Justin Upton's Surplus Value

Upton can recoup some of his salary acting as a replacement official - Justin Edmonds

What is he worth trading to acquire?

Back on Sunday, I was working on a piece (noted in the podcast) examining the value of Justin Upton to the Mariners. Progress on it stalled because it's a complex issue and it wasn't resolving itself the way I wanted. But with tonight's news of Upton utilizing his no trade clause to (perhaps temporarily) nix an agreed to move to the Mariners, I figured there was now an imperative to revisit the subject, clarity be damned.

Every angle cannot be examined. We do not and cannot know what alternatives the Mariners have. Just as with this trade, the Mariners are only one party in what necessitates at least a two-way agreement. What is available to other teams is not certain to be available to the Mariners at this time.

Focusing on Upton for the moment, he's been a fairly consistent performer for the past four seasons of full playing time. That may seem odd since his fWAR has gone from 4.8 to 3.0 to 6.4 to 2.5, but the primary cause of that volatility actually comes from only one thing: slugging.

Almost everything else about Upton has stayed quite stable. His fielding and baserunning values are mostly consistent. His swing and contact rates haven't taken any dramatic turns. His walk rates have been steady. His strikeout totals are actually improving. His batted ball profile is mostly the same.

Upton zSwing oSwing zContact oContact
2009 67% 26% 81% 55%
2010 62% 22% 83% 53%
2011 68% 28% 85% 53%
2012 66% 23% 87% 52%

But his park-adjusted isolated slugging has gone from .223 to .162 to .227 to .142 over the past four years. It's probably not a coincidence that Upton's rate of pulling fly balls mirrors the changes in slugging, going from 40% to 29% to 48% to 33%.

The 2010 and 2012 seasons are concerning, but 2009 and 2011 show that Upton can post All-Star level numbers. In Upton's case, with his stable approach, skills and young age, I don't find a compelling reason to deviate from his average established performance level when it comes to projecting his next three seasons as a total.

Averaging his 2009-12 seasons grades out in the 3.5-4.0 win range. I wouldn't expect Upton to stick in that narrow band each of next three seasons, but I would say that projecting about 11.5 wins total over that 2013-5 stretch is reasonable.

With that in mind (if you personally disagree, you can substitute your own projection in), it comes time to figure out what he offers to the Mariners. As a principle, teams don't want to pay players more than they are generally worth. Worth isn't a one-size-fits-all measurement, but generally we evaluate players against the typical open market value of $5 million per win. At that level, Upton's expected value for 2013-5 would be something like $57.5 million. His cost, his guaranteed salary, is $38.5 million, leaving a surplus value of about $20 million.

That's typically the manner in which we evaluate free agent deals by the way. If you are comfortable with the numbers above, most analysts agree that $20 million in value is worth something like a top pitching prospect plus a mid-level bat and maybe a little more. Personally, I think one of Cerberus plus Nick Franklin is already at or slightly over that amount of value, but it's close.

However, looking at surplus value only is akin to looking at rate stats only and ignoring the denominator. The goal isn't to be the most efficient team in terms of dollars spent per WAR, it's to have the most wins.

Baseball teams are constrained from that goal by a lack of resources. That scarcity typically comes from two fronts: a labor side, wherein there aren't as many available good baseball players as the team desires, and a capital side, wherein there isn't as much money available to purchase said players as the team desires.

The labor supply issue comes from baseball, at the Major League level, being a difficult skill. The capital side comes from greedy lower class people such as yourselves, selfishly spending your money on non-essentials such as food and shelter in lieu of charitably donating it to your local baseball limited corporate partnership and tax shelter.

Therefore, baseball management has to balance two goals. They want to accumulate wins, so they need good players. They also want to avoid running out of money, so they need relatively cheap players. For the most part, teams have to succeed at both of those goals.

The team could spend more than they have available and fill their rosters with nothing but good players, but that's usually unsustainable because eventually those players try to cash their paychecks. The team could scrimp on any player that makes money, but good players generally demand and can get good money, so the team gets not good players and typically not good players lose to good players.

Being conscious of good deals goes a long way toward achieving both goals, but not the whole way. Essentially, this is the "concentrated value" argument that superstars are worth a little more because they can offer a team a lot of production while using only one roster spot. Of course, they also offer greater risk should they befall an injury and teams don't tend to pay well above or below the standard rate for superstars.

Another contention could be raised that the Mariners are suffering from a bad public relations problem that doesn't look like it will just go away on its own. Winning cures all, but getting a fan base excited isn't worthless. An excited fan base spends more which can translate into more money available for payroll which can translate into more winning opportunities.

It probably rarely flows much in that direction, but I'm willing to acknowledge that argument and I know from where a lot of us stand, seeing the Mariners do anything remotely positive would be met with an oversized welcome.

What I think it all comes down to is your evaluation in Justin Upton going forward. His home and road splits are constantly being misused and I think too many people are assuming that Justin Upton going forward is only the 2012 version.

I'd by sympathetic to that if I could find a clear reason why Upton's bat faltered last season that portended that this was his new talent level. But 2011 happened too and so did 2010 and so did 2009. When I look back at Upton's numbers for the past two, three or four years, I don't see any meaningful changes to his fundamentals that scream 2012 is the new reality and that everything beforehand should be discarded.

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