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Justin Upton hasn’t proven the naysayers wrong just yet

Apr 23, 2013, 6:30 PM EST

Justin Upton AP

Justin Upton smashed his major league-high 10th homer Tuesday in the Braves’ 4-3 win over the Rockies. He’s hit three more homers than anyone else in the majors, and in just 19 games, he’s already more than halfway to surpassing his total of 17 from 150 games last year.

On the other hand, Justin Upton has driven in a total of 14 runs this year. That’s exactly as many as Daniel Nava has amassed. It’s the same total compiled by .191-hitting Anthony Rizzo. It’s also a match for Allen Craig, who is hitting .250 with no homers.

A lot of it is the Braves, no doubt. Andrelton Simmons, Jason Heyward and B.J. Upton have all struggled ahead of Justin in the third spot in the order. But a lot if it is Justin, too. He’s hitting .386 in 44 at-bats with the bases empty and .148 in 27 at-bats with runners on. Nine of his 10 homers have been solo shots.

Whether it totally fits into the “grit” narrative, Upton’s run production was part of the knock on him when the Diamondbacks decided to move him. Not only has he never topped 100 RBI, but he’s never even reached 90.

That’s not to say it’s ever been quite like this before. Last year, Upton’s average went down slightly with men on and RISP, but his slugging percentage went up. In 2010, he hit 50 points better with RISP than with the bases empty. Overall, though, his career line looks like this:

Bases empty: .286/.355/.509, 75 HR in 1,554 AB
Runners on: .267/.361/.449, 43 HR in 1,180 AB
RISP: .255/.363/.429, 23 HR in 645 AB

Upton averages a homer every 20.7 AB with the bases empty, every 27.4 AB with runners on and every 28.0 AB with RISP.

I don’t think any of that suggests Upton is poor in the clutch. Interestingly, he actually has better numbers in high leverage situations than medium or low leverage situations, as Baseball-Reference defines them. But up to this point in his career, there’s no denying that Upton hasn’t been all that productive in RBI situations. When he’s hitting solo homers every other game, that’s not a problem. Once he slows, the debate could rage again.

  1. syracuse451 - Apr 23, 2013 at 6:35 PM

    I thought we were past the point in analyzing baseball where RBIs have anything to do with evaluating a player’s performance.

    • Matthew Pouliot - Apr 23, 2013 at 6:49 PM

      If we were, then Upton never would have been traded.

      • syracuse451 - Apr 23, 2013 at 6:54 PM

        I don’t think the reason the Diamondbacks traded Upton can be boiled down to the fact that he never eclipsed the 100 RBI plateau. Kevin Towers may have traded him for strange reasons, but I don’t think there’s a good case that he traded him because he never reached an arbitrary RBI benchmark.

      • Matthew Pouliot - Apr 23, 2013 at 7:03 PM

        No, for sure, it wasn’t nearly everything. But a good part of the reason the Diamondbacks-Upton relationship soured was that the owner called him out for not being a “consistent performer” and it’s safe to say a lot of that was about RBI.

      • syracuse451 - Apr 23, 2013 at 7:06 PM

        I guess we will have to agree to disagree. I think the Diamondback’s obsession with “gritty” players and “hardworkers” led them to sour on Upton, not necessarily his RBI totals.

      • deadeyedesign23 - Apr 23, 2013 at 7:52 PM

        I think not being a consistant performer had more to do with his inconsistant performance. His fWAR the last 4 years were:

        4.6
        2.6
        6.0
        2.0

      • Matthew Pouliot - Apr 23, 2013 at 8:20 PM

        That’s quite a standard for being inconsistent. FWIW, Upton is one of eight position players since 2000 to amass at least 1.5 bWAR each year from ages 21-24 (Pujols, Dunn, Crawford, Miggy, Wright, Zimmerman, Asdrubal). Also, he was like a third of the way through that 2.0 season and battling a wrist injury when Kendrick decided to call him out.

      • Tim's Neighbor - Apr 24, 2013 at 1:32 AM

        This is the dumbest thing I’ve read all day… And I’ve read the Korematsu v. US opinion today. So that’s pretty low.

