There has been far too much talk about Justin Upton opting out of his contract at the end of the season. For the Detroit Tigers organization and the fans alike, this is by far the worst possible outcome. Bottom line, Upton is the best offensive player the Tigers have had since peak Miguel Cabrera in 2012 and 2013. Combined with an above average glove and baserunning abilities, and you have the best all around player the Tigers have had in a long time.
Upton had an atrocious month of April in 2016, after being signed to a huge six-year contract valued at $132.75 million. It was quickly looking like a really bad move by first year General Manager Al Avila. Fans were ticked, and for a good reason. Upton was signed late in the off-season, in a final effort to push the Tigers offense over the top and he was obviously not living up to expectations.
It’s almost as if Upton heard all of the talk, because since that rough month of April last season he’s been one of the top 25 hitters in all of baseball. His wRC+ of 129 and wOBA of .366 puts him 24th and 26th respectively among 139 batters with at least 800 plate appearances over that stretch. He’s also 16th in total home runs with 56 and 13th in RBIs with 170 over that same time period.
Take Two: Justin Upton hit the walk-off homer against the White Sox. pic.twitter.com/xnqnw1VtWQ— Baseball America (@BaseballAmerica) June 5, 2017
Upton doesn’t just hit home runs either, he absolutely crushes them. 40 of his 58 home runs the past two seasons have traveled at least 400 feet and 15 of those traveled at least 430 feet. Exit velocity is another metric that Upton ranks more than favorably in. Among 167 batters with 25 home runs since the start of last season, only 9 batters have a higher exit velocity than Upton’s 106.1mph average. That bodes well for Upton’s ability to sustain these power numbers for many years to come.
The only real offensive downside to Upton at all is his strikeout rate, as he has the seventh highest strikeout rate since May of 2016 with 27.2 percent. His walk rate of 10 percent overall, and 11.2 percent this season, helps outweigh the strikeouts, but the one thing that makes fans easily forget a high strikeout rate is clutch hits of course. And no hit is more clutch than a home run that helps push your team to victory.
Many Tigers fans looked to J.D. Martinez as the Tigers most clutch hitter over the past two or three seasons with Cabrera’s health issues and there would be little argument if Upton wasn’t a Tiger.
Since being signed by the Tigers, Upton has hit four game tying home runs, 20 go ahead home runs and three walk-off home runs. For comparison, from the start of 2015 through today, J.D. Martinez has seven tying and 18 go ahead home runs. So Upton has three fewer game tying home runs but two more go ahead homers and three additional walks-offs. I gave Martinez an additional full year since he was out for a chunk of both this season and last. Whether you believe in clutch hitting or not, Upton has faced down a lot of tenuous game situations and come through for his side.
The thing that really separates Upton from Martinez, and caps the argument that he’s a better all-around player, is Upton’s defensive abilities. Upton is on another planet compared to Martinez’s contributions in right field. Upton has been worth 11 defensive runs saved for the Tigers. Martinez? Negative 29 in 2016 and 2017 combined.
You can even add in the fact that Upton is undoubtedly better on the base paths as well. He can steal bases when needed whereas Martinez barely ever steals a base. In fact, Upton has 10 stolen bases this season alone, Martinez only has 15 career stolen bases. The chart below puts the two players’ performances since the start of last season into perspective.
Upton vs Martinez 2016 & 2017
With Upton beating Martinez at defense and base running by a land slide and Martinez only inching out Upton in offensive capabilities, it’s hard to argue that Upton isn’t the better overall player. At the very least he’s a more all-around player which is something you don’t find all that often in today’s game. Upton’s physical edge, both in his ability to stay healthy, and in his overall speed, also bodes well for him to remain much more productive, while Martinez is probably bound to a designated hitter role going forward.
The key reason to hope that he declines the opt-out in his contract, is that Upton is the pillar of the Tigers’ offense with Cabrera struggling and battling injuries. If Cabrera cannot get back to top form, Upton can carry the team offensively as he has for over a full season now. With the Tigers rebuilding he can be the backbone of the offense until the younger guys are ready, which helps form a bridge between the older veterans like Victor Martinez, Cabrera and Ian Kinsler to the young up and coming talent. And if, as one would expect, that Cabrera rebounds to a substantial degree next season? The Tigers will still have a very high quality heart to their batting order.
At this point we should all say a little prayer and make a sacrifice to the baseball gods in hopes that Upton doesn’t opt-out. Although there’s no denying his contract would free up a solid portion of the salary, that money isn’t going to do the Tigers a lot of good in the near term. Upton will command $22.125 million for each of the next four seasons. And while that’s a substantial investment, the Tigers are no longer likely to be a popular free agent destination. They aren’t going to be attracting Bryce Harper or Manny Machado next offseason, for example. Leaving that money invested in a fine all around player like Upton, who turned 30 on Friday, is hard to top.
By the time the team has stockpiled enough young talent to really be relevant again, money isn’t going to be an issue. The Jordan Zimmerman contract will be behind them, or close to it. Justin Verlander and Ian Kinsler will have moved on by then. If a combination of prospects and trades have built up a solid young core by that point, the payroll will be ready to support adding some finishing pieces. But if the Tigers have any hope of fielding a team worth watching next season, there’s no question they need Justin Upton in the Old English D.