Thursday, August 13, 2009

JB & BJ: A Tale of Two Seasons

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

For Jason Bartlett times are good.
For BJ Upton, not so much.

The Best Of Times
One year ago we were all just learning to appreciate Bartlett's ability to play SS, and we were all pleased with the obvious upgrade at the position (formerly occupied by Brendan Harris), but offensively Bartlett had just begun to break out of his shell.

I, for one, was still not sold on Bartlett as a legitimate, long-term solution due to his lack of throwing power, and couldn't wait for Reid Brignac to break the line-up in 2009.
I even went so far as to coin the nickname Ol' Noodle Arm whenever I referenced JB (turns out he was having some minor shoulder issues).

At first, I wasn't impressed to say the least.

After the first half of last season Bartlett's stat line was acceptable, but nothing to write home about:
.256 BA/.299 OBP/.293 SLG/.592 OPS with 0 HR's and 20 RBI

Bartlett was essentially a role player. Filling his spot in the lineup and proving that he deserved a starting job, but he had only just begun:

Then came August. JB's line suddenly skyrocketed:
.389 BA/ .413 OBP/ .583 SLG/ .997 OPS with 1 HR and 17 RBI

Bartlett caught lightning in a bottle and he's been riding that wave ever since.
In the last year not only has JB proven to me and everyone else who watches the Rays on a daily basis that he's an All-Star caliber shortstop, but he's also shown that last fall's offensive explosion was not a fluke.

In fact, in the last 365 days Bartlett's numbers are as good as anyone else in the league:
.343 BA/ .396 OBP/ .523 SLG/ .919 OPS with 12 HR's and 72 RBI. Those numbers are all-world. Not bad for a player who was a side-note in the Delmon Young for Matt Garza trade.

Jason Bartlett has arrived. He is at the top of his game. He has become a very good, well-rounded middle infielder, who is a legitimate contender for AL MVP, and has a real shot at winning the batting title this season. At 29 years old he has finally hit his stride.

For Jason Bartlett it is the best of times.

The Worst Of Times
One year ago BJ Upton was taking heat for being a bit of a "slacker", but none of us really cared because he was "fluid" and his natural talent was spilling out all over the place. He was hitting decently, despite the fact that he was playing with a major shoulder injury, and he was playing a darn good center field.

BJ was coming off of a stellar year in 2007 during which he compiled an impressive stat line:
.300 BA/ .386 OBP/ .508 SLG/ .894 OPS with 24 HR's and 82 RBI, and most believed that the drop in power from one season to the next was directly related to the injury, so we gave him a pass for a sub-par 2008.

Then came the playoffs. Cliff Floyd supposedly pulled BJ aside and told him that he had to either man-up and ignore the pain or sit down and let someone else help the team. Upton chose the former. He was an offensive juggernaut during the post season, helping 7 balls over the wall and playing an important role in getting the Rays to the World Series.
Life was good.

Cue the rain clouds.
Upton underwent offseason surgery to repair his damaged shoulder (torn labrum), and was cleared to play shortly after the 2009 season began.

He struggled mightily in April and May, but the baseball world was patient, giving BJ the benefit of the doubt after not having the opportunity to practice in the offseason or spring training due to the shoulder surgery and subsequent rehab.
The season progressed and BJ continued to struggle. The more BJ struggled the more Joe Maddon stuck his neck out for him, "He's my lead-off guy. Period."
The days, then weeks, then months rolled by.
No improvement.

Then out of the blue, in June, the BJ we've all come to know and love, and whose return to glory we had all so patiently awaited, finally came screaming back to stardom.
In June Upton's stats were spectacular: .324 BA/ .395 OBP/ .562 SLG/ .957 OPS with 5 HR's and 22 RBI, and earned him the title of AL Player of the Month. Finally! Upton was back, and the world was right again.

But just as quickly as his talent had reappeared it slinked away into the dark corners of the Trop again. Upton's numbers suddenly dropped back to earth, and have continued to plummet as the season crawls forward.