    • biasedhomer - Apr 23, 2013 at 7:04 PM

      Please read the article, it goes into Upton hitting a lowly .148 with runners on base, even if everyone in front of him got on base all the time, Upton would still have a poor RBI total.

      • syracuse451 - Apr 23, 2013 at 7:14 PM

        It’s .144 over 44 plate appearances through 18 games. That number will stabilize with career trends during the year.

      • smftrdr - Apr 24, 2013 at 8:18 AM

        I wasn’t aware that batting average stabilized…
        Source: http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/when-samples-become-reliable/

      • bolweevils2 - Apr 24, 2013 at 9:19 AM

        If you base your judgement of players on 44 plate appearances you’d have been hoping to trade, say, Matt Kemp for Brandon Crawford in the early going this year.

    • Chip Caray's Eyebrows - Apr 23, 2013 at 7:05 PM

      Citing of RBIs + Citing of “Clutch Hitting” = Writing that probably shouldn’t be taken too seriously.

      • baseballisboring - Apr 24, 2013 at 12:33 AM

        I don’t take any “analysis” that involves a completely context driven statistic seriously. RBI’s are meaningless in terms of determining individual performance, and what makes HBT a great site is the fact that all the writers understand the sabermetric stuff and present it in a way that’s much more accessible than say, Fangraphs. You’re gonna criticize the MLB home run leader because 9 of his home runs have been solo, while also acknowledging the fact that the guys hitting in front of him have been struggling, and even acknowleding that Upton has actually been better in high leverage situations over his career? My head hurts. Stop with the RBI stuff, it’s over.

  2. ramblingalb - Apr 23, 2013 at 6:37 PM

    That’s because RBI’s are meaningless, though being on pace for 119 of them is, at best, a bizarro world argument. If he played for a better offensive team, or his team had fewer run producers, he’d have a lot more, but he’d still be having the exact same year.

    • klj58 - Apr 23, 2013 at 6:53 PM

      I just don’t understand how you can say RBI are meaningless. Isn’t the idea of the game to score more runs than the other team? Most runs don’t score without an RBI so how can they be meaningless? I am admittedly old school and don’t necessarily understand all the new stats but don’t really have anything against them or anyone that wants to use them. I just don’t comprehend how anyone can say RBI are meaningless. In my opinion runs scored and RBI would be two of the most meaningful stats available. Before you go on a tirade I do realize that to some extent both of these stats may depend on teamates, but I still think they are important.

      • Chip Caray's Eyebrows - Apr 23, 2013 at 7:11 PM

        RBIs are definitely meaningless as a basis of comparing one player to another. Too many variables that are totally out of the hands of the players in question.

      • klj58 - Apr 23, 2013 at 7:29 PM

        I certainly agree there are variables. I don’t expect that Martin Prado will have as many RBI as J Up because of where each hits in the linup. However, I do want my 3 hole guy driving in runs, that’s why they put him there.

      • dondada10 - Apr 23, 2013 at 10:10 PM

        While runs are very valuable, it’s hard to judge a players worth on runs batted in.

      • cktai - Apr 24, 2013 at 1:56 AM

        RBI’s are meaningless because every single run, except home runs, are collaborative team efforts. Most of the time, you have to have a guy that gets on base, a guy that advances him into scoring position and a guy that drives him in. To only credit that last guy is just plain short-sighted.

        Sure you want the guy in the clean-up spot to drive in runs. But if you want to decide who will drive in more of those runs, then you are much better off looking at, say, batting average or slugging, because those are the things that actually drives in those runs: hits, home runs, doubles, sometimes even walks. You want to look at what causes RBIs, rather than just look at a single number devoid of all the context in which that number was created.

      • samu0034 - Apr 24, 2013 at 9:12 AM

        Hi klj,

        It’s not really that they’re meaningless, as you say the point of the game is to score more runs than your opponent, and in that sense RBI’s can be thought of as a measure of a teams ability to do that. The problem with using RBI’s as a measuring stick to compare one player to another is that there is so much context in them that it’s really difficult to determine if a guy batting 3rd in the Royals lineup and driving in 95 runs is really any less valuable than a guy batting 4th in the Yankees lineup driving in 130. It really all depends on the guys in front of you getting on base. And if they don’t, it’s not really your fault that you only drove in 95 instead of 130. Further it depends on the competition you face. Right now the AL East is pretty stacked and the AL Central is pretty not. All of these things and more determine how many ducks a guy is going to be able to knock in, and a lot of them are completely out of the batters hands, and that’s why using RBI as a comparison between individual players, while not entirely worthless, isn’t particularly valuable either.

