Cases already heard:
All rise! Court is now in session.
In our second case we have the Plaintiff, Mr. Melvin Emmanuel “B.J.” Upton, vs. the Defendant, Mr. Andrew McCutchen. Mr. Upton claims that after a down season in 2009, he is being wrongfully overlooked in drafts. We have George Fitopoulos arguing for Mr. Upton and Bryan Curley arguing on the behalf of Mr. McCutchen. Let’s get it on!
There’s no way to sugarcoat it; if you bought into B.J. Upton last season your team was screwed from day one. It wasn’t pretty as he posted career worsts in important hitting categories such as batting average (.241), on-base percentage (.312), walks (57), BABIP (.310), and line drive percentage (15.4) in just his third full season as a pro. It was an all-around disaster of a season for Upton, and those who bought into the hype created by his power surge in the 2008 playoffs paid dearly for it. However, a down 2009 season doesn’t mean he cannot salvage what little fantasy value he has left. Remember, he still managed to steal 42 bases in 2009 despite those low on-base numbers.
Upton’s track record suggests that 2009 was an unlucky one for him, and he should have much more success getting on base this season. His .310 BABIP was awful considering his career averages and the type of speed he brings to the game, and if it returns to his more normal level of .350, his batting average (and other categories) would rise significantly.
Drafted in the first round of the 2005 amateur draft, McCutchen is a top prospect that has risen steadily through the Pirates’ minor league system. He parlayed his success at lower levels into quick results in the Majors using a disciplined eye and good contact rates to become a pesky leadoff batter. In only 108 games last season, McCutchen scored 74 runs, stole 22 bases, batted .286, and even hit 12 HR with 54 RBI. Those results, projected over 150 games, come out to 103/.286/17/75/31. Having already produced similar numbers in the minors, McCutchen is clearly on the brink of becoming a coveted fantasy player.
By looking at Upton’s 2009 batted ball numbers, I can see exactly where he went wrong. For one, his line drive percentage was a very uncharacteristic 15.4 percent, which is almost four points lower than his average from 2006-2008. Also, Upton’s approach at the plate was far from patient as he swung at a career-high 19.5 percent of pitches outside of the strike zone, which led to a BB% of under 10.0 (9.1%) for the first time in his three full seasons as a pro. All of this led to a low .310 BABIP, which obviously affected his batting average and other subsequent categories. I would say there is a better chance for him to return to (or at least approach) his 2007-2008 form rather than mimic that of 2009 because his career numbers in both the minor and major leagues suggest that he is a speedy guy who knows how to get on base and hit for a decent average. The only real unknown is his power, which shouldn’t be an issue here because he will hit at least 12 home runs, the same ballpark that McCutchen is in.
So my argument is you generally should believe Upton’s floor to be around 75/.270/12/60/40. The big difference between Upton and McCutchen is that Upton has proven he can do it at the pro-level for more than a season and over 140+ games, while McCutchen has only had a successful 108 games in his entire career. A lot of people might think they are going the safer route by picking McCutchen over the unpredictable Upton, but that is not the case here. Upton should work to fix what plagued him last season and will go back to being a respectable fantasy player with major upside. It’s easy to forget that this five-year pro is only 25 years old.
I won’t sit here and try to make excuses for why McCutchen will steal 40 bases. Barring an unforeseen turn of events, it’s not going to happen. But, given McCutchen’s stolen base totals last season and his track record in the minors, 30 seems like a good estimate.
The real advantage McCutchen has over Upton is his consistent batting average. He was a career .286 hitter in the minors who only once hit below .283, and in his first season with the Pirates he picked up right where he left off with an average of, you guessed it, .286. Upton was able to maintain a good batting average in the minors as well, but in parts of five Major League seasons (including his three full seasons), he’s a career .266 hitter, only once batting above .273.
How does McCutchen manage to be so consistent? It’s really quite simple; he plays within himself. Yeah, that’s one of those phrases High School coaches use on their 120-pound, ego-driven players to teach them not to swing for the fences every at-bat, but it has real significance in McCutchen’s case. He knows he isn’t a big slugger so he makes contact with a lot of pitches (90.0 Z-Contact%) and doesn’t hit a ton of fly balls (39.1 FB%, 1.08 GB:FB ratio).
That kind of talent and discipline prevents the large statistical variances we see other players have from season to season. At only 23 years old, McCutchen is growing into a more polished and powerful hitter (increasing ISOs from 2007-2009), and he’s already had just as many successful MLB seasons as Upton has.
It’s true that if you are going to draft Upton, you will have to have some faith that he will rebound from an awful 2009 season. I believe that he has too many skills to hit .241 again and the Tampa Bay Rays have a much better offense around Upton for him to succeed, and he’s shown what he is capable of, which is getting on base at a very good rate and stealing bases. McCutchen may be the sexier pick because he is a prospect who showed good progress in his first season, but let’s not forget that Upton is just 25 years old himself and not some 35-year old player on the back nine of his career. It’s too early to close the book on B.J. Upton.
Mr. Upton’s counsel would like to have you believe his client has been successful longer in the Majors than Mr. McCutchen, but that just isn’t the case. Other than his 2007, which he has twice since tried to reproduce and has failed both times, do any of his other seasons scream success?
After a down 2008, Upton fans said that 2009 would be the year. Instead, he fell even further. Sure, Upton is going to improve on 2009. He has to, right? Even when he does, even when he gets his BABIP back up from .310 (already pretty solid), will that push his batting average any higher than the mid-.270s? And why do we need to assume he’ll hit more than 12 home runs? He has only averaged 10 over the last two seasons.
Given McCutchen’s seamless transition from the minors to the Majors (something Upton cannot say), and his upward-trending standard statistics (HR, SB) and peripherals (HR/AB, OPS), why would anyone expect a regression from last season’s stats? In short, there is little reason to believe McCutchen won’t continue to improve upon what he’s done over the last several seasons. Don’t think of it as closing the book on Upton; think of it as opening the book on McCutchen.