On April 27, 2016, Justin Upton went hitless in five at-bats with three strikeouts. That dropped his OPS to an abysmal .501 20 games into the young season, leaving fans wondering how they would be able to deal with watching him for another six years.
In the calendar year since then, Upton has been straight-up clubbing baseballs. After a scalding finish to 2016, he has been even more impressive since the start of this season: .275/.389/.525 with a 155wRC+. Upton has been the heart of Detroit’s offense when they’ve needed them most with Miguel Cabrera and J.D. Martinez hurt.
Upton’s issues early last year stemmed from problematic plate discipline. As most sluggers are, he has always been prone to swinging and missing, but in April and May of 2016 he whiffed a lot more against off-speed pitches than any hitter can successfully manage. Since then, he has made steady improvements in plate discipline.
Upton has been more selective thus far this year: his 42.5 percent swing rate is on pace to be the lowest he has posted in seven years. His swinging strike rate, after hovering dangerously high at 13.3 percent in 2015 and 12.4 percent in 2016, is down to a much more manageable 11.4 percent in 2017.
The numbers bear out Upton’s more selective approach at the dish. Taking as many pitches as he has tends to put Upton deep into the count, leading to a very high 31.6 percent strikeout rate. On the flip side, getting so deep into the count has also allowed Upton to draw a walk in 14.7 percent of his plate appearances. Furthermore, his selective approach has allowed Upton to hit for power, and lots of it: his .263 ISO ranks 27th in the MLB thus far.
While Upton is unlikely to have permanently turned into a Thome-esque Three True Outcomes slugger overnight, his passive approach at the dish has allowed for a trend in that direction. His zone map is typical of a pull-happy slugger.
Small sample caveats, as always, apply to this chart. The trend from April is clear, though. Throw Upton an inside pitch and he is wont to put it into the bullpen. Outside pitches have been a bit more of a struggle, as evidenced by his whiff profile:
Being a Three True Outcomes slugger has its advantages and its drawbacks. Upton probably won’t keep hitting .280 if he strikes out 30 percent of the time- his .378 BABIP is buoyed by an exceptional 20 percent barrels per batted ball event, but still likely a bit unsustainable- but he will likely continue to post a good OBP and SLG if he walks 12 or so percent of the time and turns on the inside pitch. It is a slightly different kind of effective than the well-rounded five tool player of the past, but less effective does not mean ineffective. As long as he continues to hit the snot out of the ball when he makes contact, Upton’s production to the Tigers will be a huge positive in 2017.