        Another way to think about it is this… If you just had a lineup of robots, it’s the guys batting 3rd-5th in the lineup that are most likely to wind up with the most RBIs because they get a lot of at bats (being relatively high in the batting order), and have a lot of at bats with guys on base (because presumably the guys in front of them (the 1-4 slots) are pretty good hitters. So you can put Steve Balboni-bot into the 5th slot and he’s going to wind up with a fair number of RBIs simply because he’s going to have lot’s of opportunities, and he can hit him some taters. So you can kind of be a run-of-the-mill player with some power, and given the opportunities, you’ll wind up with a lot of RBIs.

        They’re a context driven stat, and that’s why they’re not particularly good for comparison purposes. That said, if a guy gets lots of RBIs year after year, it’s probably because he’s a pretty good baseball player and the manager knows enough to put him into a spot where his potential is maximized, but even then the exact numbers themselves are dependent on a lot of outside factors.

  3. e5again - Apr 23, 2013 at 6:40 PM

    I thought there was so such thing as clutch hitting?

    • Matthew Pouliot - Apr 23, 2013 at 6:51 PM

      I’m one of many who would argue there’s no such thing as a clutch hitter. But clutch hitting? As it refers to past performance? I think that depends on how you want to define it.

  4. illegalblues - Apr 23, 2013 at 6:44 PM

    Tell me more about RBI’s, Matthew. I’m all steamy over here

  5. thebadguyswon - Apr 23, 2013 at 6:44 PM

    This will go down as the single dumbest trade of the decade.

    They got next to nothing for him.

    • cur68 - Apr 23, 2013 at 7:08 PM

      this

    • jarathen - Apr 24, 2013 at 8:54 AM

      No, it won’t. Vernon Wells was traded for Mike Napoli and Juan Rivera in January of 2011.

  6. mianfr - Apr 23, 2013 at 7:07 PM

    I think this article does a really good job of ignoring every key hitting tenet of the SABR community.

    • ultada - Apr 23, 2013 at 7:14 PM

      very silly article. Can’t be serious right?

  7. Matthew Pouliot - Apr 23, 2013 at 7:12 PM

    I’ll admit, I’m mystified that people are reading this as anti-Upton or “GO RBI GO!” I simply found it interesting how Upton has just 14 RBI to go along with his 10 homers and how it fits into some of the Morosi-style stuff that was tossed around when he was traded.

    • Reflex - Apr 23, 2013 at 7:44 PM

      Because you are using small sample sizes to make your argument for this season, and past seasons are likely due to variability as well. You know full well that RBI’s are meaningless as a player stat. As for RBI’s = Gritty as a narrative, this really is the first I’ve heard of it. I guess Ryan Howard is redeemed in the Gritty Community given that he’s Mr. RBI, eh? Or is he “athletic” since he’s black? I get it all mixed up.

      Seriously, who told you that RBI’s are a measure of grit? Mr Grit himself, David Eckstein, never had more than 63RBI in a season, so I’m not sure where your ‘never topped 100RBI in a season’ factors into this.

      Quite frankly this article was ill conceived. I could see if it you were pointing at defensive indifference, or the fact that Upton is not stealing bases at a high clip. But using RBI’s just seems like quite a stretch.

      • Matthew Pouliot - Apr 23, 2013 at 8:29 PM

        Well, that’s mostly because I didn’t think I was making an argument. Or if I was, it was the argument that people are going to start pointing to his RBI total again once he cools off.

        Sure, I think it’s something of a fluke that Upton has hit worse with RISP, but it’s still right there, plain as day.

      • Reflex - Apr 23, 2013 at 8:35 PM

        I see your point, but its not really how it reads. I’ll also add here that I am not aware of anyone pointing to RBI’s as an indicator of grit. Hustling is a typical indicator of grit, dirt on the uniform, bunting and stealing bases, dramatic fielding plays that bash into wall, etc etc. I’ve never heard of RBI’s as a measure, and it seems a stretch to me.

