Why Justin Upton Gets Booed

PHOENIX, AZ - JULY 04: Justin Upton #10 of the Arizona Diamondbacks leaps but can't make the play on a two-run pinch hit home run off the bat of Yasmani Grandal of the San Diego Padres during the eighth inning of a MLB game at Chase Field on July 4, 2012 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images)

"I don't care anything what the fans think of me. My teammates, my coaches, they know I come here and I bust it every single day. I try to do everything I can to help this team. My teammates have my back and whatever the fans want to think, they can think"
-- Justin Upton

This is something about which soco provided one point of view a couple of weeks ago. But on this home-stand, and especially over the holiday series against the Padres, the Bronx cheers, directed mainly at Upton, but also others, became a good deal louder and more notable. And, as quoted above, Upton's reaction a good deal more defensive. I don't actually boo Upton myself, or any of the D-backs. It's just not the way I prefer to express my disapproval: why boo, when I can come home and write a thousand words of analytic snark, accompanied by an amusingly-captioned picture? But I understand why fans do boo him.

It's a startling turnaround for J-Up, who almost exactly a year ago to the day was honored during the Home Run Derby - in which he didn't participate - by having his name chanted by the home crowd. It was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen at Chase. How things change. As soco pointed out, it's not as if Upton is the worst player on the team. Among everyday players, both Chris Young and Ryan Roberts have an OPS less than Upton's, but they are basically ignored - Roberts still seems fairly well-loved, despite a .639 OPS this year. What I think this demonstrates, is that there is more than just performance involved. The equation is more like:

Booing Quotient = Expectations - Performance + Hype + Salary - Intangibles

Let's go through each of those categories with regard to Upton.

Expectations. There are two bullets with Justin's name on them here: his 2011 performance and his spot in the batting order. He was an MVP candidate last year, named first by one voter, and his fourth-place finish was fully justifiable. He hit .289, swatted 31 homers, stole 21 bases and played very good defense - all in his age 23 season. It's absolutely reasonable to expect something similar for 2012: obviously, there'll always be variations, but given his age, it seemed improvement was more likely than decline. We may not have expected another MVP-caliber year, but another All-Star selection seemed a near-lock.

Hitting where he does in the order also comes with expectations, and I personally think that dropping Upton down would be a good thing, as much to reduce the pressure on him to produce, as to help the team. Fans don't expect anything like as much out of a player hitting seventh as they do someone hitting third - this is probably a factor in why the struggles of Roberts, who has hit 7th more often than anyone else, have largely gone unnoticed. The third spot is thought of as belonging to the best overall hitter on the team, and the chart below confirms this to be the case overall. It shows the production from each spot in the order, for the National League this season:

HR RBI BA OBP SLG OPS
Batting 1st 96 413 .258 .319 .386 .705
Batting 2nd 102 523 .275 .334 .400 .734
Batting 3rd 205 786 .284 .358 .472 .831
Batting 4th 213 852 .272 .347 .465 .812
Batting 5th 167 745 .257 .322 .427 .749
Batting 6th 144 644 .252 .321 .403 .723
Batting 7th 143 568 .247 .304 .402 .706
Batting 8th 109 485 .244 .307 .376 .684

As a contrast, the fanbase simply has far lower expectations for Chris Young. Sure, he's hitting .206, but his OPS this year is only 39 points below what he produced for the Diamondbacks in 2011; the same gap for Upton is 172 points.

Performance. More strictly, this should be "perceived performance", because emotionally, fans react in a way that is not absolutely correlated with OPS. Clutch performance is likely weighed more heavily than what you do with numbers on base. And what you do at home, in front of the fans who have paid good money to see you there, is more important than road numbers. The latter has perhaps hurt Upton more than most: while his numbers on the road haven't changed all that much (dropping from a .767 OPS to .713), his home ones have absolutely cratered. Through the team's first 41 home games of this year and last:

2011: 10 HR, .355/.445/.613 = 1.058 OPS, SB 7, CS 1
2012: 4 HR, .264/.345/.395 = .740 OPS, SB 0, CS 5

There are a couple of factors which I think have particularly led fans to be irritated with Upton. He is 0-for-5 when stealing a base at Chase this season, and we all know how immensely frustrating outs on the base-paths are. It's kinda weird, since he is 10-for-12 on the road, and as the numbers above show, he was fine at Chase last year. But perhaps the biggest thing is Upton's strikeouts. Not so much the number of them, as his K-rate of 22.9% is below Miguel Montero, Jason Kubel, Paul Goldschmidt and Young. It's more that getting on for half of his strikeouts (45%, third in the National League) have seen him take strike three.

That's a dagger to the heart of the spectator. It's one thing to put the ball in play: that gives hope that something might happen, even on a weak ground-out to the infield. It's another to take a rip and come up empty: hey, at least you're trying. But to just shoulder the bat and watch strike three go past? Man, you'd better make sure your other at-bats have better outcomes. If they do, not a problem - #1 and #2 on the backwards-K list, are Jose Altuve and David Wright, both of whom are going to the All-Star Game. But when things aren't going well, those strikeouts looking will be found in the debit column.

Fielding is another area, where Upton's performance is often seen as problematic, but the issue here is more one of perception. J-Up's strength is his phenomenal range, which is easily overlooked by the eye. Take two outfielders: one has the range of a glacier, but always makes the plays if he gets to the ball, while the other covers entire continents, but sometimes lets the ball clank off his glove. Fans will tend to view the former as a "better" fielder, even if he converts fewer balls into outs. That's because, when a ball is hit, the natural inclination is to watch the ball,. not the fielder running towards it, so you're only aware of what happens after the two intersect.

