Continuing to look at the upcoming 2014 baseball season, my attention stays within the NL, but moves from Archie Bradley’s significance to Arizona’s chances, to how the NL East Division Champion Atlanta Braves can improve. Getting some semblance of production out of your record free agent signing, BJ Upton, would be a good start.
BJ Upton’s 2013 was truly miserable. If only there were a GIF of him swinging at a 63.8 mph offering from Jeff Francis – in Coors Field too no less – to adequately sum up his season of woe. There is you say?
Shout out to FanGraphs by the way for that – part of an awesome piece by David Temple called “Killing Them Softly: Slowest Swinging-Strikeout Pitches of 2013”. Well worth a read. Back to BJ. Now, if you wanted to see his struggle in a more stats-based visual form, let me direct your attention to the following heat-map, courtesy of ESPN;
Yikes. And should that not pique your inner htting-savant’s nausea (you’re sick, go seek help), here’s a triple slash line – admittedly the crudest indicator of a batter’s performance – documenting his 446 plate appearances; .184/.286/.289. Throw in a wRC+ (Runs per PA scaled where 100 is average; both league and park adjusted) measure of 56, lending to an overall WAR of -0.6, and you understand why Atlanta’s record free-agent signing spent a portion of last year in the minors, benched in favour of Jordan Schafer.
Thankfully for Braves fans, the other 24 guys on the roster were more than handy. Despite the best (worst?) efforts of BJ, Atlanta still finished the 2013 season 96-66, actually under-performing their Pythagorean win/loss expectancy by 2 en route to capturing the NL East Division crown for the first time since 2005, before being subsequently bounced from the playoffs in the divisional round by the Dodgers. But having signed away $75.25 million over 5 years to make BJ the franchise’s most expensive ever free-agent, it’s fair to say that fans were expecting somewhat more.
This is not to bag completely on BJ Upton. His past speaks for itself; this is a guy talented enough to be drafted second overall, sock 28 home runs, hit .300 (and post a wRC+ of 137), swipe 44 bases, and play an excellent center-field. The well-worn narrative however, notes that these career marks have all come in separate seasons, meaning that at 29 years old, the senior Upton brother has yet to put it all together. Time appears to be running out, given that consensus dictates a player enters their peak during their age-27 season. But BJ has apparently been putting in the hours this offseason, remodeling his swing in an effort to re-assume his leadoff position at the head of a potent Atlanta lineup. Case in point, Mark Bowman of MLB.com recently spoke with Brave’s hitting coach Greg Walker – amusingly at fellow Atlanta struggler Dan Uggla‘s wedding – who reported his confidence in BJ’s rejuvenation:
“he told me he felt great and that he’d been working…I told him I was going to come down. So I just took a quick trip down to just kind gauge where he was at. He’s done some good work. [His swing] is a lot closer to what it was when he first broke into the league”.
The fact is, Atlanta needs BJ to start producing now if they are to succeed in their aspiration of advancing deeper into the playoffs. While he was an expensive extra in last years run, the Braves literally can’t afford for his poor play to continue eating up 20% of their salary roll; young stars Craig Kimbrel, Jason Heyward, and Freddie Freeman are waiting on the results of salary arbitration hearings to determine their raises for the upcoming season, while Kris Medlen, Chris Johnson, and Mike Minor all inked one year deals before the arbitration deadline. BJ’s brother and fellow outfielder Justin will be a free agent next winter. With some many young players getting expensive all of a sudden, the window for success with the current squad is quickly closing, meaning that if the Braves are to make significant noise, they need to do so soon.
We’ve now almost certainly seen BJ Upton’s floor. We’ve only seen sporadic glimpses of his ceiling. I’m sure at this point Braves fans would happily settle for the middle ground. It might just be enough to put Atlanta over the top.
[UPDATE] It has since been reported that Jason Heyward has reached an agreement with the Braves on a 2-year contract worth $13.3 million, thus avoiding arbitration and delaying his free agency until 2015. Freddie Freeman has now too, agreed to an extension, though the terms to his deal are as yet undisclosed. Craig Kimbrel remains the only Brave on the current 40-man roster unsigned.