B.J. Upton hit free agency in November of 2012. In the brief time he spent on the market, before signing with the Atlanta Braves one year ago Thursday, I wrote this long, detailed breakdown of his skill set, his enigmatic 2012 season and his uncertain future. It was, principally, about Upton’s shifting plate approach, his swing-and-miss vulnerability and his sensational upside. The money quote, with a season’s worth of hindsight, was:

His swing rates might come back to earth, but the miss in his swing spiked in 2012, and that is not likely to turn itself around. His walk rate could easily rebound to its former heights, but I’m not convinced that Patient B.J. is the best possible version of the player anymore.

For all of the data that led me to that, from breakdowns of which pitches he does and does not handle well to the parsing of his 2012 stats, you really should click through to the article. That snippet, though, captures the essence of the piece, and serves the discussion I want to have quite well.

Upton had a train wreck of a 2013 season. It was a nightmare, really. He hit .184/.268/.289. He fought a groin strain, showed no signs of the defensive prowess necessary to stay in center field and got caught on five of the 17 occasions on which he tried to steal a base. He stunk, and in the first year of a five-year deal as rich as his, that’s more than discouraging.

I propose that some portion of Upton’s difficulty—not the whole of it, but some significant portion—came from his (or the Braves’) choice to attempt to resurrect that well-rounded, high-OBP superstar he once was, rather than embrace the aggressive, prodigious power hitter he could still be.

I have data:

B.J. Upton, 2009-13

Season

PA

Swing %

Contact % (Of Total Swings)

Swing % on Pitches in Strike Zone

Contact % on Swings in Strike Zone

Swing % on Pitches Outside Strike Zone

Contact % on Pitches Outside Strike Zone

2009

626

43

78

63

84

22

59

2010

610

46

74

66

82

24

51

2011

640

47

76

69

83

25

58

2012

631

52

71

74

78

29

51

2013

440

47

67

69

73

21

45

What you see here is Upton trying to flip the switch, to shake off what he and/or the team determined were bad habits developed in 2012 and go back to the hitter he was in his mid-20s. You’ll note, most of all, the continuing, even worsening contact issues, and there’s no easy answer for that.

Here are some more familiar, broader numbers:

B.J. Upton, 2009-13

Season

PA

Looking Strikeout Percentage (Of Total PA)

Swinging Strikeout Percentage

Unintentional Walk + HBP Percentage (Of Total PA)

Reached Base on Balls in Play

Isolated Power (SLG-AVG)

2009

626

7.2

17.2

9.6

.325

.132

2010

610

8.7

18.3

11.2

.318

.187

2011

640

9.8

15.6

11.2

.316

.186

2012

631

6.9

20.1

7.3

.304

.208

2013

440

10.0

24.2

10.3

.272

.104

Again, 2013 was Upton trying to get back to pre-2012, but finding himself swinging and missing a lot more, and getting less pleasant results when he did connect with the ball.

Adapt or die, Brad Pitt said with a clap. It’s true. Upton isn’t the guy with the quick bat or the quick twitch anymore. He needs to come back in February with lower expectations of himself. He should bulk up. He should be moved to left field, with Jason Heyward taking over center semi-permanently. He should focus on power and adopt the aggressiveness that let him actualize that power, especially late in 2012. He should stop running, because not only is he no longer an efficient base stealer, but he now has a history of ankle, quadricep and groin injuries, and that’s a bad trifecta.

Upton might never have a .330 OBP again, but he can still be valuable, if he accepts what he is and what he is not, anymore. The Braves have to find a different guy for the top of their order, so that Upton can fall into a more comfortable slot, on the underside of the heart of the lineup. One year since signing him, the team has time to get the most out of Upton. They just need to help him understand the adjustments he needs to make as he ages.

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