A sold out ballpark and gorgeous weather were a two of the takeaways that Rays fans in attendance today could enjoy in a 9-3 loss to the Jays in Dunedin. The one positive for Rays fans in attendance and tuning in on television would the the play of B.J. Upton who was impressive at the plate and on the base paths showing signs of what may be to come this season.
At the plate, Upton had mixed results in at bats against tough right-hander Brandon Morrow. The last time those two faced each other, it was in the game where Morrow mowed down 17 Rays batters and in that contest, Upton struck out twice swinging. His first at bat did not look much different from the at bats last year as Morrow threw his first sliders of the game to Upton and got him chasing one low and away on the fourth pitch of the at bat. In the second at bat, Upton was able to hit a line-drive double to left field as he hustled to stretch the play into a double whereas most guys are thrown out trying to stretch that into a double. Two pitches later, his activity on the bases caused Morrow to balk and from there, Upton hustled home on a dropped swinging strikeout by Sean Rodriguez just sliding in under the tag of J.P. Arencibia.
Upton’s hustle has long been a sore spot by some who want to focus on that issue rather than the things he has done well for the team. People tend to overlook that only he and Carl Crawford were able to hit 60 or more extra base hits and steal at least 40 bags last year. People also overlook the fact that over the past three seasons, Upton is fourth in all of major league baseball with 128 stolen bases which trails only Michael Bourn, Juan Pierre, and Crawford. Upton’s spot in the lineup has yet to be determined by Joe Maddon, but Upton stated today he would love to be able to steal at least 50 bases this season (his career high is 44).
There are three metrics out there that help evaluating a player’s stolen base potential: Speed Score (SS), Stolen Base Attempts percentage (SBA%) and Stolen Base Opportunities percentage (SBO%). The table below shows Upton’s efforts in each of those categories over the past three seasons.
As you can see, Upton attempts steals well above the league average – nearly four times as often at that. Upton’s opportunities have come down mainly because his on base percentage has come down. In 2008, he was on base at a .383 clip but that dropped to .313 in 2009 and improved to only .322 last season. Despite the improvement in getting on base, Upton had 12 more extra base hits in 2010 than the previous season which brought down his opportunities. That said, the fact Upton’s stolen base conversion rate has improved each of the previous three seasons from 73% to 75% to 82% last year has earned him the green light to run when he chooses to and if he can get on base at a .350 clip with his improved stolen base abilities, 50 steals is certainly possible.
He has shown good signs this spring with much-improved contact at the plate and the hustle on the bases and in the field that his manager, and the fans, love to see out of him.