B.J. Upton is the Braves’ new centerfielder, agreeing to a five-year, $75.25 million deal on Wednesday. There are flaws in Upton’s game and he’s been a somewhat inconsistent player. But he’s young, talented and he’s actually been a pretty valuable player throughout his career.
Upton is not a great player. For his career his offense has been basically a little above league average. He’s never had an impressive hit tool. He strikes out a good bit and his career batting average is .255. On defense Upton rates as somewhere between serviceable and poor. So what did the Rays and their smart front office see and what did the Braves see that caused them to hand Upton a fairly hefty (albeit reasonable), long-term contract?
For all Upton’s flaws, he’s been a league-average offensive player capable of playing centerfield, which has plenty of value if he can merely keep that up. Since the start of the 2010 season, there simply aren’t that many centerfielders who have offered at least league-average offensive production and any value on defense. If we use Fangraphs’ Weighted Runs Created Plus (which is a measure of a player’s overall offensive contributions, including baserunning, adjusted for league and park so that 100 is average) and Fangraphs’ fielding runs above average, we can get at least a decent idea how many centerfielders actually were above average on both sides of the ball.
Since 2010 Josh Hamilton, John Jay, Shane Victorino, Austin Jackson, Angel Pagan, Chris Young, Andres Torres, Coco Crisp and Upton have posted above 100 wRC+ and positive fielding runs above average. That’s nine out of 34 qualified players Fangraphs lists in their centerfield rankings over that time frame. Some of those guys are older (Victorino, Torres, Pagan, Crisp) and one is older and expensive (Hamilton). That leaves Jay, Jackson, Young and Upton as the only fairly young, attractive options for teams over the next several seasons, among the players who have significant major league experience since the start of 2010 and who have proven something in centerfield. Upton is by far the most talented of that group, in terms of raw tools. Upton also happened to be the only one on the market.
How does one get that Upton is an above-average offensive player, given all his strikeouts and his low career batting average? Well, we should all know by now that batting average isn’t everything. Upton has power and draws walks at a decent rate. He’s posted a career .336 on-base percentage and a career. 422 slugging percentage. Those numbers are fairly solid, even if we don’t take in to account ballparks. Upton’s home park up to this point was Tropicana Field in Tampa, which is a pitcher-friendly park. Also, if we look at his career splits in different parks, he’s gotten significant playing time in fairly hitter-friendly parks where, naturally, his stats have taken a hit. So looking at park-adjusted numbers, like OPS+ or wRC+, he’s been an above average run creator, not great but very solid for a player capable of manning centerfield in the majors, even if he’s not an outstanding fielder.
Then there is baserunning, which we could include in offense. Upton is obviously fast. He’s stolen 232 bases in his career and has only been caught 69 times. He’s always been comfortably above average in baserunning runs, according to Fangraphs, which takes in to account multiple ways a player advances bases.
Did the Braves give him too much? According to Fangraphs Upton was worth $15 million in 2012, $18.7 million in 2011 and $16.2 million in 2010, in terms of free agent dollars per wins in those seasons. Given that the Braves will now have him for his age 28 through 32 seasons, $15 million a year is reasonable.
Was the signing based mostly on hoping Upton lives up to his potential? Well, we’ve already established that Upton has already been a pretty solid player, probably a better player than his detractors give him credit for. It’s true Upton’s had potential since he was the second pick overall in the 2002 amateur draft, and he’s not performed like the superstar many expected he would become after being drafted that high. Certainly potential played a role in the Braves signing him but, again, he’s obviously already a solid player. A lot of the potential is in the fact that he’s just entering his age 28 season next year, which is fairly young for a free agent. At his age, with his slender, athletic frame, there isn’t too much risk of him absolutely falling off a cliff with his production over the length of his contract. This isn’t Nate McLouth. This is a supremely talented player who, while maybe hasn’t lived up to expectations as a former second overall pick, has done some things to prove himself in the majors. If he lives up to second-overall-pick-type potential, that will be gravy. But the Braves will be in fine shape if he more or less does what he’s done throughout his career. If B.J. Upton has a typical B.J. Upton season and the rest of the front office and team does it’s part, the Braves will be in fine shape.