Should Justin Upton Opt Out?

We’ve seen a lot of premium free agents negotiate opt-outs into their contracts in recent years. Teams like the fact that they can use opt-outs to decrease the total amount they have to guarantee the player in order to sign him, and players like the flexibility of hitting the market again if they play well and increase their value. But by and large, most of these end up not getting used, as free agents are almost always older players by design, and older players usually don’t get better as they age.

Johnny Cueto has an opt-out for this winter that he almost certainly won’t use, as his poor 2017 season — and now an extended DL stint — would force him to take a pay cut this winter. Masahiro Tanaka probably won’t use his opt-out this winter either, since he’s developed a home run problem this year. Wei-Yin Chen definitely isn’t opting out. Neither is Ian Kennedy. Looking ahead to the future, it’s hard to imagine either Jason Heyward or David Price walking away from the remainder of their guaranteed years at this point.

A year ago, Justin Upton fit into that category. In the first year of his six year, $132 million contract, he hit .246/.310/.465, posting a career-low (as an everyday player) +1.4 WAR. He joined a host of other albatross contracts in Detroit, and all the money owed to aging, unproductive players was part of the reason the Tigers decided to start rebuilding this year, moving veterans for younger, cheaper talents when they could.

But this year, Upton has gone right back to being the Justin Upton the Tigers hoped they were signing. He’s currently at .282/.366/.546 and +4.1 WAR; his 140 wRC+ would be the second-best of his career, behind just the 141 mark he put up in 2011. He won’t match the +6.3 WAR he put up that year, but if he finishes strong over the next six weeks, he’ll crack +5 WAR for just the second time in his career. Regardless of how he finishes, this will likely go down as one of Upton’s best seasons.

So now, with $88 million left over the next four seasons, Upton might have a real decision to make. Has he played well enough to get himself back into consideration for another big contract?

On the one hand, it’s easy enough to argue that Upton’s performance-swings the last few years aren’t really all that meaningful.

Justin Upton, 2015 – 2017
Year O-Swing% Z-Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% ISO BABIP xwOBA
2015 24% 66% 47% 79% 70% 0.203 0.304 0.332
2016 24% 65% 55% 78% 72% 0.219 0.301 0.329
2017 26% 64% 54% 80% 72% 0.264 0.349 0.360

Upton’s seen a bit of a power spike this year, but so has everyone. His plate discipline and contact rates show no real significant change the last few years. His contact quality as measured by Statcast is a bit better, but just like he underachieved relative to expectations last year, he’s overachieving a bit this year. By process rather than results, Upton looks more like a guy going through regular year to year fluctuations than a star player who collapsed and then had a big bounce back.

So, if we get rid of the yearly break points and just look at what he’s done in total since signing, Upton doesn’t look that much different now than he did when he signed his contract two years ago. He’s put up a 120 wRC+, versus his career average of 121. He’s put +5.5 WAR in 1,109 PAs, equaling out to about a +3 WAR per season level of performance. In 2013-2015 years before he hit free agency, he averaged 3.2 WAR per 600 PAs.

In Detroit, Justin Upton has basically been Justin Upton. He’s a couple years older now, but he looks mostly like the same guy he looked like two years ago. And if we think Upton’s basically a +3 WAR player now, then his remaining contract would be almost exactly market value based on some basic assumptions.

Justin Upton’s Contract Estimate — 4 yr / $90.4 M
Year Age WAR $/WAR Est. Contract
2018 30 3.0 $9.5 M $28.4 M
2019 31 2.5 $9.9 M $24.8 M
2020 32 2.0 $10.4 M $20.8 M
2021 33 1.5 $10.9 M $16.4 M
Totals 9.0 $90.4 M


Value: $9M/WAR with 5.0% inflation (for first 5 years)
Aging Curve: +0.25 WAR/yr (18-27), 0 WAR/yr (28-30),-0.5 WAR/yr (31-37),-0.75 WAR/yr (> 37)

He’s signed for 4/$88M. If teams pay about $9 million per win this winter, we’d expect a +3 WAR player in his age-30 seaosn to sign a four year deal for around $90 million, as long as he didn’t have significant health risks or off-field issues. And Upton has neither of those.

