What is B.J. Upton Looking At? | The Process Report

What is B.J. Upton Looking At?

By R.J. Anderson //

B.J. Upton has always reigned as one of my favorite subjects on the playing and writing fields alike. According to this, I wrote about Upton 54 times between February 2008 and February 2010. That barely nudges Tommy Rancel, but does not account for the 2007 season in which I’d estimate an additional dozen or so posts. I’m an unabashed supporter of Upton and by extension I take note of his tendencies at the dish a bit more often than I might for any other player with his line.

It doesn’t take too much of an observer to realize that Upton strikes out. He’s doing so in 26.1% of his plate appearances (rather than at-bats) this season which represents an uptick from the previous two seasons and actually an improvement on his 2007 numbers. That last statement might read oddly. 2007 is the holy pinnacle for Upton disappointment.

It was a magnificent offensive year for a 22 year old who spent his season between second base and centerfield. He probably could have made the All Star game if he did not injure his quad just before the break. Everyone would love to transpose that offensive season to the modern day Upton. After 2007 his power slipped and in 2008 and 2009 he all but lost his home run touch. 2010 has been different, though, and actually compares favorably to 2007 in multiple categories. Check it:

2007 4.4%
2008-9 1.6%
2010 2.4%

2007 28.1%
2008-9 22.6%
2010 26.1%

2007 11.9%
2008-9 12.2%
2010 11.1%

2007 9.1%
2008-9 34%
2010 9.7%

Here’s what I found interesting and shocking: Upton is actually striking out looking less often than before. In 2008, 45% of his strikeouts ended on called strikes. That’s an absurd rate – MLB average is 26% for instance – and Upton is at 32%, again comparable to 2007, but even his overall amount of strikes looking is down. A career best, even. His contact rate is identical to 2007 too. The looking strikes caught me off guard because if there’s one thing that likely drives everyone nuts it’s called strike threes.

However counterintuitive it may be, swinging strikeouts are actually less humiliating than looking strikeouts. Sure, you might miss a pitch by a foot, but watching a pitch drop over the middle of the plate without offering leaves more than a stench of bedazzled, it leaves the thought that you aren’t in tune enough to swing. Upton in particular takes some close pitches. He is very confident in his eye, perhaps even more confident than his strong arm. He appears confused and irate whenever a call he feels is a ball goes against him. Sometimes you wonder if he’s too confident. Too arrogant. Too trusting in his own physical skills.

Consider these numbers:

0-0: 421 pitches, 259 takes, 112 called strikes
0-1:229 pitches, 139 takes, 28 called strikes
0-2: 103 pitches, 51 takes, 5 called strikes
1-0: 147 pitches, 85 takes, 33 called strikes
1-1: 184 pitches, 91 takes, 22 called strikes
1-2: 147 pitches, 76 takes, 11 called strikes
2-0: 51 pitches, 28 takes, 11 called strikes
2-1: 95 pitches, 45 takes, 17 called strikes
2-2: 137 pitches, 60 takes, 13 called strikes
3-0: 17 pitches, 14 takes, 10 called strikes
3-1: 40 pitches, 20 takes, 5 called strikes
3-2: 85 pitches, 34 takes, 6 called strikes

If that does nothing for you, how about the same inputs in percentage form:

0-0: 62% take, 43% called/take
0-1: 61% take, 20% called/take
0-2: 50% take, 10% called/take
1-0: 58% take, 39% called/take
1-1: 49% take, 24% called/take
1-2: 52% take, 14% called/take
2-0: 55% take, 39% called/take
2-1: 47% take, 38% called/take
2-2: 44% take, 22% called/take
3-0: 82% take, 71% called/take
3-1: 50% take, 25% called/take
3-2: 40% take, 18% called/take

By just looking at those numbers, it appears Upton could (and without context: should) be more aggressive on 0-0, 1-0, 2-0, 2-1, and 3-0 counts. The two strike counts are what I really want to focus in on. Let’s single them out once more before digging deeper:

0-2: 50% take, 10% called/take
1-2: 52% take, 14% called/take
2-2: 44% take, 22% called/take
3-2: 40% take, 18% called/take

Two of those are pure pitcher counts with low called rates reprehensive of the pitchers’ intent to throw a chase pitch. 3-2 is a count that can go either way, and 2-2 is an interesting one too. Upton is more willing to take on 0-2 and 1-2 than 2-2 and 3-2, but when he does take on those latter counts, they are more often strikes. Here are all his two strike count takes in graph form:

That yellow box is his personalized strike zone, as you may have guessed. The plate location is universal, so even if you disagree with a high/low strike call based on this strike zone, you cannot argue inside/outside. What’s interesting is that the majority of Upton’s called strike threes are absolutely correct. In fact, he should have a few more than he does, even when those inside calls are taken into account, they are often reciprocated on the outside edge.

What kills Upton’s perception and everyone’s intestines is the red in the middle of the zone. Look at that. Look at how many are dead-red (no pun intended) and all are taken on two strike counts. Upton is aware of the count, he knows that a take within the zone is an out. He knows (roughly) what the strike zone is and he has a good perception of where the ball is going to end up, yet he takes them anyways.

This is where I made one last query: what were the pitch types of those called strikes threes? Maybe he’s seeing a ton of amazing breaking balls – unlikely, but I just wanted to verify with the data – and as such here are the results:

1 curve
26 fastballs
8 sliders

There you have it. That’s why folks are driven absolutely batty by Upton’s called strikeouts. It’s not because he’s doing it at an all-time high rate or because he’s trusting his eye too much and falling victim to variable umpire zones. It’s because when he is taking a strike on those counts it’s usually a fastball and it’s usually over the middle.

I don’t know why he takes and prescribing a remedy when you don’t know the disease makes for dangerous medicine. Therefore, I’m going to refrain from offering further opinion at this time, but it does make me curious about Upton’s thought patterns at the plate.

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