Justin Upton's Second-Half Surge Is Helping the Tigers Push for a Playoff Spot
Streaky hitters can be terribly frustrating.
When they are going good, they can carry a team. Players who rattle off half a dozen home runs in a 10-game stretch are often able to serve as a rising tide, lifting all boats and being largely responsible for a team's short run of success.
Unfortunately, streaky hitters also go into prolonged slumps, most of the time for longer than their good stretches.
Such has been the case with Detroit Tigers' outfielder Justin Upton, who, by the end of most seasons, has historically put up solid numbers. How he gets there is often an adventure.
The 2016 campaign has the been the worst of his career -- by far.
After finishing each of his previous eight seasons with a wRC+ no worse than 106 (reaching 129 or more in four different seasons), Upton has struggled in his first year in the Motor City. In 533 plate appearances, he has hit .239/.296/.424 with a career-low walk rate of 6.9% -- it was 11.0% last year and 10.0% for his career -- and a strikeout rate of 28.9%.
For most of the season, Upton has been consistent, but unfortunately for him and the Tigers, he has been consistently bad.
All that has changed over the last couple weeks.
"Justin Upton has done it yet again." pic.twitter.com/fjodNME86C
— Detroit Tigers (@tigers) September 6, 2016
Folks, Justin Upton is hot again.
Through his first 81 games with Detroit, Upton had 8 homers and 37 RBI's. Over his last 14 games, he has 8 jacks and has knocked in 21 runs. That puts his season homer total at 21, just five fewer than he hit last year.
Over his last 14 games, Upton has a slash line of .327/.407/.846 with a 10.2% walk rate and 20.3% strikeout rate, both in line with his career norms. His hot streak has coincided with a drop in his strikeouts and an increase in his walks. This is probably not coincidence.
Throughout his career, Upton has always had good power the opposite way.
You can see all the home runs he hit to right and right-center from 2012 to 2015. Now, take a look at his spray chart for this season.
Only 4 of his 21 dingers this year have gone the opposite way. However, that has changed over the last two games.
Justin Upton seeing the ball well, Part II: He has as many HR to right or right-center in the last two days (2) as he had all season long.
— Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) September 6, 2016
Eye of the Tigers
Upton's hot streak has come at the right time for the Tigers. Detroit is now tied with the Baltimore Orioles for the final wild card spot in the American League, and they are just 4.5 games out in the American League Central. Justin Verlander's outstanding season and Miguel Cabrera's continued awesomeness are other keys that have fueled Detroit's emergence as a potential playoff team, but there's no doubt Upton is carrying his squadron at the moment.
Our power rankings have the Tigers slotted 9th, giving them a 62.4% chance of making the playoffs. That's significantly higher than the odds for the Orioles (40.3%) and Houston Astros (17.4%), their biggest competition for the final wild card position.
The Tigers have one of the best offenses in baseball and a rotation fronted by Verlander and possible Cy Young candidate Michael Fulmer. They are as scary as anyone. If they get to the playoffs, they can do some damage, especially with Upton swinging a hot bat.