Team performance also plays into fan reaction. Put bluntly, if we were leading the division, rather than in third place and below .500, everything would be lovely, and Upton's performance would merit little more than an eye-roll or two. But a failing team will draw criticism, which will be aimed particularly at those seen as most responsible - as noted the other day, Justin Upton's drop-off is a very significant factor there. And, as with individuals, a poor team performance at home likely exacerbates things: the Diamondbacks' 20-21 record at Chase, going into Friday night, is ahead of only a handful of teams in the National League.

Hype

Not something the player has much control over. But this feeds into expectations from a different direction, entirely unconnected with previous performance. When you are appearing in All-Star Game commercials and have a section of the ballpark named after you, for instance... Now, by other cities' standards, this may not be considered particularly high-profile, and the Diamondbacks have, in general, been more interested in promoting the team as an entity, rather than individual players on it [And who can blame them, after the disasters which ended up being previous "Faces of the Franchise"]

But Justin Upton is likely the nearest thing this team has to a FotF in the community at large. While this can certainly work in terms of promoting the team and the franchise, it's very much a double-edged sword. Remember when Eric Byrnes was cast in a similar role? How did that end up? Obviously, we're not talking anything like an exact parallel - I still firmly believe the best of Upton is yet to come. But it speaks to the dangers of promoting a player: hitching a team's star to an individual's fortunes has its risks.

Salary

Upton isn't the highest-paid player on the team. That'd be Stephen Drew, at $7.75 million. He's not even the highest-paid outfielder: Jason Kubel ($7.5m). But at just shy of seven million, Upton is still earning more than four times the median salary on the 2012 Diamondbacks. Again, this channels toward expectations, in a way separate from performance. You know how they say "speed doesn't slump," or "hustle never takes a day off"? Neither does a large pay-check. If you're being paid at or close to replacement level, no-one minds too much if your numbers are at or close to replacement.

There may also be an awareness of what happens down the line: because Upton has a long-term guaranteed contract. Next year, he will be the highest-paid outfielder, at $9.75 million. The year beyond that, he'll probably be the highest-pad player on the entire club, at $14.25 million - I think that'll also make him the highest-paid position player in franchise history. And yet, he's arguably not playing at the level expected for his current salary, less than half of that future amount. Let's just say that a certain level of concern is justified: this team does not have a large budget can ill-afford any albatross-shaped contracts.

Intangibles

Covering a whole range of stuff, not to be found on baseball-reference.com or fangraphs.com. What has the rapport between the player and fans been like previously? How is his attitude perceived generally? Does he smile a lot? The last isn't a joke. I've noticed over the years, that fans appreciate players who appear to enjoy playing the game, and regularly go about their business with a smile. It seems such a little thing, but it can overshadow almost any number of faults: Augie Ojeda would be the poster-child: over the four years he was in Arizona, AugieAugieAugie had an OPS of .651, barely replacement level, but was adored by the fans.

This area may be Upton's biggest hurdle. His relationship with the local fans has often been prickly, and hardly a master-class in how to win friends and influence people. That goes at least back to June 2009 and this game against the Angels:.

Right fielder Justin Upton committed one of three errors in an ugly, five-run Angels fifth and uncorked a wild throw that nearly led to another run... Fans sarcastically cheered when Upton caught a routine fly ball for the first out of the sixth inning. After he recorded the third out, he ran near the stands down the right-field line and pretended to toss the ball into the crowd but instead took it with him into the dugout... Upton, through a club spokesman, declined to speak with reporters after the game.

It's also perhaps enlightening to note Upton is likely the most-disliked Diamondback among supporters of opposing teams. Obviously, it's different when he plays for your team, but the perceived attitude which rubs other fans the wrong way is harder to overlook when he's also not playing well. Certainly, coming right out and saying "I don't care anything what the fans think of me" is a horrible mis-step, not least because it's not true - or, at least, I sincerely hope not. Kirk Gibson tried to spin it, "I think what he was saying was that he goes out and he knows he prepares and he's doing everything he can."

Not quite how I read it. But certainly, not exactly helping, Justin. As Scott Bordow of The Republic put it in a well-thought out article, "Being a fan rarely has anything to do with reason. The sooner Upton understands that, the better off he'll be."

Why boo?

No, it's not going to make a player "play better". I doubt anyone booing really thinks this. However, I think it does act as a sign, both to management and the player, that their current level of performance is unacceptable, and that some action needs to be taken. There are very few methods that fans can express frustration and a desire for change, in ways that they know will be heard - literally, in this case - by those in charge. Online complaints or ranting at your TV isn't going to cut it.

Yes, we should be supportive of the home team, but that does not mean we need to sit placidly by like sheep, and applaud poor performances - that's not the kind of reinforcement we want to give either. Being booed by home fans should be a wake-up call. If your mother, who has been complimenting your dropping grades all year, finally says they're not good enough, would you tell her "I don't care!" or think, "Hmm, if even she's being critical, maybe I'd better buck my ideas up"?

The solution

Fortunately, this is entirely in Justin's hands. If he doesn't want to get booed - and I've little doubt, despite his protestations to the contrary, that he doesn't - then he needs to play better. That's really it. (though smiling more, when appropriate, would probably help too). Last night, driving in the tying and go-ahead runs, was a start. But just as the fans did not turn on Upton as the result of a single day's performance, they won't go back to cheering him based on a couple of productive at-bats. However, I'm confident he has the skills to do so, and it won't be long before the crowds are once again looking forward to Upton's appearances with anticipation, rather than dread.

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