Justin Upton and Don Baylor This Season: What to Expect

Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated wrote a column this week in which he discusses offseason trade rumors involving Arizona Diamondbacks star Justin Upton.

Verducci writes that the Diamondbacks' new general manager, Kevin Towers, "never really wanted to move 23-year-old outfielder Justin Upton." He only wanted to see what sort of trade value Upton had. That much is obvious: of course the Diamondbacks wouldn't want to trade their cheap young star unless they got a cheap young star in return, which is a sort of trade that rarely happens.

What's truly interesting in Verducci's column is that the Diamondbacks expect to see "what Upton can do for the first time when surrounded with veteran leaders, especially hitting coach Don Baylor, the mentor for Carlos Gonzalez in his breakout season last year in Colorado."

The only way Don Baylor will get Upton hitting like Gonzalez next season is if he convinces Towers to trade Upton to the Rockies, where the ball flies further in the thin mountain air.

Last season, Gonzalez hit .336 for the Rockies, with 34 homeruns and 117 RBI. He slugged .598, got on base at a .376 clip (.974 OPS) and struck out 135 times. That looks like an all-star season, so it's natural to credit some of it to Baylor, Gonzalez' hitting coach at the time.

But when you look at the splits, it becomes clear that Gonzalez is not a .336 hitter.

At home, he hit .380 with 26 homeruns, slugged .737 and got on base at a .425 clip. Away, he hit an empty .289, with 8 homeruns, a .453 slugging average and a .322 on-base percentage. Gonzalez hits in Colorado, where just about everybody hits.

The 2010 Colorado Rockies hit .866 in OPS at home and .654 away. Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, to give another example, lost forty points in batting average away from home, 130 points in slugging, and 50 in OBP. See the difference?

So if we can't expect Baylor to teach Upton how to hit like Gonzalez, what can we expect?

Last season Upton was hurt and managed to hit .273 with 17 homeruns in 495 at-bats. In 2009, he hit .300 with 26 homeruns in 526 at-bats. The year before, he hit .250 with 15 homeruns in 356 at-bats. To New Times, Upton looks primed to hit between those numbers -- about .280, with 25 homeruns or so and 150+ strikeouts.

It's a conservative prediction compared to others. Baseball ThinkFactory's ZIPS projects Upton to hit .292 with 26 homeruns and 161 strikeouts, which gives him more value than our prediction.

The big variable for Upton this season is going to be whether he learns to take pitches and walks while cutting down on his strikeouts. Upton will never hit enough to justify 150+ strikeouts a season, but he is a fast and athletic ballplayer who should cut down on his swing and have better at-bats. To his credit, he's improved on his own, seeing an average of 3.95 pitches per at-bat in 2007 and 4.20 in 2010. But in 2011, he'll have to see more, work pitchers and shoot for the gaps.

Ignoring ballparks, Upton can be a better hitter than Gonzalez. He's younger, too. Getting a better approach out of Upton is Baylor's challenge this season.