Justin Upton Has an Interesting Season Ahead of Him

Kole Calhoun stood at his locker near the close of the 2019 season and talked about appreciating every moment of his eight seasons in Anaheim, knowing that any day could have been his last day. A few months later, the Angels declined his $14 million contract option. He departs Los Angeles having played a little bit of left and a smidgen of center, but mostly the Angels kept Kalhoun sequestered to right field, where in 2019 he hacked fiendishly amid frequent swing adjustments. His final season with the Angels produced inconsistency in his monthly outputs, as well as a new career high in strikeout rate (25.6 percent) and a modest 108 wRC+.

Calhoun is a member of the Fraternity of Less Effective Outfielders the Angels Have Put Next to Mike Trout. There have been many others over the years, placed out there in the corners beside the reigning AL MVP: Vernon Wells, Torii Hunter, Josh Hamilton, Ben Revere. And in 2019, Trout’s partners in the grass were Kole Calhoun and Justin Upton. Calhoun is gone, but Upton, another veteran who is not as good as Mike Trout, will remain. He doesn’t need to be as good as Trout to be of use, something that has to be true for him, since it’s true for every other player in the league. The question is, can Upton still be good, despite the obstacles ahead of him, and the comparisons to the outfielders around him?

Upton, at 32 years old, is a once fearsome slugger from the National League whose turf toe, wonky knee, and brief, passionate encounter with an outfield wall left him hurt and unproductive for most of 2019. Upton will be baseball’s active leader in errors among outfielders in 2020, and he may be entering the part of his career in which expectations are lowered, especially given how he got beat up so much and only made it into 63 games last season — the first time he’s played in fewer than 100 since 2008.

His durability has been one of his strengths; that, and his ability to do this. At 30 years old, he was worth 3.8 WAR for the Angels before baseball sent him into a wall this past season, so it’s not foolhardy to think Upton could be one of the Angels’ “new” contributors moving forward, or at least play a key role, even though he ended 2019 with a shot in the knee and a pair of crutches.

One important component to this is that unlike with Kalhoun, the Angels aren’t likely to part ways with Upton. His deal locks him up in L.A. until 2022, and equipped with a full no-trade clause, there’s really no chance he goes anywhere unless he wants to. And now, following his worst season ever as a regular starter, is probably not the time to assume that many teams are willing to give up value for an outfielder with a jammed toe making $21 million in 2020.

What lies ahead for Upton? A “normal offseason,” apparently, which is probably a good thing. It would be weird if Upton read his poor luck and natural injuries as a reason to rethink everything at this point in the game. Besides, as Jeff Zimmerman just wrote, projecting a hitter’s output after their age 31 season is, in a lot of cases, asking to be disappointed. And we get enough disappointment in baseball without asking for it.

There is, historically, a catalog of horror stories involving outfielders and patellar tendons: Dustin Fowler ruptured his running into a rail in 2017. Pedro Guerrero tore his catching a spike in the dirt in 1986. Brady Anderson, Carlos Gonzalez, Andruw Jones; no outfielder, or any fielder, ever wants to hear they have patellar tendon problems, but some of them find a way to make it back.

One particular comeback for a Justin Upton-type outfielder belongs to Jason Bay, who in 2007 was 28 years old coming off three straight seasons of productive, durable outfielding. Well, not defensively (-1.7 dWAR), but at the plate he’d had a wRC+ no lower than 130 and hit line drives at least 15% of the time for three years (including a career-high 23.8 percent LD% in 2005, when he played in all 162 games), an approach that resulted in him being named NL Rookie of the Year in 2004, finishing in the top ten among NL hit leaders in 2005, and the top 30 in 2006. In 2007 he still played in 145 games, despite having patellar tendonitis in his right knee—the same condition that crippled Upton for chunks of 2019.

Bay and Upton have a few diverging stats: Upton strikes out more; Bay was far less of a threat on the bases. Both saw significant spikes in their OBP and SLG to well above league average from their age 28 to 29 seasons. Coming off his patellar tendonitis-affected year, Bay managed to hit the same rate of line drives on batted balls as he had in 2007 (16.5%) when he’d first developed the condition, and was able to see returns to productivity across all major offensive categories, ending the season worth three wins (as opposed to -1.0 the previous year) just before entering the dreaded 30s.

Bay is not the only one who was able to recover and produce: Guerrero returned to his monstrous form following his stunted ’86 season. Anderson, a few years older when he suffered his patellar injury trying to make a leaping catch in 1998, had two more productive years ahead of him. Even the frequently broken Gonzalez had an All-Star season in his future following his season-ending surgery in 2014. However, Jones was never really the same. That’s how a lot of these stories end for guys who get hurt crossing into their thirties, which isn’t a lament of inevitable aging, but more of an acceptance of reality.

Granted, Bay’s case of wonky knee appears to have been less brutal than Upton’s, or at least handled differently, as he barely missed anytime despite it, whereas Upton disappeared from the Angels’ lineup for over half the season while also dealing with turf toe. And unfairly enough for Upton, there will be a spry 20-year-old outfielder galloping about in the other corner spot next year; a constant reminder of the passage of time and that our youthful replacements will always one day appear on the horizon.

Jo Adell, the Angels’ first pick (10th overall) in the 2017 draft and our top-ranked Angels prospect, just finished tied for the home run lead (3), to go along with a .394 BA and 1.126 OPS in 33 AB, in the WBSC Premier12 tournament overseas. He started 2018 in Hi-A but was on a plane to Double-A six games later and spent most of the season (43 games), slowing down his strikeout rate a bit, holding onto the power he’d displayed, and walking enough. His inevitable promotion to Triple-A for 27 games saw all of his numbers take a hit, but it was a promising season for the outfielder who will turn 21 a week after Opening Day. Adell, like Upton, recently finished a season on crutches, collapsing on the field in 2018 and being diagnosed with a right ankle sprain and hamstring strain. He used 2019 to show that he could bounce back, and also that his terrifying superhuman body was ready to absorb the rigors of pro ball. Brian Goodwin will probably keep his spot for him until he’s ready. He’ll be ready.

Upton will be playing next to the best player of all time, and eventually, a stud prospect with fresh legs. He will be playing under a new manager in Joe Maddon who is there to define a new era of success in Anaheim. And he will be playing with a bad knee that haunted him for a calendar year. A “normal offseason” is exactly the type of offseason Upton should have just to re-ground himself following a season that was unlike many of his previous ones.

Deterioration can be a rapid and humbling process in older players, but Upton’s durability has shown he is capable of keeping it together, while history has shown us that is possible for players of his ilk to recover from similar ailments. Upton can still be the impactful player he always has been, even if he’s got a little more battle damage. And again, most importantly, they probably couldn’t trade him even if they wanted to.

Justin has contributed to FanGraphs and is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He is known in his family for jamming free hot dogs in his pockets during an off-season tour of Veterans Stadium and eating them on the car ride home.

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2 years ago

Don’t really know anything about him as a person, but wish him well on the field in 2020