Sunday, February 27, 2011

Is Justin Upton the Next Barry Bonds? Also What He Might Produce in 2011

This past November when new Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers admitted that he would be willing to move star outfielder and former number one draft choice Justin Upton many people were slightly confused.  Not only was Justin Upton only 23 years old, but he was also clearly Arizona’s top player and had just inked a long term deal (with the Diamondbacks former GM) to stay in Arizona with a relatively team friendly price tag of only $50 million over the next 5 seasons.  However, Upton was coming off what some people were calling a down year.  In 2009 Upton hit 26 home runs and .OPS’d a MVP-esque .898.  However in 2010, Upton only clubbed 17 home runs and saw his .OPS drop to a more modest .798.  In the following days after Towers admitted he had floated Upton to other teams a flurry of rumors flew around about teams calling for the Diamondbacks star youngster. 

Fast forward to Spring Training, and the rumors have died down, it has become quite clear that Kevin Towers will not find a new home for his (now) 24 year old right fielder.  One executive said the asking price for Upton was, “ridiculous.”  The price was, then believed to be at least four or five talented MLB ready players.  The kind of guys who only get moved for the best of the best, or not even traded at all.
Sound ridiculous?  Consider this: Justin Upton may very well be the next Barry Bonds.  Not the Bonds who while using steroids in 2001 hit 73 home runs… and only 49 (!!) singles.  But more along the lines of the Bonds who was a perennial MVP candidate from about 1989-1998.

In Upton’s first 1700 plate appearances he has shown just that, in fact, his numbers are surprisingly similar to Bonds’ first 1700 PAs.  Upton’s .OPS was .828, Bonds’ was a slightly lower .814.  Upton belted 60 home runs (one every 25 at bats) and Bonds drilled 65 (one every 23 at bats).  Bonds only collected 165 RBI while Upton plated 208 runners.

Their slash lines were remarkably similar: Upton hit .272/.352/.471, while Bonds hit .258/.343/.471 over the same stretch of their careers.  The only significant difference between the two comes to us from WAR (wins above replacement) and this can be attributed to Upton’s average defense versus Bonds allegedly elite D.  Upton was worth 7.7 WAR while Bonds was worth almost twice that at 14.4 WAR.  However, we can certainly question the reliability of all ways for accounting defense into WAR for players who did not play in our current sabermetrics era.  Today, WAR uses the defensive metric UZR which has only been around since 2002; UZR comes from batted ball data.  For all calculations of past players WAR, defense is measured with a much less reliable formula which takes fielding percentage, assists, and putouts into play.
So, how can we determine what to expect from the younger Upton brother over the next few seasons?  I believe that we can simply look to Bonds as a good indicator of how Justin will fare next season.  (His projections may be of particular interest to anyone out there who plays fantasy baseball.)

Over Bonds’ next 1900 plate appearances, he hit .279/.388/.496 and in addition he averaged 26 home runs and 96 RBIs.  His .OPS was a solid .886 and his WAR was an astronomical 8+ a year.   The home run and RBI totals match Upton’s career high, so we know he is capable of producing at those levels in 2011, probably with just a little bit of a drop off in the HR department.

The .388 on base percentage is probably a bit out of Upton’s reach due to Bonds over  his next 1900 PAs had a BB% well over 12% which is ridiculously high.  He even peaked at 15% in 1990.  That BB% is so high that only six players in 2010 had a BB% of over 14; they were: Daric Barton, Prince Fielder, Carlos Pena, Albert Pujols, Jose Bautista, and Jason Heyward.  So while Upton’s career base on ball percentage is better than 10.5%, he will probably not reach the same status as Bonds.  But how much of a difference will the BB% difference of probably about 2% make on .OBP?
I looked to the stats to find out.  In 2010, three players made 675 plate appearances: Matt Holliday, Austin Jackson, and Michael Cuddyer.  Holliday’s BB% was 10.2%, Jackson’s was 7% and Cuddyer’s was 8.6%.  When I subtracted the players’ .OBP from their batting averages (.AVG) I came down to a stat that I imagine is similar to .ISO (isolated slugging percentage) which for brevities sake I will call “.ISOBB”.  Holliday’s BB% was 1.6% greater than Cuddyer’s, and when I subtracted their .ISOBB from one another’s I came to find that the 1.6% BB% rate was good for .013 points in .OBP.  To check this I compared Austin Jackson and Michael Cuddyer, whom also have 1.6% difference in their BB%, and came to find that the difference in .ISOBB was also .013.
Player PAs BB% .OBP .OBP - .AVG= .ISOBB
Matt Holliday 675 10.2% .390 .390 - .312= .078
Austin Jackson 675 7.0% .345 .345 - .293= .052
Michael Cuddyer 675 8.6% .336 .336 - .271= .065

The next step to determining Upton’s .OBP for 2011 is to determine his .ISOBB, Bonds’ was .109 which is pretty astronomical, and we have already established the fact that Upton’s will be around .013 to .020 different based on his lower BB%.  Upton’s .ISOBB should end up around .093.

The .279 average that Bond’s posted was lowered significantly by a .248 average one year.  In fact, over the course of both players’ earlier careers, Upton has shown that he possesses a far better batting average.  He hit over .300 in his second full season, a feat Bond’s didn’t accomplish until his fourth season.  So Upton we can assume (safely) will probably hit higher than .279 in 2011, let’s say .284.  Which when adding in his .ISOBB, puts his .OPB at .377.  The last thing to consider is slugging percentage, and Bonds probably edges out Justin Upton in this category like in BB%.  How much? Well during their first 1700 PAs, Bonds’ .ISO was .014 better at .213, compared to Upton’s .199.  Over the next three seasons Bond’s didn’t improve much, rising to about .219.  If Upton follows the same improvement, he should float in around .205 which would put him at a .489 slugging percentage.

All in all, Upton’s 2011 season should look something like this: .284/.377/.489 with about 25 home runs and 95 RBIs.  I’ll be curious to see exactly what he does end up doing.  As for the predictions by the mathematicians/computers that are paid/designed to do predictions, when the average of’s “Marcel” and “Bill James” predictions are taken it results in a .285/.367/.489 line… Pretty similar to what I came up with actually.  So is Justin Upton the next Barry Bonds? We’ll have to see, but I would say yes.