Justin Upton's Breakout Season, Or, Why The Diamondbacks Are In First

Justin Upton of the Arizona Diamondbacks hits a two run home against the Colorado Rockies during the eighth inning of the Major League Baseball game at Chase Field in Phoenix, Arizona. The Diamondbacks defeated the Rockies 9-4. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Following a disappointing 2010 campaign, 23-year-old Justin Upton is leading the Diamondbacks' charge at the NL West.

It's easy to forget how young Justin Upton is. He was drafted back in 2005 by the Diamondbacks, who made him the first overall selection, and has played in the majors since 2007. He's amassed more than twice as many plate appearances in the majors as in the minors, so we're used to having him around. 

The truth is that Upton, in his age-23 season, is barely older than the average High-A player.

Following a down 2010, in 2011 Upton has matched his career-high in homers, surpassed his career-best mark in doubles, and leads the NL with 67 extra-base hits, two more than Troy Tulowitzki. He is hitting .296/.374/.539, good for a career-best 144 OPS+ a 145 wRC+. While at first glance it looks like this campaign is no better than his 2009 (.300/.366/.532), with 2011's depressed offensive levels, this season is easily the more impressive.

Throw in how Upton got to this point, and it becomes even more so. He played in 138 games in 2009, and just 133 last season. He has already played in 135 games this year and, barring an injury, he'll set career-highs for both games and plate appearances within the next week. Upton has missed 112 games in his career due to injury -- another point that has helped take the shine off of his young career -- and was considered a huge risk for Arizona by Baseball Prospectus heading into the year:

The Big Risk: Of Upton's 2010 injuries, the one that stands out is the small labral tear in his left non-throwing shoulder--an injury that his brother B.J. also dealt with... The labral tear could cause his power to decrease, since the damaged shoulder is on his front side while hitting. While it is certainly possible to play at a high level with Upton's injury, it often ends up bothering players too much to continue unaffected, and at some point they require a surgical clean-up. Considering Upton's upside, there is no one of equivalent talent whom the Diamondbacks can substitute for their budding star.

Upton's durability and power this season suggest his shoulder problem might well be behind him.

Upton has also reined in his strikeouts. They have been a problem in the past -- he struck out 29 percent of the time in 2008, 23 percent of the time in 2009, and was at 27 percent in 2010 -- but 2011 marks the first time he has struck out less than 20 percent of the time. Upton has whiffed in 18 percent of his plate appearances, helping to boost his batting average. With fewer strikeouts, he doesn't require the abnormally-high batting average on balls in play he has relied on in the past: in 2009, Upton had a .360 BABIP, and last year, even with his disappointing line, he still had a .354 BABIP. More balls in play means more opportunities for hits, so even if he has "just" a .330-ish BABIP, he'll be able to produce more effectively.

Somewhat paradoxically, he's cut down on his strikeouts by being more aggressive at the plate. He saw 4.05 pitches per plate appearance in 2009, and 4.19 in 2010, but is at 3.77 this year. This has cut into his walk rate a bit -- he's taking a free pass 8.7 percent of the time, compared to his 10.6 career mark prior to 2011 -- but it's been a good tradeoff. Upton has been aggressive in hitter's counts, taking advantages of pitches he can hit rather than waiting for the pitcher to put him on first base: his OPS is 118 percent better than the league average in 1-0 counts, and 55 percent better than the league average overall while ahead in the count. That's much better than last year, when he was 15 percent better than average in that regard, and, when combined with his improved production when behind in the count -- his OPS+ in two-strike counts is 131, against last season's 104 mark -- it's easy to see where this season has come from. 

The combination of health and his changed approach at the plate has Upton finally producing the breakout campaign we've been waiting for, and without the aid of an absurd BABIP. He could do even more -- his home/road splits are evidence of that -- but he's trending upward following disappointment, and the first-place Diamondbacks will take that.

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