Justin Upton: A Potential Value Trap for the Tigers

Justin Upton’s recent $132.75M/6-year contract with the Tigers does not seem, on the surface, like an outrageous contract. And right now it isn’t; at age 28, Justin should be hitting his prime. Since breaking in with the Diamondbacks, he has been a consistent power threat in a league where consistent power bats are few and far between. To pay $22 million for an outfielder that the Tigers control for two years, potentially six years (Upton has an opt-out clause after two seasons), does not sound extreme when you consider other contracts signed by young, dynamic outfielders; in fact the contract came in below MLB Trade Rumors’ projection of a 7-year/$147 million deal[1]. So why anyone would be concerned about Justin Upton’s deal? Maybe it’s the fact that it took a while for his market to develop this offseason, or maybe it is because he shares the same bloodline as Melvin (formerly known as B.J.) Upton whose production went in the tank after his age-28 season? I get the feeling that Justin could end up as a bad investment for the Tigers. Here’s why.

Exit Speed and Park Factors

Fortunately for Justin, he is getting out of the notorious pitcher’s kingdom that is Petco Park. Unfortunately for Justin, he is moving to another pitcher’s park, Comerica Park. Poor guy can’t catch a break. One concern that I noticed about Upton’s metrics was his exit speed on home runs. According to the ESPN Home Run Tracker, Upton had an average home-run exit speed of 105.2 mph. The concern here lies when you compare the average exit speed versus his prior years. Take a look at the chart below which compares his FB/HR%, HR totals, and average home-run exit speed.

Year HR HR/FB% Exit Speed
2011 31 14.8 107.3
2012 17 11.0 107.2
2013 27 17.9 106.8
2014 29 17.9 105.5
2015 26 15.2 105.2

The numbers here do not look all that out of line, other than his 2012 season where his HR/FB% was off from the average. Upton usually sits around the high 20’s in terms of total home runs, being pretty consistent except for the outlier 2012 season. But the home-run exit speeds have decreased each of the last five seasons — some seasons the decrease was more than others, but still they have decreased nonetheless. Another aspect of Upton’s stats to look at is his 2015 home-run landing spots overlaid with an outline of Comerica’s dimensions.

comericaPetco

The graphs show the “True” Landing spots according to the ESPN Home Run tracker for the 2015 season. Notice that roughly eight of Upton’s 2015 home runs would not have made it out of Comerica. Only one would have stayed inside Petco, Upton’s 2015 home field. If we used the Comerica park numbers, Upton would have hit 26-8, so 18 home runs. This creates a reason to be concerned, especially since most of Upton’s value is supplied by his ability to drive the ball out of the park, and not his ability to hit for average.

So a value trap you say?

Yes, a value trap. Considering that Upton is 28, paying $22 million a year seems pretty reasonable. In fact, some baseball commentators saw it as a solid investment (and it may turn out to be such). But the caveat is Upton’s opt–out option after two years, similar to the deal Jason Heyward has. If Upton is able to continue to produce nearly 30 home runs a year, he could easily opt out and test the free-agent market again. But if an underlying metric like home-run exit speeds continues to dip and the power numbers take off downhill with it, there is no rational reason for him to opt out and test the market again when he has a $22 million/year deal locked up for four more years.

Therein lies the trap: In an effort to win now by the Tigers, they will either lose Upton after two seasons or they will get trapped by a contract that could eat $22 million of payroll a year, for four years, for a player whose power numbers have dropped and will struggle to provide value in other areas. Is it a great deal for Upton? Of course. Is it good for the Tigers? Short-term, yes. Long-term, there are very few scenarios where they emerge as a winner in the deal. Either they have to pay for Upton again after the 2017 season, or they get stuck with a player who isn’t as good as he once was. Maybe it’s just a hunch but I think the Tigers may be getting the shaft.

[1] www.mlbtraderumors.com/2015/10/justin-upton-mlb-free-agent.html



Print This Post

Westminster College, Class of 2016, Division 3 Third baseman

newest oldest most voted
danny c
Guest
danny c

the problem with dropping comerica over petco and saying it hurts his home run total, is the fact that you aren’t taking into account total park factor.
http://www.fangraphs.com/guts.aspx?type=pfh&teamid=0&season=2014
this has petco as a 91 for RHH homers and comerica as 100 for righties. i know petco may have changed last year but assuming its even a neutral move, i dont think its as simple as saying he’ll lose 8 homers.

