Justin Upton, to those who only follow the celebrity aspect of sports, is not the child of Justin Verlander and Kate Upton.
The photo above is click-bait, I’ll admit it. Anyway, Upton is far more important than that possible future wunderkind. Justin Upton is now my favorite player. Okay, not really, not just yet, but I’m very hopeful he will become just that. When the news hit that the Tigers – my most-favored baseball team – signed Mr. Upton, my initial reaction was a mental shrug. Nope, not even worth an actual physical shrug; that’s how little I cared about the signing.
But upon further reflection, I’m very happy with the news, and excited about Detroit’s postseason prospects. Why the change of heart? Well, let’s take some steps back into history – about 32 years back.
In 1984, the Tigers were coming off a fine year; they went 92-70, and finished second in the AL East. They had a damn good roster, including one of the best double play combos ever in Whitaker and Trammel, an excellent catcher in Lance Parrish, and some quality pitchers, led by Jack Morris. But they were still missing something – enough fire to put them over the top in the talent-laden East. Turns out they’d had that missing piece all along; it just took him time to put it together. His name of course, is Kirk Gibson.
Gibson made his debut at the age of 22, getting into 12 games for the Tigers in 1979. He never played in more than 100 games until 1983. In his first mostly full-time gig, he played in 128 games, with a slash line of 227/320/414. 66 of his games were at DH, and just four in right field – in which he showed limited range and committed one error in seven chances. Gibby hit third in 55 of those 128 games, and rewarded his skipper with an OPS of .632. Manager Sparky Anderson looked at this performance and did the only thing that made sense: he installed Gibson as his full-time right fielder and batted him third in 93 of his 134 starts. Gibby of course caught fire with this vote of confidence, and was as responsible as anyone on the team for their ridiculous 35-5 start. Chet Lemon and Alan Trammel were still better players, but Gibby, one of my favorite players ever, had arrived.
Which brings me back to Mr. Upton. He comes to the Tigers at the age of 28, one year older than Gibson was in his breakout year of 1984. Gibson played baseball and football at Michigan State, delaying his arrival in minor league baseball until he was 21. Upton hit the minors straight from high school and wasted no time there, reaching the big leagues at the age of 19. So instead of age, I’ll compare the two players through their first nine years of play.
And here’s Upton.
These guys look pretty similar, right? Upton strikes out a lot more, steals less, but that’s a function of today’s game as much as it is his particular game. Upton’s fielding is a big edge; Gibby just wasn’t very good in the field, with 23 assists and a RF of 1.91 after nine years; Upton has 39 assists and a RF of 2.15. Hey, I said he was better than Gibson, not Guerrero. Gibson’s total WAR in his first nine years was 24.4; Upton’s is 24.7. Upton has more upside entering his tenth year simply because he’s younger. And more importantly, he’s a big upgrade to the Tigers’ outfield, filling the gap that the trade of Yoenis Cespedes left in mid-season last year.
The question for me is simple: will he show anything close to the drive of Gibby? I doubt it; after all, few did. I know this much; I hope to God someone paints the inside of his cap with eyeblack in spring training. I mean, all Gibson did after blowing up and informing his new teammates in no uncertain terms that he wasn’t there to screw around, was win the National League MVP, wreck the Mets in the NLCS, and make his own version of The Natural against the game’s best closer, proving to the Dodgers they could win the Series. Gibby, you’re calling games for the Tigers now; think maybe you could sneak into the dugout in Lakeland in a few weeks?
So Mr. Upton. You’re entering your tenth year in the bigs, just like Gibson in 1988. You’re on a new team, just like Gibson was with the Dodgers. You’ve got talent here already, just as Gibson did in Los Angeles. Can you be that missing piece? Here’s to my early pick for the AL MVP, and vastly more important, (hopefully) my new favorite player, Justin Upton. And by all means, if a certain Tigers broadcaster asks to see your cap, hand it over.