The ball makes a tremendous sound – like the crack of a whip – as it launches towards the vast wasteland of the Chase Field outfield. It floats down lightly, and the right fielder lopes in easily to where the ball would have landed and makes the catch easily. It is a routine play, one that seems like nothing except when you watch it from behind – like being backstage at the Orpheum.
Then it becomes a pantomime to absurdity, if you watch carefully. The fielder runs to a spot, and waits for a ball. The ball could logically go anywhere at all in a circular path from its origin point, but it falls – as if predetermined – in the fielders’ waiting glove. Even though this is considered "routine," it’s an athletic feat to be celebrated simply because of its regularity.
Try to imagine standing out 300 feet away from home plate. A ball comes your way, first arching up high into the sky before making its symmetrical fall to earth. Perhaps that first ball is relatively near to your current position, and this seems easy. But then the next ball is to your right, and you must run to it. Now: Do this seemingly easy task a hundred times. Try to imagine the sheer number of places that little white cowhide ball could fall. The only things holding you back are the walls and your physical ability. And this would be your domain.
In Justin Upton’s domain, it is a house divided.
Before the disastrous 2010 season, Justin Upton was signed to a six year, $50 million contract. To celebrate the extension of the right fielder, the seats behind his office were rebranded "Uptown." It consisted of a sign, and not much else.
To his detractors, Uptown is a monument to both his inability, but to the franchise’s general malaise. Upton is resented for the carnivalesque style of the section. He is the poster child for a club that cares more about goofy promotions, from Racing Gracie on down, than it does about winning. Except that all along Upton has been playing some of the best baseball on the club.
Offensively, Upton has been a bedrock for the Diamondbacks. So far his career line is .273/.354/.475 with 64 home runs. He could consistently be a 20 home run, 20 stolen base kind of player, and nobody imagines he has peaked.
Justin Upton might be shaping up to his best year yet. His line through 14 games: .304/.400/.571 and 4 home runs. His BABIP is .310, when it’s been .343 for his career. You’d take his current line over 162 games, now imagine how scary-good he might be if this is just the beginning.
Some other more exotic stats to consider: Outside of a shortened rookie year, Upton’s never recorded less than 100 OPS+. If you like WAR, he’s picked up 8.1 in three full seasons. (Remember: Upton has only played three complete seasons. He hasn’t reached his ceiling yet.)
His main offensive flaw would be a strikeout tendency, but he has significantly improved that so far in 2011. In every prior season, his strikeout ratio has hovered at 25% or worse. So far in 2011 his ratio is at a more reasonable 15.4%.
Justin Upton has not been complete perfection. Although he is certainly talented, it did not all fall from the sky for him.
Consider the error. It may not be a good, or even passably acceptable, measure of a player’s defense. The counting stat can, however, be a great measure of a player’s boneheadery. Scorers give out errors arbitrarily, true, but the basic parameter is they believe "normal effort" could have made the play. In other words, errors don’t record the borderline plays or bad effort. But they provide a great account of a player’s foolish play.
The origins of the Upton hatred might be in his uneven defensive play. For his first two seasons, he recorded 11 and 12 errors, respectively, in right field. Although nothing historically significant, it was enough to land him top the error leaderboard for the NL those two seasons. It also propelled him to number six on the active leaderboard for errors by right fielders. He is also by far the youngest; Tthe closest to his age is Jay Bruce, who has 15 errors.
In 2010, Justin Upton reduced his errors to only 5. Although he is playing at a major league level, people conveniently or truly forget that Upton was drafted and prepared as a shortstop, and then converted to outfield.
His journey, though not completely, echoes the path of Henry Aaron.
Aaron’s life has been dissected like few others, but the institutional memory focuses on one small part of his legacy: 755 home runs. Evan as he established himself as a fierce batter, he struggled not only with finding his footing defensively but the perception that grew from his struggles.
Although he would become synonymous with the right field position on route to 23 All-Star selections, Aaron was also a converted infielder. It was a long learning experience for him, and he, too, was not completely free of the error bug. He topped out at 13 errors for the 1956 season.
"You’d almost get the impression he wasn’t hustling at times." – Fred Hanley, quoted in Modesto Bee, June 3, 1959.
The quote refers to Henry Aaron, but it might as well have been from the Arizona Republic and about Justin Upton.
Although little, if any, of the criticism leveled at Upton does has racial motivation, it’s important to understand the sensitive nature of his supposed biggest flaw.
