This Justin Upton Looks a Lot Like Old Justin Upton

As things stand today, September 2nd, there is a two-way tie between the Orioles and Tigers for the second Wild Card spot in the American League. The Orioles, whether due to the phenomenal exploits of their closer or their inability to convince projection systems of their success, have been the focus of much discussion. It strikes me, though, that the Tigers are flying a bit under the radar. Their best players are guys we’ve talked about for years like Miguel Cabrera, Ian Kinsler, and Victor Martinez. Even J.D. Martinez’s success is starting to become yesterday’s news. Outside of the success of Michael Fulmer and Justin Verlander’s resurgence, the Tigers have suffered from being a bit boring, whether that’s fair or not.

They haven’t needed to go on a massive run to get themselves this close to playoff position, as their playoff odds have hovered around 25% for the majority of the second half and topped out at 60% in the start of August. Their current position on the very edge of playoff contention, however, is thanks in part to an 8-2 run over the last week and a half. Some of their key offensive forces — such as Cabrera and the Martinez not-brothers — have been thoroughly predictable over this stretch, but one player who stands out as being somewhat surprisingly good and productive of late is the man in the midst of a disappointing first year of a nine-figure contract: Justin Upton.

Over the past three weeks or so, Upton has been the epitome of a streaky player. From August 9th to August 18th, he took 32 plate appearances and recorded just one hit, giving him a -87 wRC+ — which is evidently a real number a hitter can post over an extended stretch. It shouldn’t surprise you to learn Upton got a day off on August 19th — a -87 wRC+ tends to inspire managers to give a guy some rest — but since his return on August 20th, he’s been an absolute monster at the plate for the Tigers. In those 46 plate appearances, he’s hit three home runs and posted a tremendous 225 wRC+. Yeah, that’ll do. If the Tigers can get the most recent version of Upton to sustain this late-season breakout, it would be a massive boost to their playoff aspirations. Is there any evidence that this mini-breakout is part of a larger trend toward a more productive Upton?

The start to Upton’s Tigers career couldn’t have gone much more poorly. In April and May, he was one of the worst players in the league. However, if you’ll forgive the arbitrary end point selected by the convenience of the calendar, things have turned around for Upton since the start of June. He hasn’t entirely returned to form, but the improvements have been significant:

Justin Upton’s 2016 & Career Stats
April-May 197 .217 .264 .326 .109 36.5% 6.1% 54
June-August 319 .248 .313 .459 .211 24.8% 7.8% 104
Career 5450 .268 .346 .467 .199 24.5% 10.0% 117

It might be impossible to identify a single biggest change for Upton as his season has begun to turnaround. He was almost unfathomably awful to start the season, so any return to normalcy would necessitate massive improvements across many different categories. The two things that stand out most directly, however, are his strikeout rate and quality of contact.

Striking out in more than a third of plate appearances isn’t a way to generate much value at the plate unless you’re a truly elite power hitter and, as the .109 ISO indicates, Upton certainly wasn’t that at the start of the season. For Upton to return to productivity, the strikeout rate was going to need to come back to Earth and it did:

Upton Rolling K%

Upton has always had a relatively low contact rates, so it’s hard to see his strikeout rate falling much further in the future; however, he’s been able to find success at this level in large part because he has a decent amount of pop. In April and May, that “pop” disappeared. His average exit velocity for those two months wasn’t horrific — perhaps a sign, in retrospect, that he would be able to turn it around. At 91.3 mph, it was in the 76th percentile among major leaguers (min. 100 batted ball events). However, that decent exit velo didn’t translate to productive power on the field.

Since our arbitrary June 1st dividing line, though, his exit velocity has been about two ticks higher, at 93.2 mph, and his standing in the league has skyrocketed:

Major League Leaders in Exit Velo Since June 1
Rank Name Average Exit Velocity
1 Nelson Cruz 95.7
2 Kendrys Morales 94.6
3 Jake Lamb 94.1
4 Mark Trumbo 93.8
5 Miguel Cabrera 93.8
6 David Ortiz 93.7
T-7 Justin Upton 93.2
T-7 Eric Hosmer 93.2
SOURCE: Statcast
(min. 150 batted ball events)

His simultaneous increase in power and contact frequency has been the key for Upton to turn around his success at the plate. By and large, Upton is back to being the player he was before signing his big contract with the Tigers. He’s a lowball hitter with power and a propensity to whiff.

As you may have noted in the first table, however, there is one area in which Upton isn’t entirely back, yet: his ability to draw free passes. If he maintains his current 7.2% walk rate on the season, it would tie his rookie season for the lowest mark of his career. There was a sizable bump in walk rate from 6.1% to 7.8% across our June 1st dividing line, but it hasn’t been enough to get his numbers back to normal. Given that his swing and contact rates have been within normal rates for him, my working theory is that his walk rate is low because pitchers have been challenging Upton in the zone more frequently:

Upton Rolling Zone% and BB%

In the chart above, you can see that, throughout the season, he’s been seeing pitches in the zone with much more frequency than usual. Overall, his 46.2% zone rate (Zone%) is the highest he’s seen since 2009. In the times when the Zone% has dipped this season, however, his walk rate has approached his recent career norms (the dotted line). It’s my expectation that, if he continues to remind pitchers that he’s a legitimate threat at the plate, his walk rate will stabilize.

The awfulness of Upton’s April and May guaranteed that his end-of-year stats would look terrible. For the first time in his career, he’ll post a full season wRC+ below 100, but the underlying trends for Upton are undeniably positive. I’m always reticent to play armchair psychologist, but it’s impossible not to wonder if the pressure of the contract or the move to a new city had an impact on Upton’s performance at the start of the season. There was also a quad injury at the end of May which caused Upton to sit for three days and could have either been a real hindrance on the start of his season or a convenient excuse to rest a struggling player. Whatever the cause, it’s increasingly safe to say that Justin Upton is back. Whether that will be enough to help the Tigers secure a postseason spot remains to be seen.

Corinne Landrey writes for FanGraphs and's Cut4 site. Follow her on Twitter @crashlandrey.

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7 years ago

It strikes me that this is little more than regression to the mean; I see no reason for his K% to fall further, as it has seemingly just returned to his career average. I was high Upton all year for this exact reason. As they say, expect back of the baseball card stats.