Plus, if Upton plays phenomenal the next two years and walks away, then the tigers profit off his performance and let someone pay for his 30s. I’d love that as a GM.

Jon C
Member
Jon C

Tyler, how many extra triples and doubles would bj have had? Also he’s changing an entire league and there remains the fact that Comerica has actually been a neutral Park the last few years.

Home runs are cool, but there’s other ways to score runs.

TJ
Member
TJ

As mentioned above, I have to agree that using Landing Spots, especially for such a small sample size, isn’t a great tool to draw a conclusion upon nor to further a point. Also, to my naked eye, losing roughly 2mph in exit speed in 5 years doesn’t seem so bad. But I could be wrong. This article could’ve used additional information to show how severely age decreases exit speed and whether or not Upton is within the realm of being normal.

We can all agree that this contract could go south for Detroit, but I feel as though this article didn’t do a well enough job defending its thesis. I apologize if that’s too harsh.

Graeme
Guest
Graeme

I think that you are misinterpreting the effects of the opt out. You write:

“Therein lies the trap: In an effort to win now by the Tigers, they will either lose Upton after two seasons or they will get trapped by a contract that could eat $22 million of payroll a year, for four years, for a player whose power numbers have dropped and will struggle to provide value in other areas.”

I think you’re misrepresenting those two years. You write that they will “lose Upton after two seasons” but don’t consider *why* they’d be losing him. They would be doing so if he’s produced enough that it makes sense for him to opt out in 2017 – meaning he’s outproduced their $/WAR payments. You represent the loss as the only factor of the two years, but don’t mention the production they would receive immediately – and you do acknowledge that they want to win now.

I think you’re missing the economics of a deal like this, in the sense of the incentive structure it creates. Upton is heavily incentivized to outperform his $22,000,000 a year deal so he can lock up a higher AAV with more years in his age 30 season.

You continue by saying “or they will get trapped by a contract that could eat $22 million of payroll a year, for four years, for a player whose power numbers have dropped and will struggle to provide value in other areas.” How is this any different than a contract that doesn’t involve an opt out? Had the Tigers simply signed him to a 6 year deal with no player opt out for the same AAV, they would also run the risk of him not producing in those years.

And — again — you ignore the other side of the scenario: What if Upton chooses not to opt out because he’s producing at contract level? The cost per win on the market is a bit over $7,000,000 and it’s going up. By the time that Upton hits his opt out it should be around $9,000,000 or so. He’s averaged around 3.5 wins consistently for the past 5+ seasons, so if he regresses to say, 2.5 wins a season, then he’ll be worth around $22,500,000 in his opt out season. So the math shows us that even a regression could keep the deal worth it.

And finally, this is the part of the article that bothered me the most: You didn’t take total park factor into account for these calculations at all. You represented Upton as simply losing 8 home runs in Comerica – considering the range difference in park factor for RHH (+9 for Comerica) it’s simply poor representation of stats to say that Comerica would rob him of 8 homers. (And as an aside – did he hit every one of those homers at Petco? Because you need to remember that they play half the games on the road)

I’m not sure why you keep saying how it’s so concerning that Upton could leave after 2 years. The Tigers *want* Upton to play so well that he opts out. They are absolutely in win now mode. What confuses me is that you cite the age of the Tigers high WAR producing players as a reason to keep Upton locked into a large contract – to me, that’s the exact *opposite* of what a smart GM wants. A smart GM would realize their window is short, and they need to secure a young, consistent and talented FA on a short term deal so they can have the players to win in their window and have money coming off the books as their older players age.

That’s why this deal is perfect for them: It gives them a 28 year old all star in their weakest position who is incentivized to play his ass of now, and throws in the option to not have to pay for his 30+ contract years.

Overall, I feel like you’re working backwards from a predetermined conclusion and ignoring other scenarios in favor of your premise.

Vincent Lin
Guest
Vincent Lin

“roughly eight of Upton’s 2015 home runs would not have made it out of Comerica.”

Just be curious.
Did Upton’s not hit any non-HR fly ball which will be out of Comerica?