How Does Justin Upton Fit in With the Tigers?
Despite being in the same division as the reigning World Series champion Kansas City Royals, the Detroit Tigers are not letting that impede their chances at taking home rings of their own in 2016.
They have essentially pushed all of their chips to the center of the table.
What are they getting in the deal?
A Hall of Famer in the Making?
A former number-one overall draft pick of the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2005, Upton was burdened with lofty expectations, drawing comparisons to guys like Ken Griffey Jr. Upton made his MLB debut in 2007, playing 43 games and struggling to a -0.6 Wins Above Replacement (fWAR). He played 108 games at the big league level the following season, hitting 15 home runs and improving his fWAR to 0.6. His breakout season came the following year in 2009, in which he hit 26 home runs, stole 20 bases, posted a 130 Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) -- league average is 100 -- and saw his fWAR explode to 4.9.
Over the next six seasons, Upton found varying degrees of success, never posting an fWAR of less than 2.2, and reaching a career high of 6.3 in 2011, his best offensive season (more on that later). Despite racking up the 8th best fWAR among outfielders from 2009 through 2015 (and 20th best among all hitters), Upton has carried a reputation as a bit of a disappointment. Perhaps it’s because Griffey surpassed this fWAR total in his first five seasons in the majors. OK, so maybe Upton hasn’t been playing like a Hall of Famer, but he’s been a damn good player.
Upton owns a career .357 Weighted on Base Average (wOBA), well above .320, which is roughly league average. He’s never hit fewer than 15 home runs since becoming an everyday player in 2008, including slugging at least 26 each of the last three seasons. There are only 20 players with more home runs than Upton’s 188 over this period, and of those 20 hitters, only one has more stolen bases than Upton’s 113. His 677 runs scored rank 10th best, and his 605 RBI rank 27th best in the same time frame, despite playing for a team with a top-10 run scoring offense just twice in eight seasons: the Diamondbacks in 2011 and 2012.
Taking away these two seasons, the average rank of offenses that Upton has been a part of rank slightly worse than 20th overall by runs scored. Perhaps not surprisingly, Upton’s best season to date came in 2011, in which he posted career highs almost across the board, with totals like 31 home runs, 21 stolen bases, an Isolated Power of .241, a .385 wOBA, a 141 wRC+, and his aforementioned 6.3 fWAR.
So what does this mean for his new team?
Upton's New Offense
Since Miguel Cabrera joined the Tigers in 2008, Detroit’s offense has an average rank in the top-10 (8.25) by runs scored. This includes last season in which they ranked 16th, which was due in part to Cabrera and Victor Martinez missing a combined 85 games. We’ve seen what Upton is capable of when playing in a top-10 run scoring offense, which bodes well for his 2016 season. He’s also never been surrounded in a lineup by the likes of Cabrera, Martinez, Ian Kinsler, and J.D. Martinez. This is a team that should score plenty of runs, and Upton will likely hit right in the middle of it.
However, it’s not all gravy.
Upton hit 26 home runs last season for the San Diego Padres, but 9 of them would not have been home runs at his new home stadium, Comerica Park.
— Mr. Cheatsheet (@mrcheatsheet) January 19, 2016
Despite being known as pitcher-friendly, Upton’s old home field of Petco Park allowed the 10th most home runs per game last season according to ESPN’s Park Factors, while Comerica Park allowed the fifth fewest. It wouldn’t be surprising if Upton hit fewer home runs in 2016, but his runs scored and RBI totals will at least have the opportunity to significantly increase while playing in a much better offense.
Also benefiting Upton is that he did not rely on playing at home to hit dingers, as 11 of his 26 home runs in 2015 came on the road. This roughly 42 percent rate of home runs hit on the road is just about even with his career splits, as almost 41 percent of his career home runs have come at opposing stadiums. We’ve seen that Upton is capable of producing at the plate, but how is he as a fielder?
After serving as a right fielder at the beginning of his career, Upton has become a full-time left fielder. He played that position exclusively the past two seasons with the Atlanta Braves in 2014 and the Padres last season. Upton will man the same position for the Tigers, with J.D. Martinez playing right and a combination of Cameron Maybin and Anthony Gose playing center. Upton isn’t a superb fielder, but he posted a 2.8 Ultimate Zone Rating/150 last season, which ranked third best among all left fielders.
Can Upton Help the Tigers Win it All?
The Tigers had a hole in left field, and signing Upton helped quickly fill this void. Whether he helps get them to the World Series or even a division title is yet to be seen, but regardless, he joins what should be one of baseball’s better offenses, and this greatly improves his fantasy value.
In terms of real world value, if Upton can replicate his 2011 season with the Tigers, the $22.125 million a season he’s earning will be well worth it. The signing also “only” costs the Tigers a third-round pick, as their first-round pick is protected and they sent the Washington Nationals their second-round pick as compensation for signing Zimmermann. Pitching is still a concern, however.
The Tigers’ projected fWAR for their pitching staff in 2016 is just 11.7, which is fourth worst, so there are considerable question marks still remaining for this team. It will be difficult to win slugfests consistently, which doesn’t bode well for their championship desires, but for Upton’s sake, 2016 has the potential to be the best offensive season of his career.