- Up, Up, & J-Hey!!!
- The anticipation building for the 2013 Braves Outfield isn’t totally foreign for the city of Atlanta. The buzz reached a similar level prior to the 2002 season when Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, and Gary Sheffield were slated to trot into the well manicured grass at Turner Field all summer. Their combined numbers in that 2002 season were quite good, but they elevated into a different atmosphere the following year, in 2003. Since all of the media and other baseball officials are speaking of the tremendous upside the current trio of Braves Outfielders have, let’s take a look at the probability that the Upton’s and Heyward can match or surpass those 2003 numbers…
Left Field: Chipper Jones vs. Justin Upton
I know it’s considered blasphemous to entertain the notion of Justin Upton outproducing one of Chipper Jones’ finest seasons as a Brave, but is it possible? Chipper’s 2003 line was predictably impressive: .305 Avg, 27 HR, 106 RBI, 103 R, .920 OPS. Compare that to Upton’s best professional season two years ago in 2011: .289 Avg, 31 HR, 88 RBI, 105 R, .898 OPS. Though not quite up to Jones’ 2003 campaign, it isn’t terribly far off either. One other note here, Chipper was 31 in 2003. Upton was 23 for most of the 2011 season. I also didn’t even bother including Stolen Bases in that comparison because Chipper only swiped 2 bags in ’03, whereas Upton stole 21. Maybe that doesn’t totally make up for the 18 RBI difference or the 22 points in OPS, but there is some added value to a guy with 20-30 SB potential, who has already proven he can hit 30 HR’s.
Defense can’t be ignored. Even with LF being of least consequence of the three Outfield spots, runs saved often prove just as important as runs produced. Defensive metrics are often questioned and at times contradict themselves. By a simple “eye test,” I would feel confident saying Justin Upton in his mid-20′s will be defensively superior to a 30+ year old Chipper Jones. Both players will have converted from another position to LF, and it would also make sense the transition would be easier from RF, as opposed to 3B.
If Justin truly blossoms with a perennial contender in Atlanta, alongside his brother BJ, is it that farfetched to think at some point in his mid to late 20′s he can improve his batting average and OPS about 20 points, and drive in 15-20 more runs? Perhaps I’m in the minority here, but I would consider it more likely that he tops Chipper’s 2003 numbers in one of the next three seasons, as opposed to not achieving a similar line. Chance of J. Upton matching/surpassing Chipper’s 2003 Season: High
Center Field: Andruw Jones vs BJ Upton
Just typing those names back-to-back brought a thought to my mind: BJ Upton wants to be Andruw Jones. Upton has progressively wanted to hit more HR’s every year, while his batting average and OBP have suffered. Andruw’s infatuation with the long ball led to his consistent drop in batting average over his career as well. Though Andruw was able to post some ridiculous totals when sacrificing contact for power, his frame also grew(225+lbs) to justify this evolution. BJ is listed at a generous 185 lbs, and relies totally on bat speed to hit the ball out of the park. The torque required for a wiry player like Upton to hit 30 HR’s a year will surely take a toll on his body. Let me regress(I’m no physician), and check out Andruw’s line from 2003: .277 Avg, 36 HR, 116 RBI, 101 R, .851 OPS. Want to know how good Atlanta’s offense was that year? Andruw didn’t lead the team in any offensive category. He wasn’t even in the top two in HR’s(Javy Lopez-43, Gary Sheffield-39).
Can BJ Upton really be asked to match that line? In a word, no. I’ve stated before, I would love for Greg Walker and Scott Fletcher to get him back in his rookie, frame of mind(.300Avg, .386OBP). Realistically, I get the feeling Upton wants to be a true, middle of the order bat, hitting the ball out of the park and driving in runs. And in this Atlanta lineup, he will certainly have more protection and see more fastballs than he ever did in Tampa Bay. Will those factors help…. absolutely. Will it be enough to raise his batting average 30+ points, I doubt it.
Although there is little need of further evidence that BJ reaching Andruw’s level of play is quite unattainable, I’ll put in a few words about defense. Andruw was arguably, the best Center Fielder to ever play the game. His reads, smooth strides, and athletic ability were a joy to watch in the Outfield and he covered as much ground as any notorious speed guy(like Bourn) ever did. In 2003, he was in the middle of winning 10 consecutive Gold Glove awards(1998-2007). Bottom line, BJ simply can’t be as good as Andruw. What the Braves can realistically hope for is that Upton’s defense resembles Bourn’s last year. The safe bet here is that Upton won’t make anyone in Atlanta forget Andruw Jones over the course of his 5 year contract. Chance of BJ Upton matching/surpassing Andruw’s 2003 season: VERY Low
Right Field: Gary Sheffield vs Jason Heyward
For everyone whose memory of Gary Sheffield in Atlanta was tarnished by his inability to hit ANYTHING in the Post-Season, take a look at his 2003 Regular Season: .330 Avg, 39 HR, 132 RBI, 126 R, 18 SB, 1.023 OPS. Ta-freakin-da. That line clinches the MVP these days. We’ll put steroid suspicion aside for now, because in all honesty, Heyward has shouldered enormous expectations since he was drafted in 2007. So let’s see if he can possibly make this uphill climb and topple one of the most sensational stat lines ever produced by an Atlanta Brave.
Heyward bounced back from a horrendous Sophomore campaign in 2012, to give Braves faithful optimism in his status as Future-Superstar. The arrival of Justin Upton will allow Heyward to share the burden of replacing Chipper Jones in the middle of the lineup with another player whose been labeled potential star longer than Jason. Heyward’s 2012, mostly as a 22 year old, was encouraging: .269 Avg, 27 HR, 82 RBI, 93 R, 21 SB, .814 OPS. J-Hey is only 23, and has plenty of years to improve as a hitter. But will he ever hit 40 HR’s? Or drive in 132? It would be almost impossible if Fredi hits him in the 2 spot for the next few years as he already mentioned. Though it’s impossible to predict, if Heyward follows in Chipper’s footsteps and stays in Atlanta for his entire career, I think he has a shot at getting close to some of those numbers. Surpassing them? Highly doubt it.
Defensively, Heyward certainly has an edge on Sheffield. Heyward is coming off his first Gold Glove selection, and according to various defensive statistics he was easily the most valuable Right Fielder in baseball. Sheffield wasn’t an albatross in Right, but even in his prime he wasn’t at the level Heyward has already displayed just 3 years into his career. So, does Jason have a shot during his career in Atlanta to replicate the season Sheffield had in 2003? Defense helps Heyward, but that statistical line from Sheffield is stunning. Chance of Heyward matching/surpassing Sheffield’s 2003 season: Very generously, 50-50.
So that’s one High, one Very Low, and one Coin Flip. Being that the coin flip was a generous one, and BJ is so far from being in Andruw territory, I don’t see the current trio in Atlanta ever putting together one season as good as that 2003 group. The exciting thing about the Braves current Outfield? Their potential knows no bound.