Justin Upton: Early NL MVP Candidate?


Justin Upton could bring the Atlanta Braves their first NL MVP player since Chipper Jones in 1999.

Last night, Justin Upton hit a grand slam to give the Atlanta Braves a win over the Los Angeles Dodgers. He finished the game with 5 RBI and added a walk for good measure. That game illustrates a microcosm of how important he has been to the team in the early part of the season.

Before the start of the 2013 season, I mentioned on Twitter that I felt like Upton was going to be even better than most of us (the “pundits”) were expecting. Throughout the offseason, I remember everyone being excited that the Braves had just bagged both of the Upton brothers. There was chatter about how good the trade was to get Justin, and how it was nice to have a “solid” right-handed hitter to put in the middle of our lineup.

But somehow, people didn’t mention his 2011 season with regularity; the year where he finished fourth in the NL MVP race after putting up the best statistical season of his career. He was easily the Arizona Diamondbacks best player, and finished with 31 homeruns, 105 runs, 88 RBI, and 21 stolen bases. His triple slash line was a sparkling .289/.369/.529.

This season, Upton is making a case for another MVP run. After playing in each of the Braves 41 games so far this season, he has carried the team to a half-game lead over the Washington Nationals for first place in the NL East, and his numbers are off the charts through those 41 games. He is hitting .285/.403/.639 with 14 home runs, 32 runs, and 3 stolen bases.

He leads the majors in home runs (Paul Goldschmidt is second with 12), is sixth in runs, third in slugging percentage, fifth in wOBA, sixth in wRC+, and third in WAR (2.3). He is also leading everyone in baseball in isolated power (ISO), with a .354 mark.

What’s really exciting is how quickly Upton has gotten this season started. He has been hot since day one, and is setting himself up for a few career highs in some important categories already. During his 2011 campaign, where he hit his current high of 31 homers, he hit 11 of them in April and May. This season, Upton has 12 homers in just April, and two so far in May. In the first half of the season of 2011, he had 15 homers, and with a month and a half left to play in this year’s first half, he’s got plenty of time to pass that mark. In fact, if his pace continues, he will easily hit the 40 home run plateau.

Another fantastic thing to see out of Justin is the discipline he is showing at the plate. If you haven’t already, you should read this piece by Franklin Rabon of Capitol Avenue Club. Rabon discusses just how efficient Upton has been this season, and it’s some pretty impressive stuff. I’m not going to go that in-depth here, but I would like to give you a picture of how much better Justin has been so far this season.

Justin’s career BB% and K% marks are 10.4% and 23.0% respectably. During his previous two seasons of excellence (2009 and 2011), his numbers were pretty interesting. In 2009, his BB% was 9.4 and K% was 23.3. These are pretty close to his career numbers, but when you see the 2011 numbers, you might have to glance back. In 2011, he put up an 8.8 BB% and 18.7 K%. In both of his best offensive seasons, he walked at a lower rate than his career.

That’s a bit surprising at first because when a hitter is doing well, you would naturally expect him to walk more. Pitchers are more afraid to throw to him, he is seeing the ball better, etc.

However in 2013, Upton has a 16.5 BB% and 24.4 K%. His walk rate has increased a significant amount and his strikeout rate is just a tick higher than his career number. This is fantastic to see, and if it continues, Upton will probably put up the best OBP of his career. In 2009 and 2011, Upton ended up with OBPs of .366 and .369 respectably. Remember, this year his OBP is at .403.

I am going to take a look at the splits of his 2009 and 2011 seasons just to see if he has ever started a season off with numbers like this before.

May 17, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman (5) (left) reacts after left fielder Justin Upton (8) (right) hits a grand slam home run against the Los Angeles Dodgers during the sixth inning at Turner Field. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports


  • March/April – 9.0 BB% and .328 OBP
  • May – 11.9 BB% and .444 OBP
  • First Half – 10.4 BB% and .374 OBP


  • March/April – 10.5 BB% and .360 OBP
  • May – 7.6 BB% and .328 OBP
  • First Half – 9.3 BB% and .375 OBP

Now let’s compare that to what he’s done so far this season:


  • March/April- 14.3 BB% and .402 OBP
  • May*- 20.3 BB% and .406 OBP
  • First Half*- 16.5 BB% and .403 OBP

*remember, we are still in the middle of May so these numbers are going to change

We are clearly seeing something new out of Justin Upton. Whether this is just a really hot start, a good bit of luck (I highly doubt this), or if he has taken another step forward as a major league hitter remains to be seen. We are just goi ng to have to continue to watch him and see what happens — no complaints here.

He is off to the best start of his career and, along with Bryce Harper and Paul Goldschmidt, is one of the early candidates for the National League MVP.

*if you are wondering where I got all of my stats, they are from the wonderful site, Fangraphs.