The National League West should be scared. Justin Upton is turning into the best young hitter in baseball, and at only 23-years-old, that is a title he could hold for a very long time.
To those who play fantasy baseball, hope that whoever has Upton thinks they are selling high, and try to pry him from their unsuspecting, poorly-named team. Then, mock them on the message board as he continues to destroy Major League pitching. If they smartly refuse to trade him, mock them for owning Upton until they are convinced you know something about him that they don’t, then try again.
To those who don’t play fantasy baseball, pay a little extra attention to those Diamondbacks’ highlights and that Justin Upton guy. You may be seeing something special.
While he may not lead the league in any particular category come years end, he is making the progress towards becoming a top contributor in nearly all of them. With a similar build and skill set to Hanley Ramirez, I see Upton putting up similar numbers to the man often considered one of the top three players in baseball. Upton currently leads the National League in doubles, is hitting nearly .400 over the last month, and has three walk-off hits already this season. His plate discipline is finally improving, and he is laying off the outside sliders that have given him fits most of his carreer. He has hit four of the top 20 longest homers this season. Only one other player, Torii Hunter with two, makes that list more than once. His swing is sweet.
With his athletic ability and tools, it’s just a matter of time before Upton is the best overall player in the game. He has a cannon for an arm and great speed, the two things that can’t be taught to a young outfielder. Last off-season NL managers nearly escaped his reign, as the rebuilding Diamondbacks considered moving him for a package of prospects. They probably won’t be making that mistake again.
Upton’s potential has never been questioned. As the first overall pick in the 2005 MLB draft, he made his debut for the Diamondbacks at the end of the 2007 season when he was only 19. The following season, he was limited by injury to only 356 at-bats, but still hit 19 doubles and 15 home runs, with 45 RBI. However, his .250 average and lack of stolen base attempts (5) hinted just how much injuries had taken their toll.
In 2009, Upton had his first full season of at-bats and raked. His average jumped to .300, to go along with an impressive 30 doubles, 26 homers, and a new found running game. Upton stole 20 bases while being caught just 5 times.
Last season, some were disappointed by Upton’s final numbers. He finished with 17 homers, 27 doubles, and 18 steals, but his average dropped to .270 while striking out 152 times. Many wondered if a nagging quad injury didn’t hinder him more than he let on.
This year he’s completely healthy, and he’s breaking out. He’s on pace for over 40 doubles, 30 homers, 30 steals, with an average over .300. To top it off he’s striking out less, walking more, and has a career high OPS (on-base+slugging) of over .900 to show for it.
While he still struggles at times with errors (7 in 76 games this year), his fielding percentage has improved in each of the last three seasons. After a combined 23 errors in 2008 and 2009, he committed only 4 last season. Having played shortstop all through high school, Upton converted to the outfield for the first time after being drafted. Watching him as a rookie, he looked somewhat timid and uncomfortable at times, and his errors were mostly mechanical from lack of experience. Now, because has much better instincts and gets better jumps, most of his errors are either on balls other players wouldn’t get to, or the result of him getting a little too fired up on a throw.
The timing of his emergence couldn’t be better for the Diamondbacks, who suddenly find themselves as one of the biggest surprises in baseball and competing for a playoff spot. Upton has been clutch with his multiple walk-off hits and average over .370 after the seventh inning, and has provided the improved pitching staff with plenty of offense to win games.
I’ve watched Upton since he was drafted, and I’ve watched him progress every season. Each year he seems to discover another of the five tools that scouts have long been telling him he possessed. First came the power, then the average and the running game. He has always had the arm, and I have no doubt the glove and the mental aspect of the game will only continue to improve. As a baseball fan, I can’t wait to see how far he can go.
All stats courtesy of Yahoo! Sports