In what could be his last season with the Tampa Bay Rays, B.J. Upton is making the most of the limited time he may have with the organization. After starting the year on the disabled list, the 27-year-old is hitting .300/.357/.482 in 127 plate appearances. Some may choose to use the “contract year” narrative when discussing Upton’s stellar start; however, that theory has been debunked over, and over, and over again.
The notion that a player would or could play better only in the year before free agency makes little sense. If the goal is to maximize dollars on the open market, and a player could simply turn his performance on or off like a switch, would it not make more sense to be very good year-after-year instead of average for several years and excellent for just one?
Also consider Upton has been in a contract year in each of the past few seasons. As an arbitration eligible player, his salary for the last three years has been based on past production and not future projections. If he were simply biding his time until free agency was looming, he would have potentially cost him millions of dollars.
The reason B.J. Upton is doing so well could be much simpler; he is swinging the bat more.
Courtesty of Fangraphs.com
In just over 3,500 major-league plate appearances, Upton has swung at 44% of pitches thrown. This season, he is swinging at 53%. Swing rate is one of the first offensive categories to stabilize; meaning the increased attempts by Upton may be more than just statistical noise. He is swinging at more pitches outside of the strike zone compared to last season, but has seen a bigger increase in hacks inside the zone year-over-year.
In 2011, Upton took a swipe at 71% of pitches in the strike zone. That number jumps up to 79% this season. He is also not wasting any time in taking his cuts. Currently, he has swung at 47% of first pitches; the third highest mark in the league behind Josh Hamilton and Freddie Freeman.
Just behind swing rate in terms of early-season stability is contact rate. Thus far, Upton is making contact 75% of the time. This is nearly in line with his 76% career rate. On pitches in the zone, he is actually within a tenth of a percentage point from his career mark.
The extra swings on pitches in the zone have led to a slight change in batted-ball profile for Upton. Though these rates are subjective to classification errors, he is hitting more line drives and groundballs than he has in recent seasons. By getting less air on the ball, he has upped his raw batting average and his batting average on balls in play (BABIP). This may regress with time; however, his current .349 BABIP is not ridiculously far off from his .329 lifetime average.
Despite an overall increase in swings – as well as swings and misses – Upton has actually lowered his strikeout rate. Again, this may change as the season progresses, but he is striking out in 21% of his plate appearances thus far. His career average is 25%.
Upton’s current walk rate (9%) is also lower than his career number (11%), but the increase in hits has his on-base percentage at a stellar .357. The increased offerings have not decreased his power output which is currently in line with the production of recent seasons.
In addition to the more aggressive approach, Upton has shown greater plate coverage in the early stages of 2012. Last season, Upton hit just .239 on pitches located in the middle-to-outer portion of the zone. This year, he is hitting .291 on the same pitches.
Will the swinging continue for Upton? Who knows, but he has certainly made a conscious effort to be more active in the batter’s box especially on strikes. The center fielder credits his recent success to “staying inside the strike zone but still being aggressive.” I think the phrase is aggressive in the strike zone’ Upton said after his walk-off hit on Wednesday. ” Right now that’s the kind of approach that I have and it’s been working out for me.”
If this is Upton’s last stand in Tampa Bay, he appears to be going out swinging.