You may have heard by now that the most consistent thing about newly-maligned Detroit Tigers outfielder Justin Upton is his inconsistency. One month he is cold as can be, and then he looks like one of the game's top five hitters for two months. It's freakish, and there is little explanation for his Jekyll and Hyde performance. Every hitter is streaky to one degree or another, but Upton takes the concept to an extreme.
What is particularly striking is just how swiftly and unpredictably he goes sour. There is a long line of smarter, wiser baseball analysts than I who have studied Upton in detail, shrugged their shoulders, and offered the same vague answers.
One of those is BYB's own Kurt Mensching, who wrote about Upton in a piece for the Detroit News. Kurt pointed out how streaky Upton can be, and identified a reason why we should expect better things from the Tigers' $132 million man: exit velocity.
Upton’s track record is one of success. In each of the eight seasons he has played at least 100 games, he’s put up above-average numbers.
There’s no reason to believe a 28-year-old player in the prime of his career would suddenly become washed up after signing with Detroit.
But when he runs into one, like he did against the Pirates when he delivered the ball to the camera well in center field at Comerica Park, you’re reminded the power is still there.
Upton’s average exit velocity, as listed on MLB.com’s Statcast leaderboard, is 91.85 mph this season. In fact, Upton’s actually hitting the ball harder than he did last year, too.
Even now, Upton's average exit velocity has him in the company of guys like Jose Bautista, who is already in his normal, baseball destroying groove. Upton isn't off balance, getting jammed, or making weak contact off the end of the bat. He isn't getting badly fooled by movement or location so much as speed. It just looks like his timing is off at the moment.
And that "is" may be turning to "was." During the recent series with the Minnesota Twins, Upton appeared to be turning the corner. A couple of multi-hit games and one lightning bolt into the upper deck later, and fans got a glimpse of just how good he looks when he is making clean contact. He is now 10-for-21 in his last five games, good enough for a 1.143 OPS. Upton will get hot, and it's a whole lot of fun to watch when he does.
Consider his 2015 season with the San Diego Padres, for example. Upton came out of the gate hammering the ball all over the place. In both April and May, Upton hit six home runs, and posted wRC+ of 127 and 169, respectively. He looked like one of elite power hitters in the game. And then, just as quickly, it got away from him. An 80 wRC+ in June gave way to a truly dreadful mark of just 50 in July. Then, he completely turned it around, punishing pitchers in August, and posting well above average numbers again over the final two months of the season.
For four months last season, Upton averaged a wRC+ of 140.5. If that number represented a full season's work, Upton would have finished as the 13th most valuable hitter in the game. He was over 40 percent better than the league average in 2015, save for those two months in the middle of the season where it all went wrong.
Add production like that to a lineup consisting of three of the elite hitters in the game, each of whom is fully healthy, and you have the makings of an above average lineup. Then, bookend that group with Ian Kinsler and a red-hot Nick Castellanos. That is a terrifying offense to deal with if you're a pitcher. Manager Brad Ausmus can set the lineup with a Ouija board at that point. It just won't matter.
Patterns of feast and famine offense plagued the Tigers' offense in 2015. They responded by signing one of the most feast or famine hitters in the game. Yet, even with Upton in a complete funk, and Miguel Cabrera and J.D. Martinez in something of a holding pattern, the Tigers are second in the American League in runs scored per game. Upton's history tells us that good things are in store. Just hang in there a little while longer, Tigers fans. Justin Upton's feast is coming.