    • paperlions - Apr 23, 2013 at 8:14 PM

      As a writer, when I see responses like this…I re-read my stuff as objectively as possible to see if I just missed my point. Sometimes, you wind up highlighting things you don’t mean to highlight and you just don’t convey the information as you intended to….that may have happened here…the RBI thing reads really “played up”.

    • js20011041 - Apr 23, 2013 at 8:23 PM

      I think I’m picking up what you’re putting down. If I gather this correctly, YOU don’t buy this stuff, but you’re putting together an argument that “proves” the Diamondbacks were right and that Upton isn’t clutch. You’re looking at it from the other side, correct?

      Personally, I think anyone who looks at those numbers and sees Upton as someone who wilts in clutch situations is an idiot. This has nothing to do with Justin Upton and everything to do with BJ Upton and Jason Heyward who have combined for a roughly .250 OBP in front of him. Don’t give them any ammunition Matthew. They certainly aren’t bright enough to come up with this stuff on their own.

      • Matthew Pouliot - Apr 23, 2013 at 8:31 PM

        That’s a good way to put it. Thank you!

        Obviously, I didn’t do it very well. Can I use the first post back from a vacation excuse?

  8. 13arod - Apr 23, 2013 at 7:16 PM

    the main reason they traded him syracuse451 was becayse they got martin prado and pitching prospects

  9. paperlions - Apr 23, 2013 at 8:01 PM

    Here is what Justin Upton has confirmed to everyone paying attention at all:

    A Justin Upton with two healthy wrists is better than a Justin Upton with one healthy wrist. The guy is still only 25 and he is a stud. Just a horrible trade. Prado is nice, but that is really all they got…and Prado is no Justin Upton, who has MVP caliber season potential.

    • klj58 - Apr 23, 2013 at 8:32 PM

      As a huge DBacks fan I have watched Upton since he came up. Other than coming close in 2011 he has never lived up to the “potential”. I wish him well, and hope he does well, but I am willing to wait and see how the trade plays out. I also don’t believe he would be performing the same in AZ if they had kept him, too much baggage at this point.

      • paperlions - Apr 23, 2013 at 8:36 PM

        I repeat. He is 25 years old….and played the last year with his own franchise talking shit about him and a bad wrist.

        I understand your position. But if you are not thinking, “Man, I wish we still had Upton” in a couple of years, I would be shocked.

      • nsauser - Apr 23, 2013 at 9:06 PM

        The baggage had to be a little self-inflicted by the club. How many games did Justin play in the majors before they hung the “Uptown” sign in RF? First off, I think those kind of things are ridiculous. Second, shouldn’t you have to earn big signs in your name? I think the club nurtured his selfishness and then didn’t want to deal with it in the end.

        Oh and they overpaid certain players (E. Byrnes, Chris Young) and the team suffered because of it. Dangerous downward spiral.

  10. bulldog12b - Apr 23, 2013 at 9:04 PM

    So, here’s my take on the J Up. I get the individual stats are what baseball fans look at when it comes to being a successful big league ball player. He has hit 10 home runs this year, The Braves record when J Up hits a home run? 9-0… coincidence?

  11. yahmule - Apr 23, 2013 at 9:05 PM

    .148 in 27 at-bats with runners on?

    Why that’s the very definition of gritless.

  12. pillowporkers - Apr 23, 2013 at 10:16 PM

    I’m utterly shocked how many people have just absolutely thrown RBI under the bus on this thread. I’m not saying they’re everything, but to suggest they are “completely” subjective to everyone around you is insane. There is something to be said about being able to get the ball in play when you need them too. Treating every player like some robot that doesn’t think about certain situations is ludacris. If you are so worried about the stats, it’s called WPA. Not saying Justin Upton can’t turn it around but man!

    • rmcd13 - Apr 23, 2013 at 10:32 PM

      RBI’s are like the roosters of baseball. Roosters were great for waking up at dawn, until alarm clocks came around. Now you can kill the rooster and wake up whenever you want!

