Too much criticism of Upton, Reynolds

By Jim McLennan

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Monitoring fan chatter around the Internet, I’m always surprised by the amount of venom aimed at Mark Reynolds and Justin Upton. While I’m sure both players would tell you there’s still room for improvement in their game, I really don’t think those players deserve all of the criticism they get. It’s something Kirk Gibson felt the need to address over the weekend, saying with particular reference to Upton, “For somebody to say they act like they don’t care is totally inaccurate.”

There’s a couple of things worth pointing out regarding Justin. Firstly, he is still remarkably young. He won’t even turn 23 until this Wednesday, and there are very few 22-year-olds holding down everyday positions in the major leagues. Upton has played 121 times this season, more than anyone else his age. Just three others have even played 70 games: Elvis Andrus, Starlin Castro and Jason Heyward.

Upton is particularly raw as an outfielder. Don’t forget, he was a shortstop when drafted at age 17, so he had little or no experience in the outfield before the Diamondbacks signed him in 2006. Between high school and college, most outfielders will have had more time playing the position before they are drafted than Justin has now, in his fourth season in the big leagues. That’s worth remembering the next time he overthrows the cutoff man.

But this is an aspect of his game that is improving. In 2008 he made 11 errors, and in 2009 he had dozen — this year, that number has dropped dramatically to only four. And his speed and range are still marvelous: Total Zone’s “fielding runs above average” measure estimates that Upton has saved the team 23 runs this season with his fielding. That’s the most by any outfielder in the National League, with Angel Pagan and Michael Bourn the only others rated above +12.

With Mark Reynolds, it’s mostly his offense that is the target. To me, I find that a bit difficult to grasp given that he is currently on pace to hit 35 homers and drive in 92 runs. It’s Mark’s batting average and strikeouts that are usually mentioned, and certainly, .215 is something that could improve. There, it seems the main reason is that his line-drive percentage has dropped from 20% in 2009 to 12% this season — those now appear to be turning into fly-ball outs. So I do agree, there is some scope for that to get better.

However, he is walking a lot more, having already matched his 2008 total. As a result, his on-base percentage is .330, which is better than league average and very close to his career average of .337. The overall offensive numbers are certainly down from last season, but to counter this, Reynolds’ defense has improved — 17 errors to date compared to 24 last year — and overall, he remains a very significant positive contributor to the team.

This is shown in WAR, or wins above replacement. It’s a measure that combines offensive and defensive production, takes into account the player’s position and produces a total showing of how many wins the player is worth to his team when compared with a hypothetical replacement from Triple-A. Justin Upton is third among all players on the Diamondbacks this year, with 3.0 WAR, and Reynolds is fifth at 2.6 WAR.

Given this and the fact that the players in question are each on 2010 salaries of just $500,000, any suggestion that Upton and Reynolds are “not worth it” and need to be traded seems to me to be bordering on insanity. Anyone who claims that has perhaps been going out in the Arizona sun a bit too often.