B.J. Upton and the clutch boson

Justin K. Aller

Everything's coming up Braves right now. That's sort of what has to happen when a team wins 11 in a row. Everything has to go their way. Every pitching change, every late-inning substitution, everything has to work out. And the Braves are enjoying the fruits of good fortune and a mighty fine ball club.

Except, there are a couple of poisonous microclimates in the miasma of success. Here's one of them now:

Split PA H RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
2 outs, RISP 50 1 2 8 18 .025 .204 .050 .254
Late & Close 60 8 4 3 24 .143 .186 .196 .383

Woof. B.J. Upton has come up to the plate 50 times with a runner in scoring position and two outs. He has one hit. Here it is. You know the saying, "If a tree falls in the forest …", right? Replace "tree" with "clutch hit" and "falls in the forest" with "comes against the Mets," and finish the rest of it. Or, even better, note that B.J. Upton has had a bad season, and go about your business.

(An aside: If you want to know how the Giants' season has gone, you can note this: B.J. Upton has seven hits with runners in scoring position this season. Three of them have come against the Giants. That's a team that doesn't even play the Braves that much. That has nothing to do with this article, but come on. Seems important on a celestial level.)

Really, if you take a spin on Upton's Baseball-Reference.com page, it's a horror show all over. OPS in the first half? .565. But it's .533 in the second half. He has a .091 OPS with runners on third and less than two outs, but it jumps up to .238 with runners on third and two outs. Sometimes you just have to take lemons and make lemonade, right?

For all of the Ripley's facts you can trot out for Upton's historically putrid season, here's what gets me: He's been progressively worse in clutch situations, or when the situation might make a struggling hitter grip the bat a little tighter.

Here's how he's been as the inning progresses:

Split PA BA OBP SLG OPS
0 outs 106 .214 .274 .398 .672
1 out 99 .181 .265 .301 .567
2 outs 119 .139 .263 .198 .461

And in the differently leveraged situations:

Split PA BA OBP SLG OPS
High Lvrge 64 .121 .172 .259 .430
Medium Lvrge 124 .180 .246 .297 .543
Low Lvrge 135 .204 .333 .319 .652

How about in game situations? Like, down by a run, two runs, three runs ...

Split G PA BA OBP SLG OPS
Within 1 R 70 168 .169 .251 .284 .535
Within 2 R 80 238 .175 .254 .294 .548
Within 3 R 82 272 .175 .259 .308 .568
Within 4 R 83 293 .180 .265 .309 .573

Every one of those micro-splits is tethered to an unfortunate sample size. But the trend is all in the same direction: down.

No outs? Alright, B.J., let's see what you've got.

One out? Okay, let's, uh, move the runner over to, dammit no that's no outs, wait, strike two, what kind of, oh dammit wait.

Two outs? Just bury yourself under the batter's box and comically extend an arm out from the ground to pat the dirt down, B.J.

Or, to put it more simply, whenever there's a situation in which a new addition to an excellent team on a big contract can panic and think, "Oh nooooo, everyone is looking at meeeeee," it certainly seems like Upton does exactly that. It's long been my belief that clutch hitting might exist, but that we'll never be able to tell the real clutch hitters from the sample-size goblins.

That still holds with Upton. Something's screwed up. His mechanics, his swing, his whatever. Maybe even the clutch lobe of his brain. But probably his mechanics. Unless he really is panicking when runners are on.

I just want to know. I just want to hook electrodes to his forehead and study the neural activity. I want to compare it to Tony Gwynn, DNA samples and all. I want to shoot Upton through the Large Hadron Collider, have him run into David Eckstein, and see what happens. This could be the missing link, the player between clutch and unclutch. The player who had a successful career before panicking and realizing that he was playing under a multi-year, free-agent commitment for the first time of his life.

Upton might be the victim of sample size. He might be the victim of poor timing. Or he might be a completely different player with the game on the line. For a decade, I would have stood on the side of small-sample goblins. But with this situation, this player, this team, this performance ... I have doubts. This might be the bat-grippingest, brow-sweatingest player of our generation. He has so much pressure, so much to play for, so much to live up to. And with every failed at-bat, it gets worse.

I don't know what to make of Upton. Can't tell if he's wrong place at the wrong time, or if he's panicking. But I'm rooting for him. First, players aren't supposed to collapse like that, and second, if he's good again, it helps us understand the incomprehensible game of baseball a little bit more. I'm not sure if we've found the Upton boson, the proof that clutch or non-clutch hitting exists.

But this is as close as we'll ever get to a test subject, I'm thinking.

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