      (I was going to make a cogent post about why RBIs are a terrible stat, but why bother?)

    • paperlions - Apr 23, 2013 at 10:57 PM

      It is not that RBI are subjective….but it is a team stat and doesn’t measure what people use it to say. It is exactly like pitcher wins…yes winning the game is important and runs scoring are important, but the pitcher shouldn’t get all of the credit or blame for a win and a hitter should only get full credit for RBI on a HR, otherwise, another player (or players) contributed to the run scoring. Indeed, the runner that got on base is far more responsible for scoring that the guy that “drove him in”.

      • abaird2012 - Apr 24, 2013 at 7:47 AM

        Are RBIs better than no RBIs?

      • paperlions - Apr 24, 2013 at 7:52 AM

        Context.

        Of course, RBI are better than no RBI….but 5 RBI on PA during which 20 guys were on base is worse than 3 RBI on PA during which 8 guys were on base.

  13. knowlegeforyou - Apr 23, 2013 at 10:36 PM

    glad to see he continued to hurt his cause today with two more solo jacks

    • Chip Caray's Eyebrows - Apr 23, 2013 at 11:14 PM

      He just hit an RBI double, so at least the day wasn’t a total waste.

      • abaird2012 - Apr 24, 2013 at 7:49 AM

        But that’s meaningless.

  14. teddybear1980 - Apr 23, 2013 at 11:28 PM

    Let’s not forget about the throw in Chris Johnson who is playing pretty good baseball right now.

  15. eagles512 - Apr 24, 2013 at 12:05 AM

    I’m with kl…I’m all for the modern metrics but RBI should not be dismissed.

    • paperlions - Apr 24, 2013 at 7:08 AM

      RBI is a function of the number of guys on base when a guy comes up….just look at any RBI leader board and you’ll generally see guys with some power who hit behind guys that get on base a lot….like Howard hitting behind Rollins and Utley from 2006-2010, those two were on base all day long. If you want to know why Upton’s RBI total is lacking, just look at the OBP of Simmons (.286) and BJ (.231)…and that pretty much explains it, NOT Justin’s performance with runners on…just the fact that he rarely has many guys on.

      • abaird2012 - Apr 24, 2013 at 7:51 AM

        But I thought his average with runners on was .148 or something. Wouldn’t that better explain it?

      • paperlions - Apr 24, 2013 at 7:55 AM

        No.

        Do you know how many PAs Upton has has this year with RISP? 10

        That sample size tells you nothing. He got a hit with a RISP last night, so now he’s 2 for 10 in that situation this year. What does tell you something is that he’s only been up with a guy on 2nd or 3rd 10 times so far.

      • abaird2012 - Apr 24, 2013 at 8:36 AM

        Well, thanks for taking the time, but you haven’t convinced me entirely — I still think that RBI can be a valuable tool for player evaluation when viewed in a situational context. Surely RBI in and of themselves won’t tell us what we need to know, but I still believe that they’re useful as part of a bigger picture.

        Now about those clutch performances …

      • cktai - Apr 24, 2013 at 10:47 AM

        The problem is that RBIs are completely devoid of context, and it is very hard to get trace back all the games in a season to add context to that one number.

        You get an single RBI whether you hit a sac fly with no outs and the bases loaded, or if you hit a double with two outs and a runner on first. Clearly these two things are not created the same, and aren’t nearly as valuable as each other, especially in the context of a close game. Yet for RBIs it is all the same.

        If you want to know who has helped your team win during a season, RBIs will tell you almost nothing.

  16. realgone2 - Apr 24, 2013 at 12:09 AM

    It’s the equivalent of the hipsters and liking obscure bands. It’s hip to not like RBIs. It’s a meaningless stat…….that is included on every baseball website, magazine, trading card, stat sheet, news program etc. But yeah totally meaningless.

    • paperlions - Apr 24, 2013 at 7:12 AM

      What is trendy is separating accurately attributing player contributions to runs scored and runs prevented. RBI doesn’t do that because it give full credit to a guy that grounded out and no credit to the guy that doubled and stole second to be on 3B in the first place. RBI just isn’t useful if you want to understand performance.

