Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Mets Should Just Say No to Justin Upton

Stop making eye contact, you guys.  You might make us think something's brewing here.

With less than two weeks to go until the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, the Mets are in sore need of a bat or three.  Well, duh.  That's all anyone is talking about these days.  And one team that keeps popping up as a potential trade partner for the Mets is the underachieving San Diego Padres.  The Padres supposedly upgraded their entire outfield this past off-season, adding Matt Kemp, Wil Myers and Justin Upton in an attempt to give a quick adrenaline boost to their offense.  The only problem was that the rapid shot of energy faded before the season began.

San Diego ranks 20th in the majors in runs scored and only the Mets (.233) and Seattle Mariners (.235) have a lower team batting average than the Padres (.238).  And no one - not even the Mets - can claim a lower team on-base percentage than the .294 OBP being produced by the Padres.  Because of their putrid offense and middle-of-the-pack pitching (3.91 ERA, 3.85 FIP, 1.30 WHIP), the Padres enter the day with a 42-49 record, just two games ahead of the last-place Colorado Rockies in the NL West and 3½ games in front of the Miami Marlins for the second-worst record in the entire league.

Without question, the Padres will be sellers at the trade deadline, just months after first-year general manager A.J. Preller bought the farm, the cows and both Upton brothers.  One player who might appeal to the Mets is the younger (and better) Upton sibling, Justin, whose 15 homers and 49 RBI are more than any current Met has recorded this season.  And although his .254 batting average is just okay, it would be only be surpassed by Daniel Murphy's .272 mark out of all the everyday players on the team.

On the surface, this seems like a no-brainer, even though Upton would just be a rental player, as he is in the final year of a six-year contract he originally signed with Arizona back in 2010.  The Mets wouldn't be committed to paying him beyond this season, just as outfield prospect Michael Conforto inches his way closer and closer to the big league squad.

But there are many reasons why the Mets should just say no to Justin Upton.  Here are a few of them.

Do you remember Richard Hidalgo?  He was traded to the Mets in mid-June 2004 and became an overnight sensation.  New York won its first four games with Hidalgo in the lineup, pushing the team above .500 for the season.  A week later, Hidalgo embarked upon a one-month home run tear.  From June 27 to July 29, Hidalgo batted .308 with 12 HR and 24 RBI.  He hit home runs in five consecutive games to begin the month of July, making him the first and only Met to homer in five straight contests.

Hidalgo sounded like a good buy, but before long, it was the Mets saying goodbye to him.  Take away his hot month and Hidalgo batted .189 with nine homers and 28 RBI during the rest of his short Mets career.  Hidalgo was the epitome of the streaky hitter, much like Justin Upton is today, and Hidalgo's cold streaks - like Upton's - tend to last longer than his hot ones.

During his first two months as a Padre, Upton was one of the best hitters in the league, batting .307 with 12 HR and 37 RBI.  Upton also posted a .545 slugging percentage, a .913 OPS and collected hits in 38 of his first 51 games, which included 15 multi-hit games.  But since the calendar turned to June, Justin has hit more like his brother Melvin, batting .179 with three home runs and 12 RBI in 37 games.  In the same time period, Upton (Justin, not Melvin) has nearly twice as many strikeouts (45) as he has hits (24).

This is nothing new for Upton, as he batted .301 with 13 homers in his first 53 games last year with Atlanta, then proceeded to bat .252 with 15 homers over his next 100 games.  The year before that, in his first season as a Brave, Upton tore the cover off the ball in his first 25 games, batting .304 with 12 HR and 19 RBI.  He then faded over the next four months, batting .244 with 12 HR and 45 RBI over his next 109 games.

Upton was a product of his ballpark when he played in Arizona.  From his first full season with the Diamondbacks in 2008 until his final year in the desert in 2012, Upton batted .311 in his home ballpark.  He managed just a .244 batting average on the road in those five seasons.  He also had just 41 homers in nearly 1,300 at-bats on the road from 2008 to 2012, while taking advantage of his home park in Arizona to hit 65 home runs in 63 fewer at-bats.

Ever since he left Chase Field, his strikeout totals have gone through the roof.  In his six seasons as a Diamondback, Upton surpassed 140 strikeouts just once, fanning 152 times in 2010.  Once he left Arizona, Upton became a human whiff machine, striking out 161 times in 2013 and topping that with 171 Ks in 2014.  So far in 2015 with the Padres, Upton has fanned 96 times, putting him on pace to strike out a career-high 173 times this season.  To put that in perspective, half of the Mets' everyday players are on pace to reach triple digits in strikeouts, but none of those players are whiffing at an Uptonian pace, as Lucas Duda leads the team with 92 punchouts.

Finally, check out this stat provided to us by the incomparable Michael Baron on Twitter.
One of the reasons the Mets are winless when they trail late in ballgames is the fact that as bad as they've been at the plate throughout the entire season, they're even worse in the late innings.  In the first six innings of games, the Mets are collectively batting .242 with a .391 slugging percentage.  That's not very good, but it gets progressively worse from innings seven through nine.

In the seventh inning, the Mets have a .215 batting average and a .310 slugging percentage.  That goes down slightly to .214/.307 in the eighth inning.  And in the ninth inning, those numbers go down to .197 and .281, respectively.  We're not talking about just the ninth innings when the Mets are facing the opposing team's hard-to-hit closer.  We're talking about every ninth inning situation - when the Mets have the lead, when they're tied and not facing the closer, when they're being blown out.  In every possible situation, the Mets just can't hit in the late innings of games.  And adding Justin Upton wouldn't change that very much.

Upton was a very good late-inning hitter in Arizona, batting .282 and posting a .460 slugging percentage in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings from 2008 to 2012.  Since 2013 - his first year away from the desert - Upton has batted .240 in late inning situations and has seen his slugging percentage in those spots drop from .460 in 2013 to .404 in 2014 to just .389 this year.  While it is true that a .240 batting average and .389 slugging percentage are better than what the average Met has done this year in the late innings of games, it's still not an acceptable mark for a player making over $14 million this year.  (Upton's .240/.389 marks in innings seven through nine are also slightly lower than what the Mets have produced in innings one through six.)  More importantly, it's not nearly enough production for a player who would be brought in to recharge the batting order's batteries, costing the Mets several good minor league prospects to acquire a player of his caliber.

Justin Upton is an above-average major league player.  But he's just not good enough to give the Mets what they need to overcome the season-long doldrums they've had at the plate.  He's not the same hitter he was in Arizona, he's too streaky and he's no longer a good hitter when the game is potentially on the line.

What the Mets need is a player who hits in any park, is consistent at the plate and does not wilt under the late-inning pressure.  The onus to find that player or players will fall on Sandy Alderson's shoulders.  The player who should not be at the top of his shopping list is Justin Upton.  The team would be better served to shop at a different store as the trade deadline approaches.

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