"Lazy" and African Americans have a history. Although it’s doubtful that many people who now lob the term at Upton or any other black player intend to have any racist overtones, the truth is that the two have long been intertwined. The worst thing you could say to an African American player as the game was being integrated was "lazy," because it echoed the sentiment the African American community had heard for generations.
The oddest part of the Upton hate is that the same venom is rarely lobbed at his peer, Chris Young. The latter fits many of the same possible ‘flaws:’ turned a good season into a large contract, struggled somewhat (though Young’s low was far lower than Upton’s), and isn’t a complete player yet.
Although Young is not celebrated to the degree of others, he is virtually worshiped in comparison to Upton. So obviously it is not some sort of large-scale racial discrimination.
Perhaps the Upton hatred is based solely on the vague concept of hustle. Hustle is a watery idea, one that’s used to celebrate marginal players and insult disliked, talented players.
Some hustle actions can be clearly defined. A player who doesn’t run out a pop-out can easily be highlighted for poor fundamentals, especially if the ball ends up being dropped. But how do you measure hustle on defensive plays? There’s a large gap between the level of play of the major leagues and college ball, let alone at whatever level the average fan topped out.
For some players, simply trying hard shows hustle. The same sort of behavior that had Eric Byrnes vilified is often praised for scrappers like David Eckstein. Moxie is easier to measure in the infield, anyway, where a diving player is covered in dirt. The player might not have been anywhere close to the ball, but he sure looks as though he could have been.
Ryne Sandberg, a Hall of Famer at second base and nine-time Golden Glove recipient at the position, was often criticized for never getting his uniform dirty. It’s time to learn a little secret about great defenders: they don’t always get their uniform dirty. It’s because they either have the range, or superior positioning to not need to get dirty. The image of the diving Pigpen is reserved largely for the lesser defenders.
Cal Ripken Jr wasn’t considered a plus defender because of his range. In fact, he was the beginning of a new kind of shortstop. At 6’ 3", he was considered too large to play what had traditionally been a small man’s game. Historically, both interior defenders had been defensive only; range at the time was connected to a smaller size. In George Will’s seminal text on the actual play of baseball, Ripken explains how he uses superior positioning to play effectively, to anticipate where the ball will go by trend analysis.
Ripken didn’t invent the concept. In Howard Bryant’s recent biography on Henry Aaron, Bryant details how the great right fielder would instruct younger players on how to position well. Go to where the ball will be and wait for it, Aaron would instruct. If you have to make a diving catch, most of the time that means you got a bad jump or you were poorly positioned.
Consider it the Cal Ripken school of thought versus the Jim Edmonds school. The latter was notorious for making flashy defensive plays, and was commonly (if never publicly) suspected of taking bad jumps simply to make the flash in the field.
And yet this sort of behavior is celebrated, showing the bizarre nature of hustle.
The underlying cause of the Upton malaise is not hustling, but what fans value. Baseball is a sport and also a form of entertainment. ESPN built an empire on the concept of turning an athletic activity into a 24-hour entertainment experience. Fans don’t just consume the sublime play of quarterback Tom Brady, but also his lifestyle.
If you were only measuring Justin Upton on the field of play, the product you’re literally consuming, then there would not be much to complain about. Yes, he has had an uphill battle with defensive blunders, but it’s an issue that seems largely sorted out.
Fans don’t just consume the play, anymore. It’s not a completely new idea; players have had autographs, photo-sessions, and other demands thrust on them for a hundred years. The sports-as-entertainment role has been magnified, since fans can instantly tell everyone they know how much of a jackass a player is for not throwing a ball into the stands, or for not giving an autograph.
Players are expected to be these public relations machines, because their product extends to social media. Barry Enright is loved in a way that Upton is not, because the former reaches out to his fans and makes them feel like they are part of his life, as well as part of the action.
Nike had it right, though, when the company declared, "We are all witnesses." The fan is not a participant: it is a witness.
The ultimate problem with these expectations is that the players don’t really owe the fans anything more than a winning baseball game. Their product is the game, the individual play. It is not the interaction.
In a way, Upton’s cool reception by the fans of Arizona is the twin to the continued obsession to scrappy role-players. The Bloomquists and Ojedas of the world delight because of their inexplicable continued existence, while the Uptons confound with their continuing to exist inexplicability. The role-player who over-performs pays immediate dividends because the fan did not expect a return. The superstar is invested with a city’s hope, and cannot ever possibly repay it.