How I talked myself into B.J. Upton’s breakout season

by Bryan

I play in a keeper fantasy baseball league that uses an auction system, and is a points system based on linear weights, so your runs and RBI can suck it. This morning, I made the decision to bring B.J. Upton back for one year at $10. Upton represents everything that this league doesn’t reward — fielding, speed, raw home run numbers — so I have spent the last three hours trying to talk myself into this being a bad idea, but I think it’s actually a good one. The statistics are one thing, and they are the main thing; they predict a year much like his last three, which would make him slightly less valuable than $10, in our system. My pause is this: Every anecdotal factor — every single one — is in his favor, as far as I see it. It’s a predictor’s no man’s land. It’s the rare time that the sides are equally weighted, as far as I can see.

Upton was once the top prospect in the game, and he has turned in a slightly above-average career through six full seasons and two partial ones. He had one great year, in 2007, at the age of 22. Since then, he has consistently hit around .270/.320/.430, albeit with a heap of plate appearances. He’s been success as a quantity, though not necessarily at the quality the Rays expected. The Braves signed him for 5 years, $75 million a deal that reflects his durability and the twinkle in the eye most free agents are for most teams. They see good things, and a lot of them. They see a very good baseball player, and teams need very good baseball players.

So why pull this for a guy who’s been good-at-best in the aggregate for the last six seasons? I think it works because Upton is a low-risk, high-reward proposition for the Braves. As a fantasy owner, he’s somewhat riskier, because I’m betting he’ll be good this year, instead of at some point in the next three years. But I think if he’s ever going to put it together beyond the perfectly respectable level he’s achieved, it would happen now, for several reasons.

The first reason he might be better this season is the new contract, which pays him almost twice annually the $7 million he earned last season in Tampa, itself almost twice as much as his previous high of $4.8+ million. Like the Patriots, the Rays are always playing the angles, locking up talent below market rates. Like the Patriots, I can’t expect this to endear itself to players in the long run. I think that a large contract has as much potential to calm an athlete as it does to throw him into complacency, a trope that rarely plays itself out — players who don’t fulfill the terms of huge contracts, like modern-day Alex Rodriguez — shouldn’t have been offered the contracts in the first place. For a player of Upton’s self-assuredness, I’m guessing that he’s more likely to fold comfortably into self-assurance, instead of being the player who “vexed his adherents, because he’s clearly a gifted five-tool player who can carry a team when it matters.” Unrelated to the contract, I think Alex Gordon is a good precedent for Upton’s career arc, albeit one without the wonderful age-22 season. Scouts can be right or wrong, but in the aggregate, they are quite good at identifying baseball talent, and Gordon was every bit the prospect as Upton, though more or less a complete disaster until two seasons ago. Upton’s talent has never been an issue, nor was Gordon’s aptitude for the game, but both have had trouble harnessing it. Gordon has become an above-average player, quite possibly a good one. It took him five years, and he broke out at age 27. Upton is 27 right now, and will be until August. If the dam is going to break, this would be a natural time for it to happen. To be clear, I’m not talking about a Jacoby Ellsbury-like breakout, but one like Adam Jones’s last season, which, at .287/.334/.505 would be a great landing spot for Upton.

The second reason I think it could happen is that he’s playing with his brother. Jeff Sullivan crunched the numbers at FanGraphs to see if siblings improved if they were on the same team, and the answer was: Not really! “It turns out baseball is a complicated game the outcomes of which can’t be determined by one’s emotional state,” he writes. “Play with a brother in April and, chances are, come July or August, it just feels like regular baseball.” Being wicked smaht, however, he throws in this caveat:

Of course, what applies generally doesn’t have to apply specifically, and the Upton brothers are unique, like all sets of brothers. Both are known for their incredible raw skillsets, and both are known for not consistently reaching their ceilings. Maybe each will be motivated in Atlanta by the presence of the other. Or maybe B.J. will just be happy to be away from Tampa, and Justin will just be happy to be away from Arizona. Maybe they don’t improve. Maybe they stay the same, or even get worse. At the end of the day, they’re just two teammates in major-league baseball who know each other pretty well.

If you hadn’t guessed by now, I think the combination of B.J. being away from Tampa, and taking on an elder-ish statesman role on a high profile team alongside his struggling younger brother, will be good for him. I’m not sure this works out for Justin, anecdotally, but he’s already owned for $31. Obviously, BJ at $10 is a better bet than Justin, but the question is whether it’s a good one. I think BJ is good for Justin. It’s possible that being an oldest brother with the initials “B.J.” is clouding my judgment. It’s likely, even, but it doesn’t make me wrong. At the very least, I don’t see how it would hurt B.J. This is obviously a major judgment call, but it’s on these margins that desktop scouting happens. There’s an argument that it’s a hobby from which to stay away, like picking stocks unless you’re really good at it, but forget it, Marge: It’s fantasy baseball.

Finally, I think the Braves provide a better environment for Upton than Tampa’s wonderful free-for-all. Part of growing is accepting that you need to change, and if Atlanta’s slightly more strict ways can have a positive effect on Upton, and get him to wait on juuuuust a few more pitches, the benefits will expand disproportionately to the costs of instilling them. This is always true, but this is why change can be important — even if Upton is nothing I say he might be, and does in fact use his contract as an excuse to dog it, the barriers to getting messages across in a new environment are necessarily easier to cross than they are in a static situation. If the Braves can get him to stop swinging even a little bit, they’ll make out well. I think they’ll do it, and I’m betting my fake money that it’ll be this year. I feel just good enough about it, but these are the margins at which I have to work.