To say San Diego Padres fans had high expectations for Melvin Upton Jr.when Atlanta traded him as a salary dump included in the Craig Kimbrel deal would be an overstatement. After setting the bar so low for himself in Atlanta, when Melvin came to San Diego and hit .259 and stole nine bases in 87 games in 2015 it was actually a pleasant surprise.
Is that production worth the money he’s paid? No, but at least he did something. He’s done enough so far in 2016 to hit in the middle of an admittedly weak Padres lineup. Is he on the verge of something better, or is this just a temporary improvement? To answer that let’s look at what he did during his best and worst seasons, and compare that to what he’s done since coming to San Diego.
One thing I’ve noticed when researching Upton Jr’s career statistics is that they’re all over the place from year to year. He’s hit .300 in a season, but usually hits under .250. He’s hit 28 home runs in a season, but usually hits fewer than 15. He stole 40 bases in three consecutive seasons, but hasn’t stolen more than 20 since 2012.
From 2008 to 2012 his home run output increased from year to year while his stolen base total decreased from year to year. He typically hits more fly balls than ground balls, but occasionally he has close to an even split, and so far this year he’s turned into a ground ball hitter.
When Atlanta signed Upton Jr in 2013, they probably thought they were getting a guy that could be relied upon to produce annual 20/20 seasons. Especially since his power had increased steadily for four consecutive seasons and he was entering his prime. However, his increase in home run totals from year to year coincided exactly with an increase in home run to fly ball ratio, which indicates he was getting luckier and luckier each year. And his luckiest year was his last year in Tampa. The fact that he was a fly ball oriented hitter at the time served him well in the short-term, but created a long-term bubble that was bound to burst when his HR/FB rate regressed to the mean. And burst it did, all over Altantas’ plans of creating a power hitting team with the Upton brothers at the center of those plans.
That explains Upton Jr’s power fluctuations, but why was he so bad at everything else in Atlanta? It seems logical to me that when he went to Atlanta and was fresh off of a 28 home run year. He was also on the same team as his power hitting younger brother (a team that planned on having a power approach) and tried to do something he shouldn’t have. He tried to keep up his unsustainable home run pace to compete with his younger brother on that front (who wouldn’t?), and fit in with the team philosophy. When it didn’t work, it got ugly for him.
Now in San Diego, and not on the same team as his younger brother, he’s showing a different approach. His GB/FB ratio is 1.14, which is the highest of his career, and his walk rate of 12.2% is his highest in eight years. While the ground ball approach will lower the chances of power resurgence, that approach along with his increased walk rate will help him get on base more often and play to his most stable skill set; speed. His six stolen bases in nine attempts suggests his speed is still there. He probably won’t steal 40 in a season again, but 25-30 isn’t out of the question.
After coming to San Diego as a salary dump, Melvin Upton Jr. has revived his career as a Padre. He might never hit 20 home runs in a season again, but that’s not the player the Padres should want him to try to be anyway. He’s better off focusing on getting on top of the ball, drawing walks, and stealing his way into scoring position. And there’s value there.