“The gods of the diamond sometimes play a strange game- they give us the light and blow out the flame.”
Those words from Terry Cashman in “The Ballad Of Herb Score” echo loud in the lives of some of the game’s most promising young stars who never quite lived up to their calling. In baseball’s rich and colorful past, there have been amateur baseball players that have shined brighter than the sun that bathed them on summer afternoons.
They showed talent.
They showed instinct.
They showed grace.
Coming out of Greenbrier Christian Academy in Virginia, shortstop Melvin Upton Jr. possessed all of these attributes and then some. Scouts were in awe with his raw ability and five-tool skillset.
In fact, he was compared to Derek Jeter.
Jim Callis and Allen Simpson of Baseball America had him ranked as the No. 1 player available and had scouts comparing him to thexx modern legend:
“Scouts compare Upton to a young Derek Jeter, right down to the swagger. Upton is further along in his development than Jeter at a comparable age. He’s more physically mature than Jeter, who developed his physique in pro ball, and has better power. Upton is just 17 and will play at that age throughout his first professional season.”
(courtesy of Perfect Game Baseball)
Upton ended up being drafted as a shortstop with the second overall pick by the Tampa Bay Rays two months before his 18th birthday. He debuted in 2004 at the age of 19, playing 45 games before getting called up for good at the end of the 2006 season.
Some notable names from the 2002 draft, aside from Upton, included Zack Greinke (No. 6 to Kansas City), Prince Fielder (No. 7 to Milwaukee), Nick Swisher (No. 16 to Oakland) and Matt Cain (No. 25 to San Francisco), yet Upton stood out from the rest because of his athleticism and five-tool potential. Pittsburgh held the No. 1 pick but opted to take Ball State right-hander Bryan Bullington over Upton.
Upton signed late and was unable to play in 2002, so his professional debut didn’t take place until the next season when he was 18. The Rays were so enamored and encouraged by his skill set that they sent him out to Low-A right away. As late as 2013, the median age of a player in Low-A was 22.3, or the equivalent age of when most college players are drafted, according to Baseball America.
Upton rewarded that confidence with a .302/.394/.445 line, 80 strikeouts, 57 walks, 38 stolen bases and 35 extra-base hits in 101 games before a late-season promotion to High-A.
Coming into the 2004 season, Baseball America had Upton ranked as the best prospect in Tampa Bay’s system and No. 2 overall, behind some catcher in Minnesota named Joe Mauer.
It’s not hard to see why Upton was regarded that highly, especially when you look at that stat line from his first season. As we know, it’s not advantageous to put a lot of weight on stats in the minors, but being that age and putting up those kinds of numbers is incredibly rare and spoke to how well-prepared he was.
Even though Upton’s debut happened in 2004, his defensive woes at shortstop—making 172 errors in four minor league seasons—prompted a position change before the Rays would call him up for good in August 2006. Upton played 50 games at third base in the big leagues to close out the 2006 season and split time between second base and the outfield early in 2007 before taking over center field full time on July 13 of that season.
It seemed like the position change was the missing piece of the puzzle for Upton. The 22-year-old played with more confidence on both sides of the ball, putting together a remarkable .300/.386/.508 line with 50 extra-base hits and 22 stolen bases in 129 games.
Even though there were some signs it would be difficult for Upton to replicate that success, notably 154 strikeouts in 474 at-bats, the fact that he put up those numbers at that age is incredible.
The sky was the limit for Upton, or so it seemed.
Upton would reach his peak in 2008 at the age of 23 when he posted a 4.8 fWAR even though his batting average (.273) and slugging percentage (.401) dipped substantially. His walk rate jumped significantly (11.9% to 15.2%), keeping his on-base percentage roughly the same (.386 in 2007 to .383 in 2008).
The reason Upton’s fWAR increased was because his defense in center field improved by leaps and bounds. He went from a UZR, which calculates the number of runs a player saves, of negative-2.6 to plus-7.8 in one year (FanGraphs). At a premium position, that made Upton incredibly valuable. 2008 also happened to be the year Upton had that incredible power surge in the postseason, hitting seven home runs against Chicago and Boston to help Tampa Bay make the World Series.
