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« Jason Heyward's Pop Up Problem | Main | Dan Uggla's Hit Streak Ends »

Powerful Upton in MVP Discussion

As the Arizona Diamondbacks chase the Giants for the NL West title, Justin Upton is making a strong case that he's the most valuable player in the Senior Circuit. No longer burdened by the left shoulder injury that short-circuited his power last season, Upton popped his 25th home run of the year yesterday (one short of tying his career high set in 2009), and his career-best .564 slugging percentage ranks in the top 10 among qualified hitters.

Back in June, David Pinto examined Upton's more aggressive two-strike approach, which has cut his strikeout rate from nearly 27 percent in 2010 to about 18 percent in 2011. Today, I want to look at where within the strike zone Upton is making hard contact. First, here's where pitchers have thrown to Upton over the past two seasons:

Upton's pitch frequency by location, 2010 Upton's pitch frequency by location, 2011

Pitchers try to stay away against Upton: about 47 percent of the pitches that he has seen over the past two years have been thrown away. Now, look at Upton's in-play slugging percentage by pitch location over the past two seasons:

 Upton's in-play slugging percentage by location, 2010

Upton's in-play slugging percentage by location, 2011

Upton thumped high pitches in 2010, but he struggled badly on pitches thrown on the outer third of the plate. This year, however, he's hammering outer pitches: Upton has a .475 slugging percentage against outside offerings, compared to .287 last season (.344 league average for non-pitchers).

Now that he's handling outside pitches, Upton ranks among the game's offensive elite. His 155 OPS+ at age 23 places him between Hall of Famers Orlando Cepeda and Hank Greenberg and is the best age-23 season by OPS+ since Prince Fielder in 2007 (157), according to Baseball-Reference. Suffice it to say, there will be no trade talk surrounding the younger Upton this off-season.

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