Analysis

Justin Upton is the Angels X-Factor

The Angels enter the 2020 season with a lineup of stars, including Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani, and newly signed Anthony Rendon. And while these three could potentially form one of the most-feared trios in baseball, another dangerous hitter could be the difference for the 2020 Angels.

Justin Upton’s 2019 season started late and ended early, resulting in the worst season of his professional career. Upton’s spring training was delayed due to a sore knee, and when he finally made his debut in the latter stages of spring training, he set himself back even farther. While chasing a ball down the left field line, Upton’s foot collided with the non padded bottom part of the concrete wall, leaving him with a severe case of turf toe. What looked initially like a day to day injury, resulted in Upton not making his season debut until the middle of June.

After returning from his injury, Upton looked like a shell of his former self. In 63 games played, Upton slashed .215/.309/.416 with 12 home runs and 34 RBIs. On top of the injuries, poor batted-ball luck didn’t help Upton as he posted a career low .261 batting average on balls in play, a far stretch from his .320 career BABIP. Amid a slump in the middle of September, it was revealed that Upton needed a PRP injection (a medical procedure to help accelerate the healing of tendons, ligaments, muscles, and joints), as the knee injury that plagued him in Spring Training has flared up.

But while Upton’s 2019 season was a lost one, he could be the X-factor for the 2020 Angels. From 2013-2018, Upton was one of the league’s most consistent and dependable players, appearing in an average of 150 games averaging 30 home runs and 89 RBIs while sporting an above league average wRC+ in each season. In this span, he earned two All-Star game appearances, two Silver Slugger awards, and two top-20 MVP finishes.

In order to get back to Upton’s peak form, he will have to make a few changes to his 2019 approach. While he had limited at-bats in 2019, teams shifted Upton at the highest percentage of his career. In 28.1% of Upton’s 2019 at-bats, he faced the shift, whereas he only faced shifts in 16% of his 2018 at-bats.

In addition to constant shifts, Upton was unable to hit breaking pitches in 2019. After posting a .589 slugging percentage and hitting 15 home runs in 2018, Upton couldn’t lay off the breaking ball in 2019. His slugging percentage was only .227, and he only hit one breaking ball out of the park.

If Upton can return to form, the Angels would have one of the most feared lineups in baseball. On days when Ohtani is available as a designated hitter, Upton is expected to slot fifth in the order, placing him in a prime spot to drive in Trout, Rendon, and Ohtani. When Ohtani is not available to hit due to pitching, Upton should bat forth behind Rendon. If Upton can return to his 2018 form, it should give the Angels a lineup that could potentially feature four regulars with a 120 or above wRC+, giving them one of the better offenses in baseball.

For the Angels, Upton’s bounce-back season could be the difference for a squad that will heavily rely on their offense. After failed pursuits of a real ace this offseason, the Angels will be looking at Trout, Rendon, Upton, and Ohtani to carry the offense to victories. If Upton can return to form, it would go a long way for an Angels team that is searching for their first postseason appearance since 2014.

Photo Credit: Stephen Dunn/ Getty Images

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