For the first three months of the season, outfielder Jordan Schafer was a revelation for the Atlanta Braves. Schafer exceeded every expectation after coming over from the Astros (we’ll come back to this), hitting .312/.399/.464 in 143 plate appearances prior to the All-Star break. However, Schafer has hit the skids a bit since that time, and it is now time (long overdue) to evaluate one simple question.
Who should be playing center field every day?
With that, it is a must to discuss the abject disaster of a season that BJ Upton has suffered through this season. In the off-season, the Braves inked the former Tampa Bay outfielder to a 5-year, $75 million contract, but Upton has been nothing short of a mess since day one of the season. In fact, his .182/.263/.291 slash line qualifies him as one of the worst in all of baseball among “regulars”, and if it wasn’t for his quality defense and base-running, Upton would unquestionably be even worse than his negative WAR (both Fangraphs and BB-Ref) would indicate.
Sounds like the choice is easy, right?
It is important to understand context, and that is the key factor that many are ignoring. For example, BJ Upton has a career slash line (even with this year’s performance) of .249/.329/.411 with an average of 19 home runs, 31 doubles, and 36 stolen bases per full season in the Major Leagues. In contrast, Schafer has a career slash line (again, even with this year’s bump) of .229/.312/.317 with 11 total home runs and 35 total doubles in 949 plate appearances. If you want to go past the “standard” numbers and a bit more into sabermetrics, BJ Upton has a career fWAR of 21.3 with a 103 wRC+, while Schafer has a career fWAR of -0.1 (yes, negative) with a 75 wRC+.
Obviously, the career numbers slant (hilariously) toward BJ Upton, but we already knew that. My question centers around whether there is any reason to believe that Upton’s terrible performance will continue and/or whether the short-lived Schafer “breakout” is real. For me, neither is sustainable or believable, as Upton’s BABIP (.257) sits a stunning 60 points below his career mark of .317, while Schafer’s soars nearly 40 points higher at .353 against a career baseline of .315. I’m well aware that BABIP is a small indicator that varies wildly, but when placed in the context of a 6-year track record against that of a player who was outright released by the worst team in baseball less than 12 months ago.
I fully understand the maddening frustration of watching a player who is being paid $15 million per season strike out at a comical rate (33.3%) in posting an OPS under .600. However, Upton is the better defensive player, both in career numbers and this season’s metrics, and ZIPS projections for the rest of 2013 even place his bat as nearly 100 OPS points better than Schafer’s.
Lastly, there is the small matter of the massive division lead that the Braves hold. With a 13 game lead on August 28th, the team is in full-fledged “get me to the playoffs” mode, and frankly, in no panic in terms of making the playoffs. If the race was closer, there would be some argument (I wouldn’t agree with it, but still) for playing the “hot hand” of Jordan Schafer (despite his 5-for-42 output since returning from the DL) over Upton, but in the “do what’s best for the playoffs” mold, I don’t see the reasoning to continue to suppress BJ Upton’s playing time.
When you have a player making $15 million per season for four more years after 2013, the goal should certainly be to do anything and everything in order to turn that player’s fortunes around. The Braves invested, rightly or wrongly, in a half-decade of BJ Upton, and his track record speaks for itself as a highly valuable asset. Jordan Schafer may be a better player than he’s shown during his admittedly short MLB career, but there is no question that his ceiling is well below Upton’s, and I will take the player with both the higher ceiling and the longer track record each and every time.
It is time to play BJ Upton every day.