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Numbers Game: Braves bring in B.J. Upton

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Scott Cullen
11/29/2012 11:33:50 AM
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The Atlanta Braves, facing the free agent departure of centre fielder Michael Bourn, moved to address the positional need by signing a speedy centre fielder with more pop in his bat.

Numbers Game looks at the Braves' signing of B.J. Upton.

The Braves Get: CF B.J. Upton

Upton, 28, is a toolsy player who has a rare mix of power and speed yet, for the most part, hasn't been able to make the most of those physical gifts.

As a hitter, Upton hasn't yet been able to match his stellar 2007 season, his first full season in the major leagues, when he had 24 home runs, 82 RBI and hit a career-high .300 with a career-best .894 OPS. Since then, his OPS has declined, settling in the .745-.759 range for the last three seasons. It's respectable, but not quite what was hoped for when he first arrived in the major leagues.

Those disclaimers aside, Upton can be a productive player, as he has contributed at least 20 home runs three times (including a career-high 28 in 2012) and stolen at least 30 stolen bases in each of the last five seasons.

What bears watching is Upton's approach at the plate. Maybe he was different in 2012 because he was playing to earn a big free agent contract, but Upton was more aggressive than ever in 2012, facing a career-low 3.66 pitches per plate appearance and finishing with a career-low .298 on-base percentage.

According to www.fangraphs.com, Upton's plate discipline has been getting progressively worse. Prior to 2009, Upton hadn't swung at more than 20% of pitches outside the strike zone. Since then? 25.3%, 27.2% and 32.7% in the last three seasons. As a result, Upton swung at a career-high 52.0% of pitches faced last season and, not so coincidentally, had a career-high 14.9% swinging strikes.

If his plate discipline is going to stay on this path, it seems like a risky approach, because once pitchers know that a hitter is going to expand the strike zone, they are only too happy to oblige with pitches further and further outside the zone.

What Upton does have on his side, however, is the requisite skills to show more discipline at the plate (since he's done so in the past), while still providing power and speed.

In 25 career postseason games, Upton has seven home runs, 18 RBI, nine stolen bases, a .267 batting average and .879 OPS, showing an ability (in that small sample) to rise to the occasion against better competition.

Defensively, Upton has been below average in terms of Defensive Runs Saved but, at least prior to last season, his Ultimate Zone Rating (www.fangraphs.com) had been positive, albeit declining since 2008.

Upton is signed for five years and $75.25-million, which is by no means cheap, but not unreasonable in value and term for what he can provide.

The question for the Braves will be whether they are getting a potential 30-30 player entering his prime years or whether declines in the field and in terms of plate discipline mark larger concerns that could bring subpar production.

Those question marks make it difficult to go all-in for this signing. Sure, it seems like a reasonable way for the Braves to address their need in centre field, but there is an element of risk attached to this particular solution.

Letting Upton go will naturally mean more cost-effective solutions for the Rays. Desmond Jennings can slide over the centre field to replace Upton, leaving left field for a bargain free agent addition.That's how the Rays roll.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.

BJ Upton (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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