If someone told you Justin Upton would finally make the jump to “superstardom” this season, you may have been slightly hesitant to believe them. After all, Upton is coming off a somewhat disappointing season, in which his home runs dropped from 26 to 17 and his strikeout rate rose to an alarming 30.7%. Though his 3.1 WAR was still solid, it’s fair to say his future looked a lot brighter following his 2009 season. Upton has gotten off to a great start this season, and there’s evidence that suggests his strong start is sustainable. Perhaps this could be the year Upton fulfills his lofty expectations and becomes one of the best players in baseball.
Two main factors led to Upton’s struggles last season: he failed to hit for power and his strikeout rate soared to astronomical heights. As Jack Moore explained last week, Upton has been able to improve on those things in 2011. He won’t continue to hit a quarter of his fly balls out of the park, but Upton has tremendous raw power. As for his strikeouts, he has improved in that area as well. If Upton expects his hot start to continue, he’s going to have to keep his strikeout rate in check over the course of the season. Thankfully, there’s reason for optimism.
One of the biggest complaints about Upton last season, was that he was watching too many strikes fly past him. Looking at Upton’s plate discipline charts in 2011 may indicate a change in approach. Tired of watching umps call strikes against him, Upton has been more aggressive at the plate. Compared to last season, Upton has raised his Swing% in all three major categories (O-Swing%, Z-Swing% and Swing%). While this also means he’s swinging at more pitches outside of the strike zone, Upton’s other rates have stabilized at his career norm after dipping last season.
That’s nice and all, considering any player can swing away as much as his heart desires. It’s Upton’s contact rates that tell us just how much his new approach may have aided his strong start. Upton’s not only swinging more often, but he’s also making more contact this season. Much like his Swing%, Upton has raised his Contact% in all three major categories. If you take out his O-Contact% from his rookie season, which consisted of only 152 plate appearances, Upton is posting career highs in each category.
Upton’s Z-Swing% is particularly impressive. Upton owns a career 80.0% rate, yet that number has risen to 87.9% this season, which might be a tough number for Upton to sustain over the entire season, but he has managed to increase his Z-Swing% every year he’s been in the majors. Even a modest improvement in the category would go a long way in making Upton a better player.
Despite the fact that pitchers are throwing fewer strikes to Upton this season, his aggressive approach at the plate is already paying large dividends. The fact that he’s swinging more often could lead to more strikeouts as the season progresses, but his increased contact rates could make that trade-off relatively negligible. Last season, Upton took patience to the extreme and suffered from a disappointing season as a result. This season, Upton’s aggressiveness is a major reason he’s gotten off to such a hot start. Brace yourself, baseball fans, this could be the breakout season we’ve all been waiting for.
Chris is a blogger for CBSSports.com. He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.