A good fantasy owner uses equal parts aggression and patience when managing their team. Sure, you have to be quick to open a roster spot when a top prospect is recalled or when picking up a trending player based on a recent hot streak. However, sometimes the best thing to do with a struggling player is to simply ride out the storm. Especially when said struggling player has a proven and consistent track record.
Carlos Gonzalez owners last year, myself included, reaped the benefit of keeping a player on their roster who hit .218 across April and May while hitting 4 home runs and knocking in 13 runs. Despite his dismal start, I was not about to dump the second outfielder I had drafted, nor was anyone in my league about to take on his current numbers. Instead of dropping or trading him, I sat tight while keeping faith in the veterans solid career numbers despite of his injury ridden past. My patience, in this case, eventually paid off. The benefit I mentioned at the start of this paragraph went to the tune of a .292 batting average, 36 home runs, and 84 RBIs over the remainder of the season.
This year has had its fair share of struggling stars, but this article will focus on one who looks like he’s turning the corner, Justin Upton. The former first overall pick had an April and May that, to say nicely, was hard to watch. He hit for a .217 average while managing three home runs, 11 RBIs, and 1 stolen base over a two month span. No need to go back and reread those numbers, they’re really that bad. His 36.5% strikeout rate over that time will serve as our icing on this April/May disaster cake. Naturally, with numbers like these to start the season, panic begins. Upton was being benched, dropped, and traded for pennies on the dollar as a result.
When I found him on one of my league’s waiver wires just over three weeks ago, I added him immediately. Mainly because Upton is just too skilled of a player to continue to underperform to this degree. Secondly because there was nothing to blame, which is a good thing in this instance. He wasn’t injured and he didn’t change anything dramatically with his swing mechanics; Upton was simply on an extended cold streak. This is something he is known to do and follow-up with big hot streaks. For those of us who have forgotten, Upton has been one of the streakiest players in all of baseball over the past several years.
As soon as the calendar turned to June, Upton seemed to transform into a different player. His .289 average, 5 HR, 20 RBIs and 3 SB in 19 games this month are the numbers we are used to seeing out of the three-time all-star. Just to prove how Upton lives and dies by the streak; his hot June has doubled his HR total, nearly doubled his RBI total, quadrupled his SB numbers, and has pushed his average up 21 points. This is the player we are used to spending a top 50 pick on in drafts every year.
As I mentioned above, strikeouts have been Upton’s arch-nemesis thus far in 2016. He has already struck out 93 times in 260 at bats, representing the fourth highest total in the majors. Now Upton is no stranger to the strikeout, posting at least 120 K’s in each season since 2008. But his K% this season is by far the highest rate of his career, so we don’t have a new issue here – just a more frequent old problem.
So far in June he is striking out 24.7% of the time, which right in line with his career average (24.5%) and a big improvement over the previous two months. Strikeouts hurt more in points leagues than roto, but that doesn’t mean you should shy away from Upton. I mean, we still start guys like Chris Davis, Trevor Story, Chris Carter, and Mark Trumbo with confidence (all are in the top 10 for strikeouts in 2016).
Above is Upton’s whiff rates in and out of the zone this season. It’s easy to see how he is getting his hacks in really no matter where the ball is pitched, but more noticeably struggling with below and outside of the zone, not to mention at the top of the strike zone as well. This is a very basic view of how Upton is reacting to where he is being pitched this season.
There is one final note I would like to make about Upton’s struggles. He has seen a lot of, and had a difficult time hitting hard pitches. A hard pitch is generally anything that is considered to be a pitcher’s fastball including four-seam, two-seam, sinker, splitter, cutter, etc. Pitchers are throwing hard pitches to Upton 66.67% of the time, which is a career high. These hard pitches are also averaging 93 mph, which is also the highest average fastball velocity Upton has seen in his career. I’m not exactly sure if this ties into his strikeout woes, but figured it was worthy enough to be included in the discussion.
If you have the opportunity to add Upton to your roster, whether through waivers or a trade, do it before it’s too late because his buy-low window is quickly closing. We are seeing a normally great offensive player showing signs of life after one of the worst two month stretches in his entire career. While he may not be a top-25 outfielder this season, he should be back on track to the Justin Upton who averaged .262/.344/.470 and 27 home runs over the last three years.
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