SAN DIEGO, CA - JULY 27: Justin Upton #10 of the Arizona Diamondbacks watches the flight of a solo home run hit during the sixth inning of a baseball game against the San Diego Padres at Petco Park on July 27, 2011 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images)
There were people who expected this to happen last season, and when it didn't, they started to wonder if it wouldn't happen ever. Maybe Justin Upton was just destined to be a good regular, but not the superstar that practically everyone had projected him to be during his meteoric rise through the minor leagues.
After hitting 26 homers with a .300 batting average as a 21-year-old, how did someone with this much talent drop to just 17 homers and a .273 average the following season? People no longer felt such confidence about the younger Upton's future- within a single year, he had gone from "sure thing long-term superstar" to "good regular with superstar upside".
And all over the place, people had answers on the Upton conundrum. Some wondered if we were unfair to assume that Upton could improve from his breakout season; after all, he was one of the best players in the NL back in 2009. Not every player that shows up big on the scene in his early 20's continues that progression and becomes a superstar later in his career. Just ask Carlos Baerga. Some guys show up as good regulars when they're 22, and end up being pretty satisfied with that. Maybe Justin would simply follow his older brother's path.
Even during his breakout, Upton had his flaws. His .300 average was buoyed by a .360 BABIP, as the former No. 1 overall pick struck out in nearly one quarter of his plate appearances. Most evaluators assumed that Upton would be able to work on this tendency to swing-and-miss, given his swing mechanics and relatively lower strikeout rates in the minor leagues. But after last season, there were people out there wondering if that assumption wasn't fair to make. It wouldn't be the first time that scouts had seen a swing and banked on better contact skills.
But realistically, there wasn't anything that wrong with Upton. Even today, the guy still hasn't turned 24 yet. When he wasn't playing up to his full potential last season, we were getting antsy about a 22-year-old taking his time to make adjustments against the best pitchers in the world. How many other 22-year-old outfielders could post a .356 OBP with nearly 20 homers and steals apiece while playing good defense in right field and flashing great tools? If you didn't begin the story with Upton's pedigree and monster age-21 season, wouldn't people be totally psyched up about this guy?
These days, I'm giddier about Upton than a six-year-old that just buckled up in the roller coaster car after spending three hours in line (I made it through the wait, and now I get to reap the benefits!!). We had to be patient with Upton, but now he's rewarding us in the most awesome of ways; it's just a year later than a lot of people had expected. He hasn't just taken his all-around performance to a whole new level this season; he's doing it in a way that's likely to be sustainable over the next few seasons. We're talking about a player that's potentially setting himself up for a period as the best player in baseball.
Remember those nasty strikeout concerns we talked about before? Last season, Upton struck out in nearly 27% of his plate appearances with the D-Backs; this season, that number is sitting at just below 18%. Even though his BABIP has dropped over 20 points from last season, he's putting the ball into play so much more often than last year that his batting average has still risen 30 points. And unlike some other players that have cut their strikeout rates this season, Upton hasn't been selling out power for contact; he's already up to 21 homers this season, and is on pace to hit nearly 30 more extra-base hits than he did last season.
Now, we're looking at a package that's filled to the brim. This guy isn't just bringing a three-course meal; he's bringing enough to table to keep us there for hours on end. A lot of guys project to be five-tool superstars when they're 20, but over time they change physically and lose their speed, or their power projection proves to be exaggerated because the player doesn't fill out like expected. Upton, on the other hand, is quite literally offering value in every way possible. He's posted a .399 wOBA this season, tied for the seventh-best mark in the NL. And unlike some of the sluggers ahead of him in wOBA, Upton is also a plus defender and an above-average runner on the bases, pushing his value to the next level.
When Upton was a draft prospect, people considered him a potential future MVP. When Upton was rising through the minor leagues, people considered him a potential future MVP. When Upton was raking as a 21-year-old Diamondback in 2009, people considered him a potential future MVP. But for some reason, after a less-than-stellar 2010, the number of people expecting MVP's in Upton's future dwindled a good deal.
These days, those pessimists might actually be right: Upton might not be a future MVP... he might be the present MVP.