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Next stop, stardom: 2011 breakout picks – Justin Upton

Mar 30, 2011, 12:48 PM EDT

justin-upton-diamondbacks Getty Images

Justin Upton has yet to become the MVP-caliber superstar expected from the No. 1 pick in the 2005 draft and actually took a major step backward last season following a very strong 2009 performance, but I’m not sure most people fully realize just how rare it is for someone to be as productive as Upton’s been at such a young age.

He’s hit .272 with a .352 on-base percentage and .471 slugging percentage through 422 career games while averaging 21 homers and 72 RBIs per 600 plate appearances, which looks like good but not great production until you note that Upton made his MLB debut at age 19 and is still just 23 years old.

Here’s the complete list of all the players in the past 50 years to get at least 1,500 appearances through age 22 and post a higher OPS than Upton: Alex Rodriguez, Miguel Cabrera, Ken Griffey Jr., Tony Conigliaro, Boog Powell, Cesar Cedeno. That’s it. That’s the whole list. And filling out the rest of the top 10, directly behind Upton on the list, are Johnny Bench, Andruw Jones, and Rickey Henderson. Suddenly the fact that his OPS dipped slightly below .800 last season doesn’t seem so damning, does it?

Upton’s high strikeout rate sticks out as a potential red flag for his development, but he’s already flashed 30-homer power and 20-steal speed to go along with above-average plate discipline and a good glove in right field. In terms of raw ability and physical tools very few players are in Upton’s league and he’s on the verge of making a name for himself–and surpassing his brother, B.J. Upton of the Rays–as one of the elite outfielders in the game.

My other 2011 breakout picks: Carlos Santana, Colby Rasmus, Derek HollandBrandon Morrow.

  1. paperlions - Mar 30, 2011 at 1:25 PM

    Those number look nice until you realize that Upton plays in the second most hitter friendly park (behind only Coors) in MLB, and his career splits (OBP/SLG/OPS) are: .381/.524/.905 at home and .323/.418/.742 away.
    I’m not saying he won’t be great; he is still young and has talent. Just saying that the presented numbers need to be viewed in the proper context.

    • schlom - Mar 30, 2011 at 2:48 PM

      His splits have been much closer lately: 2009 home OPS 934, road 862, 2010 (807/790) Most of that gap is from 2008 (1039/562).

      • paperlions - Mar 30, 2011 at 3:21 PM

        Yeah, I know. I only used the aggregate stats because those were the basis for comparison in the posting, and thus were the most relevant to the claims of performance at a young age. So far, most of that performance has come in the very hitter friendly desert. In neutral setting, Upton’s performance so far does not compare to those on the list.

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