31 stolen bases in 2012 came with an 84-percent success rate, which is phenomenal.
In 2013, Upton has had a major drop off in his stolen base numbers and also a spike in his caught-stealing rate. The drop in raw numbers can be partially explained by how bad of a hitter he has been. It's hard to steal second base if you never make it to first. But Upton is also getting caught stealing in nearly 30 percent of his attempts.
So in the rare instance that he has reached base this year, he's creating baserunning outs at far too high a level. There's really nowhere to find value in Upton's offensive performance this year, either at the plate or on the basepaths.
All of the above problems get compounded by Upton's albatross of a contract. The Braves ended the 2012 season needing to add at least one and preferably two outfielders, and they wasted little time targeting Upton as their guy. On November 28, the Braves made the first big splash of the free-agent season by signing Upton to a five-year deal worth $75.25 million.
I felt great about the contract at the time. It was probably a bit of an overpay for Upton's talent level, but certainly didn't seem unreasonable as a free-agent contract. On top of his speed, defensive ability and power potential, Upton had just turned 28 years old, a rarity for a first-time free agent. There was less risk of a sudden age-related drop in performance, which for a cost conscious front office like Frank Wren's was a major plus.
I hear a common refrain any time I talk about Upton that the Braves would be best served if they cut him, but that's obviously not possible and demonstrates a lack of knowledge about how baseball roster construction works. Based on his 2012 performance, Upton would probably not be tradeable if he was making a third of his current salary. The Braves won't be getting any of that pile of money back.
I'm still optimistic that Upton is going to turn it around in 2014 and beyond. That is most likely a defense mechanism against seeing all those millions of dollars stretching out for so long, but it is honestly how I feel. And as angry as some of the commentary on Upton has been from Braves fans, they would be stupid to root against him in the future.He's going to be around for a long time, and he is still the talented player that the conservative Braves front office signed. Here's hoping that my optimism isn't misplaced.
Patrick Richardson is a longtime follower of the Atlanta Braves who started playing t-ball right as Atlanta's record-setting run of division titles began. He is an amateur but enthusiastic sabermetrician.
- Sports & Recreation
- Atlanta Braves