On August 31, the Angels acquired Justin Upton from the Tigers in exchange for a pair of right-handed pitchers, Grayson Long and Elvin Rodriguez. In the second year of a six-year, $132.75 million deal, Upton was in the midst of the second-best season of his career, and the move positioned the Angels to make a late-season postseason push, though they ultimately came up short.
The Angels were able to land Upton for the low cost of two minor league pitchers because his contract includes an opt-out clause after this season and with the Tigers entering a rebuilding phase, he was likely to elect free agency, and leave the final four years of his contract behind. Even after having success in Anaheim and the Angels intending to remain competitive for the foreseeable future, however, Upton still reportedly plans to exercise his opt-out clause.
Opting out doesn’t necessarily mean he wants to leave Anaheim. As has been reported, it may simply be a way for him to negotiate a more lucrative contract with the Angels.
Regardless, the best-case scenario for the Angels involves Upton manning left field for them next season, whether it’s by opting into his current contract or signing a new one.
Upton By the Numbers
The Angels’ struggle to find consistent left-field production recently has been well-documented, and last year was more of the same before Upton came to town. Before the trade, Angels left fielders ranked 27th in park-adjusted offense, hitting .244/.315/.341 with seven home runs. After the trade, Upton hit .245/.357/.531 with seven home runs of his own. Post-trade, the Angels suddenly owned the best left-field production in baseball.
For the season, Upton led American League left fielders in WAR (5.0) and slugging percentage (.540), finished second in homers (35) and wRC+ (137, where 100 is average), and third in on-base percentage (.361). Upton provided the Angels with exactly what they had been searching for for so long. This wasn’t some sort of fluke, either; Upton has averaged 3.6 WAR per season since 2009, and his 32.8 WAR in that time ranks second among left fielders.
One of the biggest knocks on Upton’s game throughout his career has been his inconsistency. One month, he could be the best hitter in the game, and the next, he could be the worst.
Take 2014, for instance, when his monthly OPS from April through September looked like this: 1.041, .877, .617, .903, .946, .559. Or 2015, when he hit an outstanding .307/.368/.545 in the first two months of the season only to disappear for the next two, posting an abysmal .587 OPS, and finish the season on a tear, enjoying a 132 wRC+ over the final two months.
But that hasn’t been the case for Upton recently. In nine months of baseball since July 2016, Upton’s monthly OPS has fallen below .842 only twice, and his low points were not nearly as low as they were in previous seasons. In addition, his wRC+ was between 137 and 157 every month but one in 2017.
If the overall results are there at the end of the season, as they have almost always been for Upton, a player’s volatility doesn’t necessarily mean a whole lot. However, knowing what to expect from a player every day certainly isn’t a bad thing, and Upton has improved in that regard.
Upton in the Future
All of that success is in the past, though, and it all took place in the prime of Upton’s career. He’s now 30 years old, and if Upton opts into his contract, he’ll be with the Angels through his age-33 season; a renegotiated deal could lead to him being under contract for even longer.
While it’s impossible to predict exactly how well a player will age, there aren’t any obvious signs that Upton will age poorly.
First of all, Upton has little injury history; he has played in at least 149 games every year since 2011. Upton is also not a stationary, one-dimensional slugger whose body is destined to fail him. Rather, as evidenced by his baserunning and fielding skills, he’s very athletic.
By FanGraphs’ baserunning metric, Upton was the 10th-best baserunner among 52 qualified outfielders last year, just behind Mike Trout. This is a skill that he has shown since the beginning of his career, rating as the 18th-best baserunning outfielder since he debuted in 2008. Furthermore, he has stolen 14 or more bases six times in his career.
In the field, Upton accumulated eight Defensive Runs Saved this year and has 17 since 2015. Those aren’t spectacular numbers for a left fielder by any means—he was about average by Statcast’s Outs Above Average last year—but they show that he can at least hold his own out there, meaning that he shouldn’t become a liability in the field or be forced into a full-time DH role any time soon.
When a player’s age begins to take its toll, his plate discipline is one of the first things to be negatively effected. For example, Albert Pujols’ chase rate increased almost 10% between 2008 and 2011, from 21.4% to 31%. And his walk rate dropped from 14.7% in 2010 to under 10% for the first time in his career the following season, the year before he hit free agency. These factors combined to make a severe decline in production rather predictable.
Teams would be rightfully reluctant, then, to sign a player with numbers like those to a long-term deal (Hmm...), but Upton’s do not resemble Pujols’ in the slightest. Upton’s chase rate has increased marginally each of the last three years, culminating in the outfielder swinging at 26.9% of pitches out of the zone in 2017. However, that’s still far from his career-high rate of 30.3%, which he reached in 2014, and only slightly higher than his career mark of 25.9%.
He also matched the second-best walk rate of his career in 2017, drawing a free pass 11.7% of the time. And Upton’s swinging strike rate sat at 12.5% this season, which is in line with his career rate of 12.2%.
He struck out 28.3% of the time this season compared to 25.6% in 2015, but, again, it wasn’t a career high, and the league’s strikeout rate has gradually increased over the last few years as well, so this isn’t all that alarming, especially considering Upton increased his power numbers significantly, too.
Upton’s Importance to the Angels
Brandon Phillips and Yunel Escobar being free agents this winter means that the Angels already have a lot to accomplish this offseason, and Upton opting out would only complicate the matter, as they would then be in need of three everyday players; a third of their starting lineup would be vacant.
If Upton stays, and the Angels check left field off of their offseason shopping list early on, they can focus their time and resources on second and third base in addition to other areas of need. There will be other corner outfielders available in free agency, but Upton would be no worse than the second-best one available, behind J.D. Martinez.
Therefore, Upton would be highly coveted by at least a few other teams, and the Angels could very well get stuck in a long, drawn-out competition for his services if he does hit the free-agent market. In this scenario, the Angels might then be forced to put other moves on hold as they wait for Upton’s decision, which could cause them to miss out on players that would be of great help if Upton ultimately decided to take his talents elsewhere.
Because the salaries of a number of players—including Phillips, Escobar, Josh Hamilton, Huston Street, and Ricky Nolasco—will be coming off the books, the Angels will have room to spend. But they still have a difficult winter ahead of them, and Upton opting into the remaining four years, $88.5 million of his contract—or even renegotiating his contract relatively quickly—would allow the Angels to develop a clear plan of attack for the offseason as soon as it begins.
Oh, and they would also have one of the best left fielders in the game on their roster at a fair price for the next few seasons. That sounds like a pretty good deal to me.