Why Justin Upton is down, not up

What a difference a year makes for Justin Upton at the plate. ESPN.com

Justin Upton figures to be the best hitter available on the trade market, if the Arizona Diamondbacks decide that he’s worth dealing. Upton turns 25 in August and is signed through the end of the 2015 season (the next three years pay him $38.5 million), so this would not be your typical July 31 rental deal.

But the question that some teams will have to consider is: Which Upton are you getting? The one from 2011? Or the one from 2012?

The Upton of 2011 was an MVP-caliber hitter, with a .289/.369/.529 triple-slash line, plus 31 home runs and 21 stolen bases. The Upton of 2012 has shriveled into an average offensive player, one with a .264/.347/.388 slash line and just seven home runs in 299 at-bats. He was 0-for-10 as the team scored three runs over the weekend while getting swept by the Cubs.

Upton has completely gotten away from what made him the hitter he was in 2011. He looks like a different player altogether. This has manifested itself in three areas.

First, it shows up in his strikeouts, specifically his strikeouts looking, something that has been documented in the blogosphere over the past month. Upton has struck out looking an MLB-leading 34 times this season, one shy of his total from all of 2011.

This is not a case of the umpires being more unfavorable to him. Of his 34 called strikeouts this season, 25 were deemed by the Pitch F/X system to be in the strike zone. That’s five more than were in 2011. Upton has stared at strike three on seven pitches that were over the middle third of the plate, width-wise. He only did that twice in 2011.

The second issue is that Upton has gone from hitting the ball in the air 63 percent of the time last season to 54 percent of the time this season. Over a full season, that’s probably 40 to 45 fewer balls in the air.

That gets us to our biggest, third point: What happens when Upton does hit the ball in the air? Upton has stopped pulling the ball in the way that made him one of the game’s favorite home-run hitters to watch.

The images above show Upton’s line drives and fly balls over the past two seasons. The 2011 chart is actually incomplete. It’s missing three home runs that went so far that they went entirely off the page.

The 2012 spray chart is lacking those kinds of prodigious blasts. And in case you can’t tell, there’s a noticeable difference in Upton’s ability to pull the ball in the air.

We’re able to estimate balls hit by defined areas of the field. The chart on the right breaks down Upton’s balls in the air over the past two seasons.

Upton Fly Balls and Line Drives
Last Two Seasons

Upton has gone from being a pull hitter with major power to one who hits a lot of cans of corn to right field. Last season, Upton had 20 home runs of at least 400 feet to left field or left-center field. This season, he has four.

Inside Edge, which provides video-scouting services to major league teams, estimates the distances of balls hit in the air. They’ve charted Upton’s average ball in the air to left/left-center as traveling 278 feet this season. That’s 15 feet shorter than 2011.

Inside Edge also has Upton hitting the ball about 20 feet further to right field and right-center than he previously did.

But that’s not going to produce results. Over the past two seasons, Upton has gotten hits on 58 percent of the balls he’s hit in the air (flies or line drives) to left or left-center, and a 30 percent chance of getting a hit on a ball in the air to right center.

This isn’t an issue of his being pitched differently. Upton has actually seen a lower percentage of pitches over the outside part of the plate this season than he did in 2011. It’s also an issue at home and on the road (more so the latter, but there’s a drop-off at Chase Field).

Whatever the issue may be, it’s one the Diamondbacks or his new employer will need to figure out to impact not just the 2012 season, but many beyond that.