After two down, injured-riddled seasons, there were major questions surrounding Justin Upton heading into the 2021 season.
The 33-year-old Upton had already put together quite a career, regardless of what occurred this season and beyond. With 36.5 Wins Above Replacement (Fangraphs) and 307 career home runs, nobody was doubting the superb career he’d had to date. That said, Upton was a replacement-level player from 2019-2020 (negative 0.3 fWAR). The once-superb power had dwindled and the production as a whole had tanked entering later into his 30’s.
Upton, however, has rebounded in a major way in 2021. Through the first 56 games of the season, Upton is basically performing in line with his career norms. In fact, in many ways, he’s performing above his career norms. His .490 slugging percentage is .15 points higher than his career average (.475). His 127 wRC+ is seven points higher than his 120 career wRC+. You might think his .237 batting average isn’t great, until you realize that the league average this year is .238. Put simply, Upton is crushing baseballs like his vintage self.
Let’s explore what has gone into this resurgence and has made Upton an integral part of the Angels offense.
Upton’s crushing baseballs again
Perhaps the most obvious sign that Upton is back has been his ability to crush baseballs. It was a bit jarring to see Upton posting a slugging percentage in the low-.400’s in back-to-back seasons from 2019-2020. Upton was simply not himself or fully healthy (more on this later), which showed in the most important area for him: his power.
That power is back in a major way this season. As mentioned before, he’s slugging at a higher clip (.490) than his career norm (.475) and is slugging at his best rate since the 2017 season. Upton is on pace for a 38-home run season (150-game pace), which would surpass his career-best 35 home runs in the 2017 season. All of the underlying numbers and indicators back this up, too. His expected slugging percentage of .492 is a near-match to his actual .490 SLG. His 13.7 barrel percentage is the highest since the 2018 season, when he crushed 30 home runs. His 48.1 percent hard-hit rate would be the best of any season in the Statcast era.
This power resurgence likely started last September/October, however, when Upton hit .284/.368/.567 in the final month of the season. That power streak has carried over in the 2021 season.
Upton is thriving in the leadoff spot
Did moving to the leadoff spot turn Upton’s season or did he just happen to start getting hot then? Which came first: the chicken or the egg? Whatever the case might be, Upton has absolutely crushed it since moving to the leadoff spot about three weeks ago. After not leading off a single time in his career, he has made 17 starts as the leadoff hitter this season. In those games (77 plate appearances), he’s hitting .333/.442/.651 with a 196 wRC+.
Perhaps, there was a mental shift for Upton in this transition, who has been way more selective at the plate as the leadoff hitter. In those games, he’s walking 16.9 percent of the time and has seen his strikeout rate drop to a more manageable 26 percent. With the improvement in plate discipline has come an uptick in power. He’s hit five home runs in his 17 games as the leadoff hitter.
This could very well be small-sample noise and a coincidental hot streak that coincided with moving to the leadoff spot. Regardless, Upton’s been crushing baseballs for weeks and showing a newfound approach at the plate.
Upton is healthy again
This might be the most important improvement for Upton. Upton was both injured and bad in a lost 2019 season, where he posted a career-worst 90 wRC+ in just 63 games (fewest outside of his rookie season and pandemic season in 2020). 2020 treated him ever-so-slightly better when he posted a 94 wRC+ but was dreadful and borderline unplayable in the first month of the shortened season. The decline in power was the most noticeable issue but there was another important area of decline: his sprint speed.
Upton has always been a sneaky fast player who had above-average sprint speeds during the first handful of seasons in the Statcast era. During the aforementioned 2019-2020 stretch of injuries and poor performance, Upton was a below-average runner. This year, his sprint speed is back up (27.5 feet/second) and has made him an above-average runner again. Sprint speed can be a meaningful indicator of health, which coincides with his power improvements this year.
Given that he was entering his age-33 season, it was no guarantee that these injuries would simply go away. To this point, they have and we’re seeing a vintage Justin Upton as a result.
Upton had known nothing but success in his MLB career for so long. From 2008-2018, Upton was an above-average hitter in every season, often well above that. When the injuries and bad performances hit during the 2019-2020 seasons, it was a possible indicator that Upton could be hitting a decline phase in his career. That would’ve been a totally normal assumption to make given he was 33 years old and had playing in the majors since age 19.
Instead of continuing his decline, Upton has reversed course in the biggest way. As mentioned before, Upton’s power stroke is back and some of that athleticism that was sapped, due to injuries, has returned. This is not just a great development for Upton but also for the Angels. With no Mike Trout for the next month or so, a revolving door in right field, and Jo Adell/Brandon Marsh still in Triple-A, Upton is really holding the fort down in the outfield. It’s been an awesome revelation for many reasons, perhaps most importantly just seeing Upton having fun and crushing it on a baseball field yet again.
As Justin Upton has heated up in recent weeks, so have the Angels. It’s probably not a coincidence that the Angels have gone 13-5 during their last 18 games, the same time that Upton has been crushing it. It’s been a great development for Upton and one the Angels hope continues as the team has inched closer to a playoff spot in recent weeks.