Embracing Melvin Upton, Potentially Good Player

Melvin Upton wasn’t supposed to be good.

Wait, he might not be good. But there’s a decent chance he is good, and it’s a pleasant surprise in a season that has started with mostly not pleasant surprises and some other not pleasant non-surprises.

Not only are Upton’s statistics looking good—through Saturday’s game he’s hitting .293/.341/.463—but his indicators/peripherals/whatever-you-want-to-call-these-things are looking good too, and 12 games into the season they matter a lot more than conventional stats. You can probably find a 12-game stretch where Wiki Gonzalez hit like Tony Gwynn.

Hold on a second.

*opens new browser, heads to Baseball Reference, searches through game logs*

In 2001, Gonzalez had a 12-game stretch from August 25th through September 18th where he hit .394/.444/.515.

.394!

What’s encouraging about Upton is that he isn’t just getting lucky—he’s hitting the ball with authority, and he’s doing it consistently. I checked his batted-ball exit velocities at Baseball Savant, and they look good. Upton’s averaged a 93.61 mph exit velocity so far in 2016, which ranks him 25th in the majors out of 192 hitters with at least 20 events tracked, and ahead of players like Mike Trout, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, Paul Goldschmidt, and Brother Justin.

Check out his early exit velocity numbers compared to 2015, another year in which Upton was surprisingly good:

Year Batted Balls Tracked Avg. Exit Velo % Batted Ball > 100 mph % Batted Balls > 90 mph % Batted Balls < 70 mph
2015 148 86.46 27 51 18
2016 27 93.61 26 67 4

Upton’s hitting pretty much everything hard this year, and he’s almost completely eliminated soft contact. He’s only hit one batted ball under 70 mph—and he got a hit on it anyway—and he’s only hit one other ball under 80 mph. Note this table from Baseball Savant creator Darren Willman that shows league averages on various batted-ball speeds:

2016-04-18
Upton has entirely avoided that 45 mph-64 mph dead zone where almost nothing good happens; last year he hit the ball in that range 14 different times and got lucky to salvage three hits.

Why is he hitting the ball harder? I don’t know, really, but one potential explanation is that he’s swinging at better pitches. According to Baseball Prospectus, Upton is swinging at 75.9 percent of pitches within the strike zone and just 21.6 percent of pitches outside the zone. His career averages on those numbers are 65.2 percent and 24.3 percent, respectively. Via Brooks Baseball, check out how often Upton swings at various pitches in and out of the strike zone from 2010-2015 (left) compared to 2016 (right):

upton3upton2

This year he’s 21 for 22 in swinging at pitches right down the middle, though he’s just 1-for-9 on those pitches and he’s whiffed at 27 percent of them. On the bright side, there’s room to get even better.

Maybe Upton’s purposely being more aggressive, or maybe he’s just seeing the ball better. Maybe he’s just in the sort of groove that comes and goes in players, and we’re only recognizing it because it’s happening at the beginning of the season. Either way, here’s hoping it sticks.

Upton’s already helped bring Craig Kimbrel here which in turn brought Manuel Margot and friends here, so everything else is pretty much gravy. But getting the old Melvin Upton back would be really nice, too.

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  • Sac Bunt Chris

    Thanks for writing this, I wanted to write something similar. The other nice thing about MUpton is the defensive value he provides, although it’s crazy how much DRS and UZR disagree on that front. DRS hates his range in center while UZR gives him +6 runs in his career, though both highly rate his arm. Maybe chalk him up as a slightly below average centerfielder, which can still make him a valuable player just by hitting a little.

    edit: valuable as in useful, not necessarily including his contract in that

    • I was totally thinking that you might be cooking up something similar as I was writing this. re: his defense, maybe StatCast-type data can help settle the UZR/DRS debate about whether he’s a good center fielder.