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Diamondbacks Report Card: Justin Upton (and the Burden of Talent)

Name: Justin Upton
Age on Opening Day: 23
Salary: $4,458,333
2011 Stats: 159 games, 674 PAs, .289/.369/.529, 31 HR, 88 RBI
2010 Stats: 133 games, 571 PAs, .273/.356/.442, 17 HR, 69 RBI

Talent is a strange burden in the professional sports world.

One particularly talented young man, Justin Upton, exploded onto the MLB scene in 2009, posting a 132 wRC+ and a .300/.366/.532 line, making the All-Star team, and placing 25th in MVP voting. With such a phenomenal age-21 season under his belt, big things were expected from Upton in 2010. The right field bleacher section of Chase Field was re-named "Uptown," he was handed a six-year, $51.26MM contract extension, and if he hadn't already been the official face of the future when he was handed a then-record $6.1MM signing bonus as the top pick in the 2005 draft, he most certainly was the face of the future in the off-season of 2009-2010, and the future was now.

Then, Upton had a solid 2010. Unfortunately for Upton, I don't think it's inaccurate to say that "solid" was immensely underwhelming for many D-backs fans. Sure, that may not have been fair to the 22-year-old Upton - heck, Ryan Roberts gave us a 107 wRC+ at third base in 2011 and we were absolutely pumped, but a 110 wRC+ in right field from Upton in 2010 left us wanting more? What, did 2009 simply disappear? Yet, this is the burden of enormous talent. From the (darkest) corners of the internet, questions about Upton cropped up: Can he be as good as his physical talent suggests he should be? Is he too quiet to be a team leader? Did he cave under the pressure the organization put on him to be the franchise star at age-22? Was he brought up from the minors too soon? Was he frustrated by the poor team Arizona had fielded, even in his breakout campaign? And, as with any question asked in the off-season, there was no way to know the answers until the following season rolled around.

Then, 2011 happened.

On a team that would head to the post-season for the first time since the "Sticking-it-to-Pythag" 2007 season, Justin Upton was The Man, and not just according to me. With Don Baylor on board as hitting coach, Upton took off once again. His batting average climbed back up to .289, and his strikeout rate was a career-low 18.7%. His on-base percentage rose to .369, a career-high. His slugging percentage was .529, just three points shy of his 2009 peak. He whacked 31 home runs and swiped 21 bases, making him the third 30-20 player in franchise history, joining 2009 Mark Reynolds and 2007 Chris Young. Upton's wOBA of .385 was tied for 17th-best among qualifying hitters in 2011, with some guy named Albert Pujols that you may have heard of. His 2011 wRC+ of 140 was tied for 19th-best among qualifying hitters, with Alex Avila. Upton's 7.7 UZR was the highest among qualifying right-fielders.

In other words, pick any offensive stat, and it'll say something good about Justin Upton's 2011 season. As such, it was no surprise to D-backs fans when Justin Upton received an NL Silver Slugger Award this off-season. Here's an interview clip of Upton discussing his 2011 season and Silver Slugger Award with the MLB Network crew:

Even beyond the numbers, it seemed as if Upton came alive in 2011. You could see the confidence he exuded, and while some may lament things like the home run bat-toss as showy, I bask in the swagger it shows. Just as Ian Kennedy's strikeout foot-stomp is a delightful display of "hell yeah I did that," you could see Upton steadily realizing just how awesome he is. Now, this isn't to say that I want Upton to become pompous, but I do think that Upton's increased confidence had a material impact on his season, specifically in mitigating his prior tendencies to fall into massive slumps, as we saw repeatedly in 2010. A year ago, it seemed that Upton would focus more on what he was doing wrong than what he was doing right, and when even the best players fail about 60% of the time, that kind of mindset can be catastrophic, even to someone as talented as Upton. In 2011, Upton - probably with the help of Baylor - was able to keep on a more even keel, and the consistency was apparent.

The result of it all was one of the best all-around age-23 batting seasons of all time, and as Arizona fans know by now, that is not hyperbole. Just how good was it? Well, let's see if we can't take a look. Here is a link to a Baseball_reference search of all age-23 batting seasons since 1961 (the Expansion Era) of at least 500 plate appearances in which the hitter posted a line of at least .270/.350/.510. It's a delightful list for D-backs fans to behold. Sure, Upton is in the bottom half of the list when you sort it by OPS, but being immediately behind Andruw Jones and Grazy Sizemore, and immediately ahead of Robinson Cano and Evan Longoria is some remarkable company.

Of course, the most fascinating part of Upton's 2011 to me is reading how many people are saying things like "he is just scratching the surface of his potential." Yep, a .289/.369/.529 line is the tip of the iceberg for Upton. For instance, ESPN's Keith Law rated Upton the #1 player under 25-years-old in the game (a forward-looking post, BTW), and while most of it is behind the INsider pay-wall, the Upton section is not. Here's the synopsis from Law on J-Up:

Analysis: Upton was an MVP candidate for most of the season until Matt Kemp pulled away in September (and the voters went all retro by deciding the MVP had to be on a playoff team, d'oh). He still has a significant amount of upside left as he continues to get stronger and to refine his approach at the plate. His walk rate slipped in 2011, but he dramatically increased his contact rate, and traded some ground balls (and double plays) for fly balls (and doubles and homers). He's a five-tool player who would probably play center on some clubs, with several 30-homer seasons ahead of him; a .310/.400/.570 peak isn't out of the question.

Yes, for those asking, a .310/.400/.570 peak with center-field-caliber defense would make Upton a megastar. Not just a star in the 2011 sense, but a "12-year, $300MM contract" type of star - and that might be underselling this, considering that's a mere $25MM AAV after four years of baseball inflation. Upton could shatter records for the contract he'll receive as a free agent if he reaches the ceiling of his legendary tools.

However, shifting back to the beginning and purpose of this post, we have to ask ourselves how Upton's 2011 season compared to our expectations. This, of course, means that we have to have a basic definition of what expectations for Upton were, which takes us right back to the beginning of the post, and the burden of talent. Expectations for Upton in 2011 weren't to have another 2010-caliber season. Upton is too talented for fans to be content with him stagnating at a "solid" level of production. So expectations, at least for me, were somewhere in between 2010's "solid" and 2009's "star" production levels.

Seeing as how Upton essentially returned straight to "star," he certainly grades out above-average, but the expectations were simply too high to go with an A grade here, especially since there's still so much room for improvement, scary as that thought might be. That's not to say he deserves a bad grade in any way - he'll get a grade B+ from me - but, well, it's just the burden of his ridiculous talent. We did get an additional contribution from the 'Pit on J-Up, so let's hear Marc's thoughts:

Marc: A
Upton topped 30+ home runs last year at the age of 23 and could soon join the 30/30 club as a 24-year-old. He's got gold glove material in the outfield, has already snagged a Silver Slugger award, and has 238 extra base hits in his brief career. The sky is the freakin' limit.