By: Will Burchfield
We tend to evaluate professional athletes based on their contracts. Players aren’t just good – they’re bargains. They’re not just bad – they’re busts. Their performance either justifies an expenditure or condemns it, a perception that is both foolish and unfair. Statistics should never be viewed in a vacuum, of course, but the fact remains we’re grading guys against a benchmark that someone else set for them.
When the Tigers signed Justin Upton to a six-year, $132,750,000 contract before the 2016 season, he was instantly saddled with unrealistic expectations. His resume said occasional All-Star; his salary said perennial All-Star. His numbers said 25-30 home runs; his salary said 35-40. His defensive metrics said serviceable; his salary said Gold-Glover. One could say Upton welcomed this burden by agreeing to the deal – as if anyone would ever turn down $22+ million per year – but it was the Tigers who made the offer. They set themselves up for disappointment.
Unless a player comes out on Opening Day and guarantees a certain level of production, the fairest and most realistic bar for his performance is his track record to date. This is especially true for a player of Upton’s age and experience. Entering last offseason, Upton had established reliable career averages through eight full MLB seasons, and, at 29 years old, he wasn’t liable to break out or suddenly decline. What he’d done in the past was what you could fairly expect in the future.
From 2008-2015, Upton hit .273 with an .831 OPS. He averaged 24 home runs, 76 RBI and 85 runs scored per year, with a 2.3 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Whether or not those numbers are worth $22 million per season is a matter of opinion (i.e. they’re not), but the Tigers decided to pony up.
Upton face-planted out of the gate in 2016, hitting .217 with a .590 OPS, three home runs and 11 RBI through May. He was striking out at a ghastly rate and nearly spurning walks altogether. Upton wasn’t just bad by the standard of his contract or his track record – no, he was bad period.
But he slowly came to life in June and then had a very typical month of July, hitting .278 with an .842 OPS – look familiar? August brought forth another extended slump, landing Upton on the bench for three games to clear his head and tune up his swing. Since returning to the lineup on August 20, all he’s done is hit .342 with a 1.221 OPS, five homers and 13 RBI, a hot streak that would be gaining considerably more attention if J.D. Martinez weren’t battering baseballs like overripe oranges.
Add it all up through 126 games, and Upton has a .236 average, .702 OPS, 18 homers, 59 RBI and 62 runs scored. His average and OPS are down and his strikeout-to-walk ratio (4.08) is still irredeemably bad, but Upton’s raw production is right in line with what he’s done in the past. Consider the comparison below:
2008-2015: 24 HR, 76 RBI, 85 R
2016 (prorated for 155 games): 22 HR, 73 RBI, 76 R
A slight dip? Sure – although one more hot streak will take care of that. A disregard for his average? Yes – but the Tigers don’t seem to care much about that themselves.
“Obviously his batting average isn’t where he hopes it would be, but to be honest with you, it’s not a necessity at this point,” said Andrew Romine. “Right now we just need somebody in that spot that’s gonna drive runs in.”
The soft-spoken Upton agreed.
“Average is average. If you get big hits and drive in runs in situations where your team needs it, then it’s a successful day. So you try to do something to help the team get on the board every day and hang your hat on that,” he said.
Upton’s certainly doing that now. He has accounted for 17 runs in the last 11 games, during which time the team has gone 8-3. He isn’t the only one responsible for the Tigers’ latest surge, of course, but there’s no disputing he’s right there at the top.
“I’m driving the ball a lot more now and a few of them left the park, but at this point in the season you almost don’t even wanna look up there,” Upton said, referring to Comerica Park’s left-field scoreboard that displays the players’ statistics. “You just gotta go out and play the situation of the game and try to do what’s right.”
With each successful day at the plate, Upton inches closer and closer to his career numbers. Taken on their own, they paint the picture of a productive big-league player, which, excluding two abnormally strong seasons (2011, 2015), is exactly what Upton has been for the entirety of his career. But viewed through the lens of $22 million per year, they make him look like a bust.
As if that’s his fault.
The feeling that Upton has been a letdown seems further fueled by the fact that he replaced Yoenis Cespedes in left field. The Tigers shipped Cespedes to the Mets at last season’s trade deadline and then filled the void by signing Upton a few months later. It felt like a one-for-one swap, as if the Tigers willingly chose one guy over the the other. And thus many fans looked at Upton and expected commensurate production.
“I’m sure there were some comparisons, especially because the two of them were both free agents at the same time during the offseason,” said Brad Ausmus.
Romine brushed such chatter aside.
“That’s always gonna happen,” he said. “No matter who it is that comes in or leaves, they’re always going to be compared to the person that was there right before them.
“They’re completely different players anyway, so I don’t think that it’s a very fair comparison.”
Wherein lies the disparity?
“Different swings, different approaches,” Romine explained. “It just doesn’t seem that they’re the same type of player.”
Upton never asked for the comparison nor did he promise to fill Cespedes’ shoes. But it’s another standard to which he’s being held and another filter tainting his performance. There’s no doubt Cespedes has been the better player in 2016, but that shouldn’t matter in evaluating Upton.
The Tigers may not have gotten what they paid for – and who’s to blame for that? But, for the most part, they got the player they signed.
“His average is down from what a normal year is, but the power numbers have definitely bounced back recently, and as a result some of the RBIs have gone up,” said Ausmus.
“And he’s still got some time to make hay.”