Everyone knows Justin Upton has had a tough go of things during his first season in Detroit, and it's reasonable to expect that there would be an adjustment period associated with his move to the American League-- new pitchers, new parks-- after spending his first nine seasons in the National League.
When I last checked in on Upton, in late June, things finally seemed to be heading in the right direction:
Especially exciting for Detroit was that two of [the Tigers' home runs in a win against the Mariners] came off the bat of Justin Upton, who finally appears to be heating up for his new team after suffering one of the worst offensive stretches of his career.
Upton has not continued in that direction, however; in fact, I seem to have caught him precisely at his peak. Here's an updated version that same graph from the June post, above:
That earlier snapshot of Upton's offensive production was through June 20, the date highlighted on this graph. Since then, Upton's offense is declining again, and this graph (for reasons unknown to me) doesn't even include the team's two most-recent games, in which he went 0-7, striking out four times and grounding into two double plays.
At the moment, this season is the only full one of Upton's career in which he has performed as a below-average batter, and, as the above all indicate, he's been particularly bad of late. (Like, 6-wRC+-for-the-month-of-August bad.)
After the Mariners (coincidentally, the same team against which Upton appeared to break out back in June) completed a frustrating series sweep of the Tigers in Seattle early this morning, critics corralled their critical criticisms in Upton's direction. Detroit hitting coach Wally Joyner came to Upton's defense, however:
He’s a good player. He wasn’t sitting on the corner when they gave him the contract. He’s earned it. There’s a reason for that. Remember it. Nothing’s changed. He’s just a little bit unlucky right now.
He’s not OK with it and I’m glad he’s not OK with it. He’s working hard and he’ll be fine. He’s unlucky. He’s not playing like [crap].
Is Joyner right? Has Upton, of late, merely been unlucky?
When examining luck in hitting, the first stop usually is BABIP-- batting average on balls in play. In general, significant deviations from a hitter's career BABIP suggest the influence of luck and a coming regression to career norms. If Joyner's right, we probably should see Upton's BABIP in recent games register below what we would expect for his career.
Upton's career BABIP is .328. Not bad, and just a point worse than 2016 Miguel Cabrera's BABIP, which is no surprise, since we know Upton has been a good hitter in the past. So far this season, he's posted a BABIP of .313. That's not such a significant downward departure to indicate that Upton has been an unlucky batter this year.
Isolating his August BABIP is more illuminating, though. This month, Upton has hit just .261 on balls in play, far below his career rate, and decidedly below the league average mark. This spread supports Joyner's assertion. Balls Upton has put in play have fallen for hits far less frequently than usual, suggesting that he really has been unlucky of late.
That's not enough to conclude that Joyner is correct, though. After all, BABIP is limited to balls in play and, especially for players with high strikeout profiles, only tells part of a hitter's story. Both historically and this season, Upton has such a high-strikeout profile, so the significance of BABIP fluctuations could be decreased if the problem is that he's striking out a lot more than usual.
The good news here is that he's dramatically trimmed the elevated strikeout rates that doomed his performance in the first part of the season. Yes, it's crept up a bit in August (29.7%), but it's far closer to career norms (24.5%) than the near-forty-percent rate at which he was striking out earlier this year.
Another important stop on the Batter Luck Express is batted ball type. In the absence of increased strikeout rates, a BABIP dip still might not be due to bad luck if it's the result of the hitter making weaker contact than usual. More good news for Upton on this front: his hard-hit rate has been steadily increasing this season, at the expense of softer contact.
In fact, Upton's Hard% this season (36.3%) is slightly above his career rate (34.6%). The remainder of his ball-in-play profile (e.g., line drives, fly balls, and ground balls) also generally appears to be in line with career norms.
One last piece of good news: Upton's approach at the plate-- the rates at which he swings at pitches in and out of the strike zone-- remains typical for him as well, and his associated contact rates have been improving over the course of the season:
If Upton really isn't "seeing [the ball] well," as he claimed after the Seattle series, the evidence of that lies elsewhere.
Perhaps a deeper dive into Upton's plate approach is necessary, but, for now, the above leaves us with what appears to be little more than a low BABIP, which history tells us should rebound. It looks like Joyner might know a thing or two about the game after all. Upton probably has been unlucky of late. Whether there's enough time for his luck to balance out before the regular season comes to a close in less than two months remains to be seen. In the meantime, a day or two off seems like a good idea.