Why Justin Upton Makes Perfect Sense in Detroit

News broke late last night of the Tigers signing free agent left fielder Justin Upton to a 6-year deal worth $132 million and an opt-out option after the 2nd year. Just a few days earlier, Chris Davis re-signed with the Baltimore Orioles for $161 million over 7 years, leaving Yoenis Cespedes as the last remaining marquee left fielder on the market.

I wanted to write a post breaking down this Justin Upton deal with the Tigers. Davis with the O’s makes perfect sense, and that’s where he’s been the past few years, so there isn’t as much of a need for newcomer analysis as there is with Upton. As a Tiger fan, this move could not make me happier, and I wanted to tell you why.

For most of his career, Justin Upton has been tasked with being the best hitter on the roster. There are some exceptions to that rule seeing as he has played with Paul Goldschmidt, Freddie Freeman, Evan Gattis, and Matt Kemp, but Upton has always had to be “the power guy,” as opposed to a table setter which he’ll be in Detroit. In fact, the stats show that Upton doesn’t really enjoy batting cleanup, which is where he hit last year in San Diego and in Atlanta. When he’s higher in the order, he actually slugs and gets on base at a much higher rate, particularly enticing to Tigers fans because they have a little guy named Miguel Cabrera to knock him in. According to Baseball Reference, here are Upton’s career splits via batting order:

  • 2nd (105 games): .279/.365/.504
  • 3rd (576 games): .279/.360/.472
  • 4th (277 games): .255/.328/.472
  • 5th (94 games): .270/.368/.452

Though the sample size is much smaller than the rest, Upton’s best hitting is when he is 2nd in the order, which is exactly where the pundits project him.

Looking at Upton’s three best years of his career, let’s analyze where he fits within each team and batting order.

2009: .300/.366/.532, 26 HR, 86 RBI, .360 BABIP (batting average on balls in play), 140 wRC+
Upton’s breakout year came during his age 21 season, and although the D’backs did not make the playoffs, Upton turned lots of heads. He batted 3rd in the lineup 111 games out of the 138 he played, which I am convinced was a big part of his success. Behind him was usually either Mark Reynolds, who hit 44 home runs that year, or Miguel Montero. That protection made a world of difference, allowing him to hit career highs in batting average, slugging percentage, and BABIP.
2011: .289/.369/.529, 31 HR, 88 RBI, .319 BABIP, 141 wRC+
Upton batted almost exclusively third in 2011; he played 153 games out of 159 at that position. Behind him was a platoon of Montero, Stephen Drew, and Chris Young, who all played above their average splits to give JUpton some protection. It showed again, when he hit a career high in home runs and weighted runs created plus. It was also his lowest strikeout percentage of his career.
2014: .270/.342/.491, 29 HR, 102 RBI, .332 BABIP, 134 wRC+
In his second year with the Braves, Upton saw one of his biggest power years because of his surroundings. Upton hit cleanup in 120 games that year, and was between Freddie Freeman, an OBP and contact machine, and a combination of Jason Heyward, Evan Gattis, and Chris Johnson (Upton himself hit .345 in 14 games when he batted 5th). Because Freeman got on base so much, Upton always had someone to drive in, hence his career high RBI total.

Depending on the supporting cast, Justin Upton can be a clean up hitter, though the stats speak that he succeeds elsewhere in the lineup. Joining the Tigers makes such great sense for that exact reason; with Miguel Cabrera batting 3rd and some combination of Martinez 4th and 5th, Upton will slide nicely into either the 2nd or 6th slot. He won’t be asked to hit the ball over the fence, but rather produce clean line drives (which his BABIP tells us he can do) and get on base.

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Courtesy of FanGraphs.

Though Upton does strike out more than the average bear, he does have an excellent BABIP. BABIP essentially removes strikeouts and calculates a hitter’s ability to produce line drives. Basically, when the ball is in play, does it fall for hits or are they lazy fly balls or groundouts? His career BABIPs are right at home in Detroit, who led the league in team BABIP in 2015 with .323 (compared to team average of .270). In 2009, when Upton was putting the ball in play, he was up there with the best of them. As he was forced into the clean up role later into his career, his BABIP fell closer to the league average of .297, but he saw an increase in that 2014 season when he had excellent protection. I think this year in Detroit, behind Kinsler and in front of Cabrera, we can see Upton’s BABIP return to the .315-.325 range. He’s also a decent base stealer; he won’t go very frequently but when he does, he’s hard to catch. In his career, he’s stolen 115 bases compared to being caught 44 times for a percentage of 72.3%, which is quite good. His speed will come in handy for the Tigers, who like to run freely (almost to the point of stupidity at times).

Long story short, this deal is a great fit for the Tigers. On the surface level, they got a guy with above average power and occasional speed, but with further analysis, we can see that the Tigers got the perfect piece of the puzzle to complement Cabrera and Martinez in their batting order. At only 28 years old, Upton still has his best years ahead of him in the best batting order in the American League. Expect big things from this guy.

Thanksfor reading.

Header photo courtesy of USA Today. 

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