February 1, 2013 at 7:00 am by Andrew Sisson under Atlanta Braves
I’m sure the majority of you are aware that Justin Upton played through a thumb injury in 2012. A lot of baseball writers and analysts across the industry have pegged it as a reason for his disappointing season. After going through and researching a little about the timeline of Upton’s season, I came across an interesting little tidbit that supplements and may help explain some of Upton’s 2012 numbers.
Upton initially hurt his thumb sliding into second base during the third game of the season last year. About a week later, he was diagnosed with a bone bruise. The team doctors advised Upton to go on the DL shortly after to let the thumb heal, but he refused. Upton felt that if he was able to play and swing a bat he was going to play. He felt him playing at a fraction of his healthy self was better than his replacement at 100%. It’s hard to argue.
We saw a very similar situation with a very similar player two seasons ago, Jason Heyward. There were a lot of parallels between the two. Heyward hurt his thumb sliding into third base, back in May 2010. He attempted to play through the same type of bone bruise for six weeks, but eventually succumb to the 15-day DL after he could no longer forcefully grip the bat. It was clear his swing and ability to drive the baseball was hampered.
While all situations are different, it’s usually a double-edged sword for players who have these types of small nagging injuries. There will always be people who will criticize a player for not being tough enough to play through a “minor” injury, as well as those who will criticize players for playing through it and not taking the time to get healthy. Every situation is different, but it is generally hard to force a player sit who is capable of producing at decent level even when hurt, especially young players who don’t want to (unfairly) take on a label of being “soft”. Rest for an extended period of time would seem to be the best and quickest way to a full recovery, however an internal competitive edge usually engulfs that. It is a tough challenge that players, especially star players, face.
Anyways, to get back on track, let’s get back to Upton and look at his monthly breakdown in 2012.
As you can see, Upton struggled from the get go. He continued to post below average numbers for the first four to five months of the season, with the exception of June. However, his June numbers were largely driven by a .415 BABIP. It also was his lowest raw power month ISO wise.
Then, towards the end of August, Upton was finally able to pick up the power numbers, which of course was an encouraging sign. Upton’s thumb felt comfortable enough where he was able to remove the padded brace on his thumb he had been playing with all season (I believe he didn’t wear it from August 25 on). After this, his numbers started to look like the 2011 Upton, especially in the power department. He hit 8 of his 17 home runs in those final 36 games, post-pad. While I think the endpoints can be justified, I will admit ~150 PA isn’t the greatest sample. There is comfort in knowing that his September numbers were backed by a .312 BABIP, suggesting his final month or so was not luck driven. I think it is worth at least pointing out that it was the only time all season he was able to play with the comfort of what appeared to be a healthy thumb. And wouldn’t you know it, his numbers appeared quite healthy too.
Like most, I think it’s fairly easy to tell I’m in the “as long as Upton’s thumb is healthy next season, his power numbers should bounce back” crowd. Hopefully the numbers give that statement some backing. The end of the season was encouraging and we can only hope there are no lingering effects heading into this season. It’s not that I want to blame all of last season on the thumb injury, but I think we can make a reasonable conclusion that it did play a large part to his power struggles (timing was also a little bit out of whack). For someone who has the bat speed and quick/strong wrists like Upton, any type of hand or wrist injury can quickly reduce those abilities. Look for the re-emergence of those skills, which should translate back in 2013 to a productive offensive season.