*Disclaimer: I wrote this piece before Justin Upton decided to homer on Monday night’s game vs the Astros*
When Justin Upton agreed to a five-year, $108 million extension with the Angels in the fall of 2017, it seemed like a perfectly rational decision.
Acquired in August of 2017 for a package of mid-tier prospects, Upton finished off his 2017 season with a strong stint with the Angels (136 OPS+). Cumulatively, Upton was worth 5.2 wins in 2017 and had developed a strong track record of producing. From 2009-2017, Upton’s peak big league seasons, Upton was the 19th-most valuable position player by fWAR (33.9). Upton had a sub-2 win just once in that span, just missing with 1.9 WAR in 2016.
Upton continued mashing in 2018, his first full season with the Angels. He slugged 30 home runs, posted a 123 wRC+, and was worth 3.1 wins. The poor defense (negative 6 Outs Above Average) and situational hitting (79 wRC+ with RISP) made him a bit of an enigma but he was still a productive, middle-of-the-order bat. With a $21.6 million AAV (Annual Average Value), a totally fair rate for a 3-win player, it seemed perfectly reasonable to expect Upton to live up to his contract. Entering his age-31 season in 2019, nobody predicted what was to come from Upton and his downward trajectory to this point.
The major red flags in 2019
Justin Upton endured his worst MLB season in 2019. There was no sugarcoating the fact that Upton posted career-worst marks in AVG (.215), OBP (.309), SLG (.416), wRC+ (92), and WAR (negative 0.2). Injuries played a pivotal role in limiting Upton to just 63 games. A toe sprain suffered just before Opening Day and knee tendinitis really derailed his season from the start, leading to a disappointing performance in a disappointing season. The hope, however, was that the injuries solely explained Upton’s performance and he would bounce back in 2020.
That has not happened. In fact, Upton has spiraled in a downward direction. Upton is currently rocking a negative wRC+ (negative 1) and WAR (negative 0.8), placing him near the bottom of the league in both categories (Note: now an 11 wRC+ and a -0.7 WAR mark). The injury explanation was true for Upton but that, unfortunately, didn’t mean that pre-injury Upton was coming back; it meant that this was the new version we’d see.
Unfortunately, two fairly big injuries in your 30’s are a red flag in itself and you can’t just expect those to go away in your post-prime years. Add in the fact that Upton had a lot of wear-and-tear, appearing in over 1,500 games since his 2007 debut at age 19, and you had a recipe for disaster. Those injuries seemed to have taken a lot away from Upton’s game, which can be found in two major categories.
The inability to crush baseballs
First and foremost, the sheer ability to crush baseballs has evaporated. From 2009-2017, only 10 players hit more home runs than Upton’s 239 dingers. From 2015-2018, the first four years of the Statcast era, Upton consistently barreled up baseballs with the best hitters in baseball. Barrel rate, which Statcast defines as a “well-struck ball that leads to a minimum .500 batting average and 1.500 slugging percentage“, has Upton in the top 20 from 2015-2018. Upton’s 11.8 percent barrel rate essentially means that more than 10 percent of his plate appearances ended in well-struck baseballs. The drop from that level to 2019 and the drop from 2019 to 2020 is staggering.
|Exit Velocity||Barrel rate||Launch Angle|
|2015-2018||90.2 mph||11.8 percent||14.8 degrees|
|2019||87.2 mph||10.3 percent||18.5 degrees|
|2020||86.9 mph||2.6 percent||25 degrees|
Upton isn’t just not slugging anymore; he’s slugging with some of the weakest contact producers in the sport. Upton is barreling pitches in just 2.6 percent of his plate appearances this year. Among the many names around Upton? Cesar Hernandez, Austin Barnes, Tony Kemp, and J.P. Crawford. Not exactly guys you’d consider middle-of-the-order sluggers. Similarly notable, Upton isn’t hitting the ball as hard and he’s getting the wall in the air way too much. These are clear and obvious three-year trends that are hard to ignore. Upton is not the hitter he once was (obviously). There’s another red flag in his game that signals that his athleticism has left him.
Sprint speed, one of the many incredibly useful statistics from Statcast, calculates the average speed of runners. The numbers show that the average runner in baseball is around 27 feet-per-second. Justin Upton was comfortably above that mark in the first four years of Statcast (2015-2018). He peaked in 2017, when he was at 28.3 feet-per-second, which put him in the 80th percentile in all of baseball. People may forget the fact that Upton was a premier athlete who has swiped 147 bases in his career, including 14 in 2017.
That speed has vanished the past two years. Upton is not exactly slow, at least by Statcast’s 27 feet-per-second criteria, but he’s been below that number each of the last two seasons. After settling in around 28 feet-per-second, Upton fell to 26.9 feet last year and 26.7 this year. His average home-to-first time in 2017 was 4.35 seconds. Last season, that number was up to 4.55 seconds. This is another clear three-year trend where Upton is trending in the wrong direction. Upton’s speed was going to decline in his 30’s but the combination of the reduction in both power and speed is not encouraging.
Is there any hope? What’s next?
It’s hard to feel optimistic about Justin Upton turning it around in an Angels uniform. Beyond the surface-level statistics, Upton’s entire profile has completely fallen apart. The previous elite ability to crush baseballs is gone. The once-strong speed that made him a passable left fielder and strong baserunner is gone. Basically, the original version of Justin Upton, once one of the most valuable players in the game, is gone. It’s a decline that is both sad to watch from a human perspective—and for the Angels, from a financial perspective. Upton has been a good dude who has put together an incredibly strong MLB resume, a guy who has been a strong producer and teammate in the majors for over a decade.
Unfortunately for Upton and for the Angels, this is a relationship that is trending in the wrong direction. Upton is owed $51 million from 2021-2022. It’s hard to envision that Upton finishes up his contract in Anaheim. There also isn’t a clear direction for how the club handles this. The promotion of Jo Adell, future promotion of Brandon Marsh, and the emergence of Brian Goodwin have left Upton out of time to hold down a real starting gig now. There’s not an obvious next decision to make with this much money left on Upton’s contract.
For Upton’s sake and for the Angels’ sake, a bounceback to some level of productivity is healthy for both parties. Unfortunately, there’s not much in Upton’s game to be very optimistic about.
Photo credit: Keith Allison, Wikimedia Commons