Less than 12 months ago, concern turned to anger as fans wondered how on earth Justin Upton tricked the Detroit Tigers front office so badly. One of the biggest signings off the offseason — earning over $22 million a year — was hitting just .228/.286/.369 with 73 wRC+ after three months in Detroit. Upton is a notoriously streaky player, but this was more than a minor slump. The outlook for the next six years looked bleak.
Almost a full year later, these concerns seem laughable. Upton leads the team with 13 homers this season, ranking third with 125 wRC+ and second with 1.9 fWAR. He has played like a top-30 outfielder in the majors, and paired with J.D. Martinez, few teams can match the Tigers’ mashing corner outfield duo.
Since last July, Upton has put up some of the best numbers of his career. His 36 home runs during this stretch are more than he has hit during a single season and his 132 wRC+ would be the second-highest result of his career. Conversely, his pace to start 2016 steered him toward easily the worst numbers as a major leaguer.
Justin Upton’s Detroit Tenure
|4/16 - 6/16||0.228||73||2.8%||34.2%|
|7/16 - 6/17||0.265||132||7.0%||41.8%|
On paper not much changed. The default answer in baseball is often luck, but Upton actually owned a higher BABIP (.314) in his first three months as a Tiger than he has since (.310). Patience may have played a role, as he was striking out more and walking less, but these nuances are too small to account for such a drastic change in results. His approach was fairly similar too, as he was pulling the ball and lifting the ball in the air just as frequently as he has been since his rough start.
The biggest noticeable difference is simply his ability to crush the ball. With a hard-hit percentage nearly reaching 42 percent, Upton has never made solid contact so consistently before in his career. Remarkably, he only falls in the middle of the pack among his teammates with this rate, but he is able to turn this contact into results with better frequency.
Homers are not everything, but they do represent a significant portion of Upton’s value. Despite all of his troubles last season, he still started the year with eight dingers. As seen in the chart above, they mainly came from the upper part of the strike zone. In fact, on pitches in the bottom section of the zone or below, Upton hit just two homers from the 96 pitches he put in play from April-June 2016.
In the year since then, Upton has put almost 200 more pitches in play from this part of the plate, but the results could not be more different. Nineteen of these balls have gone out for home runs, accounting for over half of his homers during this span.
This trend has been a theme for Upton in 2017. Arguably just one of his 13 homers this season (all shown below), his solo shot against the Angels on May 13, has come from the upper part of the plate; the rest he has driven from the bottom of the zone.
Continuing to make strong contact from this area will bring about the type of results Tigers fans hoped for when Upton was first signed. With the way he swings and generates power from later in the zone, he has a chance to do damage with every at bat if he chooses his pitches wisely. Upton will still be prone to peaks and valleys, but thankfully the first three months in Detroit did not foreshadow what was to come.