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Angels smart to re-up a much-needed J-Up

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At 5/106, the deal is mutually beneficial for both parties.

Texas Rangers v Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Well, I’ll be darned. Billy Eppler wastes no time in taking action in offseason moves. For the third year in a row—Andrelton Simmons, Cameron Maybin, and now Justin Upton—the Angels General Manager has struck first or made the first major move of the offseason. When Eppler describes himself as “opportunistic”, one should take heed. There’s a reason it brings up thousands of search results.

It’s more than just an ebullient catch phrase for this GM, whose actions embody the adjective as much as that of any executive in baseball.

It should be no surprise then, that Eppler put this into practice once again, re-signing Justin Upton to a 5-year, $106 million deal equipped with a full no-trade clause. This was a deal that had been in the works for a while, and now it finally comes to fruition.

At first glance, this is solid value for a premier power-hitting outfielder who posted a five win season. Most members believed Upton would receive a fifth year at a slightly higher annual value. This was not the case as Upton not only agreed to take a pay cut, but also agreed to the salaries being backloaded so the Angels could add more talent for upcoming seasons.

The outfielder has always had a reputation as an infamously streaky hitter throughout his career, and for good reason. But for the past ten months of baseball, that’s not the case. Upton has consistently hit well above average for not just months but extended periods of time. Since the 2016 All-Star Break, Upton owns a 138 wRC+ (38% above average at the plate), which places him 18th in all of baseball (min. 700 PA).

Justin Upton, wRC+ by month

Month wRC+ 3-month moving average, wRC+
Month wRC+ 3-month moving average, wRC+
2016 June 103 70
2016 July 121 95
2016 Aug 88 104
2016 Sep/Oct 196 135
2017 Mar/Apr 155 146
2017 May 85 145
2017 June 146 129
2017 July 157 129
2017 Aug 153 152
2017 Sep/Oct 137 149
Recall that an average wRC+ is 100 and higher is better. A 110 wRC+ is a hitter that is 10% above average at the plate.

The three-month moving average of wRC+ is to provide a bigger sample size, to demonstrate the outfielder’s improvements aren’t a fluke. As you interpret the third column, keep in mind that I assumed plate appearances per month are equally weighted to simplify calculations and take the average of the previous three months. They are not equally weighted, however, as managers don’t maniacally insist his power-hitting outfielder gets exactly x plate appearances per month.

His newfound plate discipline might have been what made him an irresistible commodity to Eppler. He still struck out 28 percent of the time, but raised his walk rate by nearly four percentage points for a .361 OBP, bringing it to 11.7% (league average = 8.5%). And while he has been aided by the juiced ball to a certain extent, hitting 35 dingers in 2017, he always has been hitting homers—he averaged 26.2 HR from 2011-2015.

For his career, the slugger owns a 121 wRC+, which is 48 points off Mike Trout’s total, but hey, not all heroes wear capes. The Angels are better off than they were two days ago, but there’s more to Upton than just his skills at the plate.

Even though he is a premier power-hitter, Upton holds a diversified skillset that adds up to a high floor. Upton’s athletic abilities are on display on the bases and in the field. A speed score of 4 shows he still runs well for a 30-year old of his build, and he uses that speed to run the bases well, recording a 10.2 BsR (baserunning runs above average) over the past three years. Given that roughly ten runs are equivalent to one win, Upton has been worth 1 WAR from his legs alone during that stretch. As a player entering his age-30 season, he’s not going to get any faster but he shouldn’t be a liability on the basepaths, cumulatively speaking.

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Los Angeles Angels Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

And while Upton’s defense during his first month in Anaheim was rough (mostly due to losing multiple balls in the lights and miscommunication, but that’s another story in itself), his body of work in left field speaks for itself. UZR disapproved of his arm in 2016, gifting him a -6.6 Outfield Arm runs above average, the only detectable blemish in the past three years. It may be difficult to put into perspective when most Angels fans have only seen a month of J-Up, but he should be able to hold his own in left field. He has the physical tools, and unlike Maybin, this will be Upton’s sixth year manning left field.

Justin Upton’s defense, 2015-17

Year Defensive Runs Saved UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating)
Year Defensive Runs Saved UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating)
2015 8 2
2016 1 -6
2017 8 2.1

In short, Justin Upton hits well, runs well, fields well and shows no signs of a deteriorating skillset. Predicting a player’s aging curve is often a fool’s errand, but what we do know that some players age better than others. Upton has a good chance of being worth his contract at the tail end, which is not something one could say regarding that of Albert Pujols or Josh Hamilton. Upton, on the other hand, has a good chance of providing surplus value.

Let’s calculate that.

Surplus value calculations for Justin Upton

Year (Age) $/WAR Projected WAR Value AAV Surplus value
Year (Age) $/WAR Projected WAR Value AAV Surplus value
2018 (30) 11.1 4 44.4 21.2 23.2
2019 (31) 11.7 3.5 40.95 21.2 19.75
2020 (32) 12.4 3 37.2 21.2 16
2021 (33) 13.2 2.5 33 21.2 11.8
2022 (34) 13.9 2 27.8 21.2 6.6
TOTAL (in millions $) 15 183.35 106 77.35

The dollar per WAR figures were taken from a July study and projection of free-agent pricing. While Upton had a strong performance last year and I believe he will fall between four and five wins, I set his projected WAR starting at 4 as a conservative estimate. From there, each additional year is decreased by 0.5 wins, which is how much aging curves dictate the average 30 or older player will lose due to aging.

Value is that year’s free agent price of WAR multiplied by number of wins produced (both figures are projected, since this is forward-looking). AAV, average annual value, is simply the total contract value over the number of years. Surplus value is calculated as subtracting AAV from Value. Aside from the ‘Projected WAR’ column, all data is in millions of dollars.

The break-even point for the deal to have zero surplus value would be around $7 million per WAR. There's margin for error built into this deal, which is nice.

If you believe he will be a 4.5 win player next year and age normally, his surplus value would grow to $108.5 million, as opposed to the $77.35 million shown in the above table. If his plate discipline abilities hold, there’s reason to believe he will reach the upper end of projections.

Eppler expressed the importance of togetherness in comments to the media regarding the move, saying “we just focused on our relationship and didn’t consider other alternatives. We wanted to keep this union together and he did too.”

It made a lot of sense to retain Justin Upton. It also made a lot of sense for Justin Upton to stay in Anaheim. Left field, check. What’s next?

For Billy Eppler, it’s whatever opportunity presents itself.