Melvin Upton Jr. Makes the Blue Jays a Better Team
Baseball can be a fickle beast.
Coming off of a six-year stretch (2007 to 2012) for the Tampa Bay Rays in which Melvin Upton averaged 3.7 wins above replacement (fWAR), according to FanGraphs, the Atlanta Braves offered him $75.2 million dollars to sign as a free agent. Upton accepted the five-year deal yet did little to live up to it.
He lasted two years in Atlanta and accumulated a -0.2 fWAR over his two seasons with the Braves before they shipped him to the San Diego Padres in what was essentially a salary dump for a player they had given up on.
Injuries limited Upton to 87 games (228 plate appearances) for the Padres in 2015, but he began showing signs of the player the Braves thought they were signing.
He posted a .171 ISO, a .326 wOBA, and a 110 wRC+ that season: not eye-popping numbers but a significant improvement from his days in Atlanta (.116 ISO, .266 wOBA, 60 wRC+), and very similar numbers from his time with Tampa and what earned him his big payday (.174 ISO, .337 wOBA, 110 wRC+).
Upton has played in 92 games this season (374 plate appearances), and his power is up (.183 ISO), but his wOBA (.317) and his wRC+ (100) are both slightly down from 2015. However, his counting stats are impressive -- 16 home runs, 20 stolen bases, 46 runs, and 45 RBI -- and his rare blend of power and speed has returned.
Blue Jays acquire Melvin Upton Jr. from Padres.
Upton is one of 2 players (Altuve) with 15 HR & 20 SB this season. pic.twitter.com/DpuXcwaPVQ
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) July 26, 2016
With an outfield that already consists of Jose Bautista, Kevin Pillar and Michael Saunders, the Toronto Blue Jays might not seem like they need another outfielder, but it didn't stop them from acquiring Upton for 19-year-old pitcher Hansel Rodriguez, who has not thrown above the rookie-level in Toronto's farm system.
The Blue Jays apparently see Upton as a "complementary" player, but Toronto would be wise to give him regular playing time.
#BlueJays see Melvin Upton as a complementary player who gives them versatility, speed and OF defence, plus an extra year of control
— Shi Davidi (@ShiDavidi) July 26, 2016
Despite having a .317 wOBA that ranks just below the current league average (.318) and a 100 wRC+ that is slightly above the current league average (96), Upton can still serve as an upgrade to Toronto's roster.
In addition to being one of only seven players with 20 or more steals this season, Upton is also a skilled runner on the bases outside of being able to swipe them.
Only three players with 20 steals or more have a better Base Running (BsR) total than Upton, an "all encompassing" FanGraphs metric that includes things like a runner's ability to take an extra base.
Upton's 4.2 BsR ranks 15th-best this season, whereas no member of the Blue Jays has a BsR of higher than 0.7. He easily becomes the best runner Toronto now has, with the ability to do things like this:
In addition to his speed, Upton also improves the Blue Jays as a defensive unit. His presence on the club allows Bautista to serve as the team's designated hitter and takes him out of right field. We all know what Bautista can do at the plate, but his -11.1 UZR/150 in right field ranks third-worst among right fielders with at least 500 innings played at the position this season.
Upton primarily played left field for the Padres this season and posted a 5.6 UZR/150, which ranks fifth-best among qualified left fielders this season. Despite incumbent left fielder Saunders being a poor fielder -- his -15.1 UZR/150 easily ranks worst this season among qualified left fielders -- his .387 wOBA will likely keep in him in everyday lineup. However, Upton would be a clear defensive upgrade should Saunders get some designated hitter starts as well.
Pillar has been baseball's best defensive outfielder this season (31.5 UZR/150), but his performance at the plate has been poor (.296 wOBA, 80 wRC+).
If the Blue Jays want to sacrifice some defense for offense, they could sit Pillar down and start Upton in center field. He has plenty of experience at the position -- it's what he primarily played in Tampa and in Atlanta -- and he's shown his ability to hold his own out there in limited playing time this season as well.
Melvin Upton Jr. robs JJ Hardy of a home run and doubles up Trumbo. pic.twitter.com/nJFNBrQs3e
— DFSDAILYBEST (@DFSDAILYBEST) June 29, 2016
It's just a guess, but my assumption is that Toronto will play Upton in right field. This shifts Edwin Encarnacion to first base (with Bautista taking over as the designated hitter) and takes Justin Smoak out of the lineup, who has been a worse defender at the position this season than Encarnacion.
Upton's speed and defensive abilities should serve as an upgrade to Toronto's roster, but he does come with some downside at the plate.
His 28.3 percent strikeout rate is the 10th-highest this season, and his 16.3 percent swinging-strike rate is the worst of his career. He's going to strike out a bunch in Toronto, but it's not all bad.
When Upton does make contact, he's hitting the ball harder than ever. Besides his first full season in the big leagues (2007), Upton's hard-hit rates in San Diego have been the next two highest totals of his career. It's helped restore his power back to close to his pre-Atlanta days. (Graph courtesy of FanGraphs.)
Upton's home run total shouldn't see a significant boost from moving home stadiums -- Rogers Centre is just behind Petco Park in terms of ESPN's home run park factors -- but with the ability to hit moonshots, 11 of his 16 home runs this season have traveled at least 404 feet, where he plays shouldn't matter much.
Use this walk-off against Andrew Miller as proof.
Crushed. That was one of just three home runs Miller has allowed to right handed hitters this season.
A Good Bet
The Blue Jays are likely not getting the same player that Upton was with the Rays -- he's on a 162-game pace for a 2.6 fWAR this season, something he bested in every season with Tampa except one -- but with San Diego paying all but $5 million of what is left on Upton's contract (he's making $15.45 million this season and is due $16.45 million next season), this is a low-risk move with a potential high payoff.
Our projections currently give the 56-44 Blue Jays a 74.1 percent chance of making the playoffs and a 31.0 percent chance of winning the division. With the Baltimore Orioles and Boston Red Sox also holding percentages to win the division above 30 percent, the battle for the American League East crown will be a tight one.
Improvements of any kind to rosters could prove to be the difference maker, and we might be looking at one in Upton.