About two weeks ago, the Tigers completed their major offseason to-do list by signing outfielder Justin Upton to a six-year deal worth $132 million. The club might still make some changes around the edges of the roster by finding a reliever or a bench bat, but signing Upton effectively ended the roster construction portion of the winter. This is good news because 1) it means that the Tigers have made themselves a lot better and 2) it means we can all start focusing on the 2016 season which is a mere 65 days away.
On the day Upton signed, we discussed the merits of the deal from a contractual standpoint. Did the Tigers get a good value? How much does the opt-out hurt them? Did the club use their resources wisely? The early calculus makes it look like a very smart move for the team, but we can put that angle aside and focus more on the upcoming season. What did the Tigers get in Justin Upton?
Upton has played in nine major league season dating back to 2007, including seven full seasons since 2009. If you’re doing some quick math in your head, the part of your brain that makes inferences is now estimating that he’s about 32 years old. Your brain is wrong, Upton is actually only entering his age 28 season. He was a top draft choice out of high school (1-1 in the stacked 2005 draft) and got to the majors very quickly.
As I frequently say in these pages, age matters a lot when you’re looking forward in baseball. There’s no one, single, perfect aging curve, but players of similar types typically age in consistent patterns, so you always want to try to assess where a player stands on his personal aging curve. The fact that Upton is 28 (albeit an old MLB 28) means that he’s probably not likely to experience any significant aging for at least a couple more seasons. That’s not a guarantee, but all of our analysis is about playing the odds. For the layman, this simply means that he’s not likely to get much worse from 2015 to 2016 because of declining skills. He might play worse or get hurt or something, but he hasn’t quite reach the point at which we think he’s on the decline in a predictable way.
I’m going to focus mostly on Upton’s upcoming two seasons because it seems pretty likely that he will opt-out of the contract after 2017. Maybe the new collective bargaining agreement that will govern the next two offseason’s will change his mindset, but it’s hard to imagine that a 30 year old Upton won’t want to test the market again. So for our purposes, what do we expect from the 28 and 29 year old Upton.
Let’s get a baseline. For his career, Upton was been worth 26.5 fWAR over 4934 PA. He’s hit .271/.352/.473, good for a 121 wRC+. On average, he’s been a hair above league average defensively in a corner outfield role and has graded out as a solidly above average base runner (~ +3 BsR/600 PA). Essentially, Upton is a solidly above average hitter and runner with an average glove at a non-premium position. However, keep in mind that we’re talking about a relatively long career. The 2008 version of Upton isn’t totally irrelevant, but it’s not a super important data point.
Let’s try his last three seasons. He’s hit .262/.344/.470 (127 wRC+) with 10.6 fWAR in 1904 PA. His base running numbers look equally good, but his defense has been a little less clear. He had a rough 2013 by both DRS and UZR, looked average by both in 2014, and was somewhere between solid and really good in 2015 depending on the stat in question. The last three years of defensive data don’t tell a clear story, but they do seem to point to a slight drop off in his abilities compared to his earlier self.
Collectively, Upton’s bat has gotten a little better over the course of his career (even though his best year was 2011), his base running has been consistent, and his glove is probably declining a little. He’s essentially a 3-4 WAR player with a good bat, solid running, and acceptable or better defense for a corner outfielder. That’s a really nice player to have alongside great hitters like Cabrera and Martinez (Martinezes?).
Upton does strike out 25-26% of the time, but he’s got an above average walk rate and well above average power. You’d prefer he put some of those strikeouts in play, but doing so would probably hamper his power, and given that he has a solid ability to draw walks, we know it’s probably more about swinging through pitches rather than chasing awful ones. That’s a tradeoff worth making.
If you look to his projections, they fall right in line with the last three years of his career: 127 wRC+, 3-4 WAR. That’s Upton in a nutshell. He pulled the ball a little more in 2015 than he had in the previous couple of seasons, but any number from 2015 that you try to apply a trend line too is probably just normal fluctuation. Upton’s career is a perfect encapsulation of a consistent player who gets slightly varying results.
Upton’s story is an interesting one because he is simultaneously a very good player and a player who feels disappointing. By most measures, Upton is probably somewhere between the 20th and 25th best outfielder in baseball. It depends how you want to measure it and the timeline you want to use to draw your conclusions, but that’s kind of the range he’s been in over his career. He’s nowhere near Trout, McCutchen, Haper, Heyward, or Bautista, but beyond the super elite players, there’s a pretty similar group of two dozen options that you could see being better or worse than each other during a given year.
For almost anyone, a top 20 outfielder ranking would be terrific, but Upton had so much hype coming out of high school that being a borderline All-Star feels like a let down. The top of the 2005 draft included Alex Gordon, Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun, Troy Tulowitzki, and Andrew McCutchen — all of whom were drafted after Upton. There are also some hilariously sad names like Jeff Clement. You might argue that Gordon and Zimmerman are in Upton’s tier, but Braun, Tulo, and McCutch have been much better players since getting drafted, and Upton was supposed to be the best of them all.
Expectations are a dangerous thing, not because it’s bad to dream, but because you anchor your future understanding in something that isn’t really all that tangible. Upton was supposed to be a great player but has never really reached that level. He came close in 2011 but that looks more and more like a career year than a real, repeatable output. But the silly thing is that those expectations for Upton were just the opinions of some scouts who watched these guys take 40-50 at bats when they were still basically children.
We do our best, but even the best scout isn’t all that great at watching an 18 year old and telling you what he’s going to be. Sure, people saw elite talent in Upton, but baseball is incredibly hard and it’s probably pretty easy to mistake “really good potential” with “elite potential” when you’re assessing someone’s career ten years into the future.
Justin Upton has been a well above average hitter, a good base runner, and a solid corner defender across his career and he probably has a few more really good years left in him before aging takes its toll. Just because he isn’t an MVP doesn’t mean he isn’t a terrific player. There are roughly 400 “full-time” roster spots in the majors each year (probably fewer would get that label) and only two players win an MVP. We can probably assume that top five MVP finishers are MVP-type players, meaning that there are basically ten slots a year for MVP level performance each year. That’s a really high bar to cross for anyone and Upton has kind of flown under the radar because he has sailed below those high expectations.
That’s to the Tigers’ benefit, however, as they signed him for a good price partially because Upton seems less remarkable than he should due to his high expectations. Upton is not a Cabrera level player, nor is he a Martinez level hitter, but he is an all around very good player who should help the team tremendously.