But then, those assumptions don’t factor in what the market just told us about bat-first corner players last year. Teams just stopped paying for this skillset, forcing guys like Edwin Encarnacion and Mark Trumbo to settle for a fraction of their original asking prices. And that trend has continued this summer, as productive hitters like J.D. Martinez were traded for relative peanuts. Jay Bruce, in the midst of a career revival that makes him look Upton-ish, cleared waivers and was traded in a pure August salary dump deal.

Perhaps in part because the ball has made it easier for everyone to hit for power, teams have stopped valuing guys who hit the ball hard the same way they used to. Upton’s deal was the last of the big slugger contracts, and if this winter is anything like last winter, there might be more guys trying to sell their ability to hit dingers than teams looking to pay dinger-hitters.

If Upton opts-out, he’ll be opting into a free agent class that already includes Martinez, Bruce, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Logan Morrison, Lucas Duda, Todd Frazier, Carlos Gonzalez, and Curtis Granderson. Once again, there will be many options for teams looking for corner sluggers. Given what teams did last winter, and the number of alternatives with similar profiles, I don’t think Upton can realistically expect a big raise if he hits the market again this winter.

But given where the Tigers are headed, perhaps just not walking away from a significant amount of cash should be incentive enough to walk away from Detroit. Players often take less money from contending teams than they would take from rebuilding teams, and it would be perfectly rational for Upton to prefer an ~$80 million contract from a contender over an $88 million contract from a team headed for several years of losing. He’s played well enough to think that he should be able to land something in that 4/$80M range, and maybe he could push up towards 5/$100M if there’s a bidding war, so the risk of walking away from 4/$88M shouldn’t be that overwhelming.

You’d have to think his floor is probably Encarnacion’s 3/$60M deal. Encarnacion is a better hitter than Upton, but was also selling his age 34+ seasons and really only appealed to American League teams. Upton’s ability to play the field for all 30 teams, and his four-year age advantage, should make it hard for teams to argue he’s less valuable than Encarnacion was last winter.

So in terms of annual salary, I don’t think there’s much risk for Upton here. He’ll get $20 to $25 million per year from someone. If the market turns against him, it will be for three years. If the market is rational, it will be for four years. If the market starts paying for power again — doubtful, but not impossible — maybe he’ll get five years at a slightly lower AAV.

From a purely money standpoint, Upton doesn’t have a lot to gain by opting out, but it’s hard to see him ending up walking away from a lot of money either. His contract is basically still market-rate, and his next contract shouldn’t be all that different from his current contract.

But now that he knows the Tigers are headed for a rebuilding phase, it makes plenty of sense to take a similar deal from a team with a better chance to win. Even if he leaves a little money on the table, getting to a legitimate winner might be a big enough benefit to make the opt-out worth it.

So, yeah, if I was Justin Upton’s agent, I’d be preparing him to cancel the rest of his contract this winter. He won’t get a huge raise, most likely, but he’s played well enough to get this same deal with a better team, and that is a goal worth pursuing.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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6 years ago

Another thing to take into consideration is how much he cares about his legacy, and how much better counting stats he could put up in a ballpark that doesn’t suppress offense in the way comerica does. He isn’t a hall of famer, but with another half decade of solid production and an ok decline he could get himself into consideration. Voters and players themselves still care primarily about counting stats, so ballpark matters.

6 years ago
Reply to  carter

2015 is the only season out of the last five where Comerica’s park factor didn’t rank above the league average for runs and home runs. I have a hard time seeing Justin Upton working his way into Hall of Fame consideration anyway.

6 years ago
Reply to  carter

I don’t see how the park would have any factor on his next contract being as that it didn’t seem to factor into his last contract, it’s not like Comerica was build after he arrived. I would think that the fact that he hasn’t been in a WS much less won one would be a much larger factor.