Justin Upton’s talent has never been in question. From the moment the Arizona Diamondbacks selected Upton first overall in the 2005 MLB Draft, the outfielder stood as a sterling example of precocious ability and vast potential.
Two years later, at 19, Upton made his big league debut and in his first season as a full-time player in 2009, he posted a 130 wRC+ in 588 plate appearances at the age of 21. At that point in time, it was common and not especially difficult to imagine Upton winning multiple MVP awards before his career was finished.
That Upton has only garnered MVP votes in one season since (back in 2011 when he batted .289/.369/.529 with 31 home runs and finished fourth in NL MVP voting) might cause some to label Upton as a disappointment and a player who has failed to fulfill all that potential.
But despite the 2014 campaign representing Upton’s eighth season in the majors, the Braves’ outfielder is just 26 and, as his recent performances bear out, still evolving as a hitter.
In fact, Upton might just be showing signs of improvement as he plays out his second season in Atlanta.
The first thing observers talk about when discussing Upton is strikeouts. Indeed, the Braves slugger has compiled an alarming 31.7% strikeout rate through the season’s first 24 games, a mark that is the sixth highest in baseball. Upton’s propensity for striking out thus far in 2014 continues a three-year trend in which the outfielder’s strikeout rate has risen from 18.7% in 2011 to 25.0% last season.
That this trend has only continued this year, jumping above the 30% plateau in the early going, is admittedly cause for some concern.
Yet everything else regarding Upton’s performance is worthy of optimism. Since arriving in Atlanta, the 26-year-old’s walk rate has returned to its 2011 level after dropping during his subpar 2012 campaign. In addition, Upton’s power has spiked with the Braves even as he swapped the homer-happy confines of Chase Field with the more neutral environment of Turner Field.
After finishing with a .150 ISO in 2012, Upton has posted a .214 ISO since the start of 2013, a mark better than Jay Bruce, Bryce Harper and Yoenis Cespedes. Upton’s strong performance this April, moreover, has seen him belt seven home runs and compile a .295 ISO.
Even more encouraging, though, have been the changes seen in Upton’s batted ball profile. The outfielder has always hit the ball hard (which helps explain why his lowest BABIP over the last six seasons is .319), and his line-drive rate has increased each of the past four years. At the same time, Upton has traded ground balls for fly balls since arriving in Atlanta, which helps explain the uptick in power and home run totals.
Throughout this process, Upton has also improved his infield fly-ball rate, cutting the amount of infield flies he hits by over 70% since 2011. This has been crucial in allowing Upton to maintain a solid OBP and hit for more power while his strikeouts increase. Upton’s ability to limit his infield flies stands in stark contrast to his brother B.J., who amassed an extreme 19.3% infield fly rate in 2013, a bad combination for someone who strikes out so much.
Justin, on the other hand, has thrived despite striking out so frequently by cutting down on infield flies, hitting more line drives, and putting more balls in the air into the outfield or over the fence.
Expecting Upton to maintain his .330/.406/.625 performance would be unwise, of course. Even if we can anticipate Upton posting an above-average BABIP, his current mark of .440 is unsustainable. And while that elevated strikeout rate isn’t cause for too much concern, cutting it down below the 30% threshold would be a big aid for Upton moving forward.
At 26, though, Justin Upton is hitting the ball better than he has throughout his career, or at least since his strong 2011 campaign. He has steadily hit more line drives over the past four seasons, and although he strikes out a lot, Upton is at least finding more power through swinging more aggressively, something the Braves can live with if it allows for a few more home runs landing in the stands.
He might not become a perennial MVP candidate or compile 6.1 WAR again like he did in 2011, but Justin Upton is growing and improving as a hitter.
All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.
Alex Skillin is a writer and editor at Beyond the Box Score. He works as an Editorial Producer for MLB.com and also writes for SB Nation's MLB hub. You can follow him on Twitter at @AlexSkillin.