BJ's mojo has left the building. Since June, Upton's numbers are utterly despicable, and August's embarrassingly slow start: .143 BA/ .189 OBP/ .143 SLG/ .332 OPS with 0 HR's and 1 RBI
has finally triggered Joe Maddon to remove Mr. Upton from the lead-off spot.

Everyone knows the rest of the story; BJ complains about being moved down in the lineup. The whole world turns their back on BJ. BJ complains some more. Joe Maddon is left with no choice but to sit Upton down- give him a few days off so he can clear his head, you know, just in case the Rays want to make a playoff run and need the help of their ultra-talented centerfielder.

It all boils down to this:
BJ Upton is in a slump. Its as obvious as anything we've ever seen. Its painful to watch.
Mark my words though, he will recover.
He will return to the all-star caliber player that he is. I guarantee it.
The only true question is this: will he learn from this?
The difference between a talented player and a great player is not always determined by what happens between the lines- sometimes its about what happens between the ears.

It's always darkest before the dawn.
Right now it's pitch black, and for BJ Upton it's the worst of times.



Anonymous said...

Don't think this would be the best time because word travels fast about malcontents in baseball.
But the next time(and there will be a next time) BJ gets hot...
its time to unload this guy!
Why, because he is, and always be MOODY..and his performance will follow his moods! Don't think age will change him...every one of us know this type of personality in life and business..and they NEVER grow up!!!

Dustin Fridkin said...

Now, I understand that BJ comes across as standoffish, and his typically cool-as-a-cucumber demeanor can make him seem aloof or even unconcerned. Maybe that bothers you. I kinda like it, but whatever. Two things, tho. First, BJ makes the same face, generally, whether he hits a homer, makes an incredible catch, or gets picked off first base. The guy neither showboats when he does well nor theatrically vents his frustration when he does poorly. The "attitude" almost always the same. There's no doubt that he's in a slump. There's also (almost) no doubt that he'll eventually come out of it (and, hopefully, he'll be a better player in the long run as a result). Second, and related, there is not no, nor will there ever be, a "time to unload" BJ Upton. He's having a bad year. He might have another rough stretch in the future. Nevertheless, he is a superstar caliber player, his salary is relatively cheap, and he's under team control for another few years. Getting rid of him would be, to understate it, completely nuts.

DirtbagFan said...



That's why i keep you around- to be my muscle.

Bud Light said...

Dear Dustin...every thing you have said is based on your OBSERVATION
of BJ, and has nothing to do with his real PERFORMANCE!
It difficult to differentiate a Moron from "Aloof" or "unconcerned"
Over his career he WILL revert back to his little moods of nonperformance! Book IT!

DirtbagFan said...

@Bud Light:

Dustin does have a valid point in that BJ has a very stoic nature which can sometimes (wrongly) be translated as lackadaisical.

Bear in mind that everyone in the clubhouse has always been very supportive of BJ and say that he is a hardworker with a high level of commitment and focus.

Remember things are often blurred when looking from the outside in.

Dustin Fridkin said...

Again, as I said before, Upton's performance this year certainly leaves much to be desired. There's no arguing about that. But it's unfair, I think, to suggest that his performance issues come from "moodiness" or a bad attitude. It's interesting to look at his numbers. He's not swinging at bad pitches any more than he used to, he's just missing, or hitting weakly, pitches in the zone. This suggests a problem with his mechanics. He played injured all year last year, had major surgery on his shoulder in the off-season, and, it's possible, is still trying to adjust. And anyway, even an under-performing BJ Upton sports a 1.8 wins above replacement (WAR) rating. It should be noted, furthermore, that Upton's supposed whining about being demoted is based primarily on his "feels like a kick in the face" quote being taken out of context. What he seems to have meant, if you read what's around that single line, is that he's frustrated with his performance, feels like he's regressed, is sick of it, and is busting his hump to get whatever's broken fixed. Combine this with a consistent lack of griping about BJ from his teammates, and it seems safe to me to assume that Upton is not, in fact, a bad attitude guy. Instead, he's a young player with huge upside who's in a serious slump. A guy like that you don't dump at this point or at any point in the near future.