Indians

Can Melvin Upton be this season’s Austin Jackson?

(Rick Osentoski / USA TODAY Sports)

The Cleveland Indians signed Melvin Upton to this offseason’s Austin Jackson deal and ultimately, his role. The Indians have a lefty-heavy lineup, particularly in the post Carlos Santana world. Santana’s switch-hitting ability was an enormous value to provide lineup flexibility for manager Terry Francona. Of course, hitting against right-handed pitchers is the “fat side” of the platoon which makes lefty-killing hitters potentially less valuable.  Never the less, with Lonnie Chisenhall, Michael Brantley, Jason Kipnis, Bradley Zimmer, and Yonder Alonso all being left-handed hitters with issues against left-handed pitching, matchup hitters and platoon skills become important. Brandon Guyer will certainly expect to be an important piece of that puzzle but the Indians require someone who can defend center field and put up quality plate appearances against left-handed pitching.

In this sense, the comparison to Jackson is largely inescapable because the role is the same. A minor league deal which likely gets picked up if Upton is healthy. Further, the big league guarantee is limited at a cheap $1.5 million. In order to fulfill the duties and obligations which were once filled by Jackson, Upton must be able to succeed in the following two respects: 1) killing left-handed pitching; and 2) playing competent defense in center field.

While Upton is a bit older than Jackson, their careers are eerily similar. Once premier players as rangy center fielders with good offense, their profiles have been sapped by aging wheels and declining defense. Yet, each has remade himself as a lefty killers.

How do Jackson and Upton compare defensively?

Matching Jackson’s 2017 season will be inordinately difficult offensively. He carried an .869 OPS, the highest of his career by a significant margin. Though defensively, UZR Fangraphs defensive metric hated him for the fourth straight season in center field, marking him significantly below average.1 Jackson’s visibly declining speed on the base paths seemed to suggest that the once great defender was a shell on the defensive side of the spectrum. Statcast’s catches above average metric had Jackson at minus-2, 243 out of the 309 eligible outfielders.

Upton’s defense graded better by every metric in 2016 but that is his last big league season. His speed score was outstanding, and DRS liked him in center field, as well as a plus-plus grade in left field. Finally, UZR graded him out as average to above in center field. While the shoulder and thumb injuries which derailed his 2017 would not appear to influence defense, some decline could be possible. Yet, it is fair to assert that Upton will likely be a defensive upgrade over Jackson in 2018.2

Can Upton thrive against left-handed pitching?

The answer is, very likely, yes. Upton has a strong track record of crushing left-handed pitching sans two terrible season in Atlanta where he looked completely lost at the plate. The graphic below is his career against left-handed pitching.

Courtesy of Fangraphs

However, the injuries which are unlikely to impact his defense are not so for his offense. Upton’s shoulder and thumb injuries in 2017 both could hinder offensive production if they linger in any sense. He also elevates the baseball at a decent rate which plays well in today’s MLB.

Finally, while Jackson’s base running disappeared, Upton is an efficient enough base runner to remain a value on the base paths. Upton’s career stolen base conversion percentage is above 76 percent which is a high enough threshold to be the basis for stealing bases, including his 2016 performance where he stole 27 bases in 35 attempts.

Conclusion

Upton is a cheap upside play to replace a hugely productive Austin Jackson season but Upton comes with some immediate advantages. As both a more efficient base stealer and a better defender, Upton pairs with Zimmer wonderfully as center field tandems go. Predicting offensive performance is near impossible but the track record suggests that Upton will punish left-handing pitching. As a fourth outfielder, he is a really good fit.

  1. DRS the other major competing defensive measure had Jackson as roughly average. []
  2. Another qualifier, defensive impact of any position is declining in the home run and strikeout era but still pertinent. []