      • ryanrockzzz - Apr 24, 2013 at 7:39 AM

        I think it certainly has it’s place in defining player performance.

        Simply put, I agree with your points. I disagree that players who get on base get no credit. If those players score, they do get credit for scoring runs, which helps evaluate their performance as far as creating runs, along with some other advance metrics.

        To me, an RBI count is a great indicator statistic. When I see Ryan Howard driving in 145 runs, as opposed to the averages of other number 4 hitters in the league, it can lead you to look at other things. That can’t tell me purely if Ryan Howard is a good or bad hitter (to your point of how people use the statistic in the wrong frame of reference), however it can tell me if he’s doing a good job driving in the majority of runners that are on when he’s at the plate.

      • paperlions - Apr 24, 2013 at 7:43 AM

        What 145 doesn’t tell you is the % of players on base that Howard “drives in”. His RBI% is often fine, but not elite, and part of the reason it is fine is that he doesn’t walk. Such guys put the ball in play more which leads to more outs and more RBI, but fewer runs scored by the team because they don’t get on much…and getting on base is the biggest contribution to runs scored because you can’t score if you make an out, and by not making an out, you win your team another AB.

        RBI is like pitcher wins, it doesn’t measure the thing people try to use it for….look at last year’s RBI leader boards. Good hitters, mostly….but really, it is just guys that hit 3-5 in the order and that had the most guys on base last year….not the best hitters. Being a “good RBI guy” really just means that you come up with guys on base a lot, and players don’t deserve any credit for that.

      • realgone2 - Apr 24, 2013 at 10:36 AM

        Doesn’t the guy who doubled get a notch in the 2B column, and SB column for a steal, and the run column for a run? Stop acting like that person is not recognized at all.

      • cktai - Apr 24, 2013 at 10:53 AM

        What 145 tells you is that maybe Howard is incredibly good at hitting a baseball and anyone who is on the bases when Howard hits will almost certainly score. Alternative, that 145 might tell you that Utley is an amazing hitter that will almost always get on base and doesn’t need much to score from there. Perhaps it tells you that Rollins and Polanco are good at getting on base and Utley is good in advancing runners.

        The problem is that RBIs doesn’t care about any of that. It doesn’t care about how runs are created, or any kind of team effort. All it cares about is if runners happened to score after Howard batted.

  17. riverace19 - Apr 24, 2013 at 1:40 AM

    With all the underperformers so far this year it’s strange to see a story on the NL’s HR leader…
    But you are right his RBI/HR ratio is horrible! And he strikes out! And he doesn’t get a hit 70% of the time!
    No grit!
    Rubbish!
    Being back Prado!!!

  18. ILoveBaseball - Apr 24, 2013 at 7:40 AM

    Justin Upton is tied for 220th in MLB with exactly 10 AB with runners in scoring position. How exactly are you going to judge someone on 10 AB? As an example Mike Napoli has 28 AB with runners in scoring position. Gee. Which do you think has more RBI?

    • paperlions - Apr 24, 2013 at 8:02 AM

      Exactly.

      RBI is a context driven stat that is always interpreted without context, which is misleading and, essentially, useless.

  19. realgone2 - Apr 24, 2013 at 10:41 AM

    Saying an RBI is meaninless is such BS. You got a guy on 3rd and the next three guys strike out. No run crosses. If one of those three guys hits a sac fly he gets the guy home and gets a run. You could have the leadoff guy walk, steal 2nd, and then 3rd. If no one gets him home then nothing was accomplished. Yeah really meaningless, but heaven help me I would never want to get in the way of a trend.

  20. jlee999 - Apr 24, 2013 at 12:36 PM

    Sorry, but it appears I am one day late to the party, Mr. Pouliot. As I read this article, one question kept raising itself in my mind, “I wonder how many major league home runs Matthew Pouliot has hit with runners on base.”

    The old Joe South song lyrics are appropriate here, I think. Before you criticize and abuse, walk a mile in my shoes.

    This is a young man who is still learning. He will get better. Save your criticism until you have at least two months worth of data to examine. B.J., Heyward and Andeltron (et.al.) will not hit only .100 or so for the remainder of the season and Justin will not hit only solo home runs.

    You can write it down.

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