“They were really the only ones that were left in here that were here before the Rays were in 2008 when we started to be the team that we are now. I think some of those things kind of stuck around, and as much as you try to instill the new way, some of those things, it was tough to get some of those thoughts out of their head. And so, I think, obviously they were great players, but as far as an overarching belief in what we try to do here, I think with the new people that we have now, it’s a completely new belief in what we’re trying to do here.”
That is an interesting angle to look at, because we look at the Rays today, marveling at how good they are, how well run they are, and think they can do no wrong. But there was a time, right around when Upton was drafted and for a few years after, when the Rays were the laughing stalk of baseball. The ownership group before Stuart Sternberg bought the franchise in 2005 had no idea how to run a baseball team.
At one point in 2001, there were doubts that the then called Devil Rays could make payroll because certain members of leadership had its flaws.
Upton came in shortly after that, but the aftershock was still there. Who knows what the environment for the Rays affiliates was like in 2003 and 2004? Upton was brought up as the star for this team before the franchise had any kind of direction or guidance. Yes, Upton was performing well in the minors. But how much of that was the raw talent that led him to be the No. 2 pick and how much was he trying to make adjustments to maximize his potential?
(photo courtesy of Rant Sports)
Upton did have moments with the Rays when he looked bored playing the field or at the plate. He would appear to jog casually after fly balls hit over his head or flail at a pitch way outside just to get back to the dugout, for example. No one has ever said Upton is a “bad guy.” There hasn’t been a media spectacle to bring him down the way there is with Yasiel Puig right now, but Upton did acknowledge prior to the 2010 season that it was time for him to bring a more positive approach to the clubhouse and on the field:
“There’s been kind of a cloud over my head, and I just kind of want to push those things behind me. From 19 to 25, just forget about it and move on from 25 on… Last season just humbled me, opened up my eyes to a lot of things. Made me go into the offseason and think about some things.”
Upton proceeded to hit .237/.322/.424 that season, which was an improvement over a disastrous 2009 campaign but hardly worth bragging about. Diving into the stats, Upton has never been a player with a high line-drive rate. He posted a career-high rate of 19.6 percent in 2007, but then it hovered around the 16-18 percent range every season between 2009 and 2015 and dipped as low as 15.4 percent in 2009.
His strikeout rate increased every season from 2008 to 2015, when he appeared to make some adjustments by cutting his swing down and working counts, which also led to an increased walk rate. He’s struck out more than 25 percent of the time every year since 2008 and has a career-worst 33.2 percent rate in 2013.
Then Upton’s career offered another surprising twist. He was no longer the elite prospect but neither was he the bust.
In 87 games with San Diego in 2015, Upton slashed .259/.327/.429 with a 110 wRC+ and 1.6 WAR. He reduced his strikeout rate by four percentage points from his time with Atlanta. He also produced the second-best HR/FB mark of his career (17.4%) in 2016, posted a Speed Score that ranked among the game’s elite, and recorded one of his best defensive seasons. He rated as a neutral defender in center while posting +10 DRS over the course of a half-season in left. It was the best DRS total of his career at any position. In 2015 and 2016, he posted positive or neutral DRS grades in center for the first time in his career.
Last season, his year was cut drastically short when he broke his thumb and appeared in only 49 games in AAA.
When the Indians signed him during the winter meetings, they brought in a player trending in the right direction. They anticipate a player who will compete to be a platoon player for either Michael Brantley in leftfield or Bradley Zimmer in center
Upton crushed left-handed pitching in 2015 and 2016 , posting consecutive marks of 124 wRC+ or better. (He has a 109 wRC+ for his career.)
(table courtesy of Fangraphs.)
With the news that Brantley may miss opening day, Upton could be the Indians starting left-fielder to start the season. He would be a good right-handed option considering Brandon Guyer’s return is uncertain as well. Upton’s recent stat trend line indicates that the front office has every reason to believe that Upton can be a productive part time player.
Upton recently said this to Jordan Bastian of MLB.com:
“I’m not worried about that at all. If I go out and play and do what I know I can do, the rest will take care of itself. … Minor League deal or Major League deal, fourth outfielder, whatever, it doesn’t matter. I’m here to play baseball.”
If the rest does “take care of itself,” the Indians will have a formidable part-time outfielder on their hands.