Wednesday, November 28, 2012

BJ Upton: Great Player, Stupid Narrative

News broke this afternoon that BJ Upton has signed with the Braves. The deal appears to be 5 years and $75 million with a potential sixth year. This is a good deal for the Braves who needed to replace Michael Bourn while getting younger and more right-handed (they were 30-31 against lefty starters last season and 63-37 against righties). BJ Upton is the perfect example of old stats v. new and ability v. narrative. If you've read anything on this blog before, you know where we stand.

BJ Upton is a great baseball player. Over the past five years he ranks 33rd in FanGraphs WAR among all MLB hitters, 9th if you look only at outfielders. This ranks him ahead of guys like Jayson Werth, Shin-Soo Choo, Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, and Hunter Pence. Amazingly, he is only 28 years old, square in his prime.

However, according to his critics, BJ Upton has never reached his "potential." He was the second overall pick in 2002 and has been overshadowed by his younger brother Justin. He has shown flashes of amazing ability, hitting 7 postseason homers in 2008 or hitting .300 in 2007, but never had one dominant season. Critics deride him for striking out too much, occasionally not sprinting on groundballs, and seeming to never capitalize on all of his power. He has failed to meet the over-sized expectations that come from someone who made the majors at 19 and hit 24 homers and batted .300 at age 24.

Here's the thing about expectations and potential: they are subjective, oftentimes biased portrayals that don't focus on the actual stats. These are simply other people's opinions about what someone can and should do. The narrative the media has created, and uninformed fans have followed, about BJ Upton is that he's a talented player who is too lazy and undisciplined to ever amount to anything. Smart teams see past this crap and see a player who help you win in a bunch of different ways while still in his prime. Instead of focusing on where BJ Upton has failed to meet someone else's expectations, they see a guy who has produced more WAR over the past five years and is younger than anyone else on the free agent market.

Teams will undoubtedly spend more money on the likes of Jayson Werth, Andre Ethier or Nick Swisher --"grimier" (and older) players who seem to scrape every ounce out of their talent. Fans flock to players like this and are quick to dismiss the talents of someone like BJ Upton. Atlanta fans have even derided Jason Heyward as lazy or a waste of talent (seriously, fans wanted to start Jose Constanza, a 30 year old minor league lifer, over him two years ago).

 Luckily for me, the Braves are a smarter team than this: they understand that you win games with defense, with smart baserunning, and with a balanced lineup. Frank Wren didn't care about that -- he saw an opportunity to pounce on an undervalued player who is younger than most free agents, and as a result, the Braves got better today.

Upton's value comes from baserunning and defense, things that fans and commentators dismiss as less important than stats like batting average. BJ Upton is one of the best players in the game and players with his talent rarely come available at age 28. His legs will likely hold up for the majority of his contract and his power will play better in Turner Field than in Tropicana Field. For the Braves to get a player like him for the next five years at the same price as JD Drew got in 2007 is a coup. Anyone who thinks otherwise is letting the narrative decide the facts instead of the, you know, actual facts. Expect a mid .700s OPS and well above average defense and baserunning from Upton for the next five years and maybe, if the Braves are lucky, he might just reach his "potential."

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