Will the Padres Miss Justin Upton?


Justin Upton officially will not be with the Padres for Spring Training in 2016 after signing a monster deal with the Detroit Tigers over the weekend. Despite putting up another good offensive season – many wonder how the Padres are going to do anything offensively without him. Let’s take a very basic look at what the science of sabermetrics can tell us about that very question.

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FanGraphs.com has many measures to a players performance on the field both offensively and defensively. While some can give more distinction than others, for the sake of argument one I want to look at today is the term “clutch”. Not just the term that is bandied about in the post-season like batting average or a filthy slider – but to actually engage the issue and see just what Justin Upton brought to the Padres in 2015.

First let’s figure out what it means according to Fangraphs:

"“In the words of David Appelman, this calculation measures, ‘…how much better or worse a player does in high leverage situations than he would have done in a context neutral environment.’ It also compares a player against himself, so a player who hits .300 in high leverage situations when he’s an overall .300 hitter is not considered clutch.”"

Okay, sounds great. In the rating system they use, 0 is neutral with 2 being on the “Excellent” spectrum and -2 being “Awful.” They come to their calculation this way:

Clutch = (WPA / pLI) – WPA/LI

Obviously that doesn’t make any sense at this point. WPA stands for Win Probability Added (WPA) which captures the change in a team’s win expectancy from one plate appearance to the next and credits or debits the player based on how much their action increased their team’s odds of winning. LI is leverage index and pLI is a players average LI for all game events. Let me try and put it more in layman’s terms.

Another point is how much emphasis to put on this definition of clutch. Eric Seidman expounds on his use of this “clutch” stat further:

"“The statistic can be summed up by the question, ‘Does the player raise his game in important situations?’ If not, he is not clutch, no matter how great his numbers are in high leverage plate appearances. The second major point is that being clutch or not being clutch is NOT the same as being good or not being good. You do not need to raise your game in crucial situations to be a great player and those who do raise their games are not necessarily the most talented.”"

The point is trying to isolate players from what their team is doing around them and see what they do in every at-bat to put their team in a meaningful situation. On a Padres team that lost more games than they lost you might think no one is clutch. Yet that isn’t quite the case either.

Justin Upton came in with a clutch score of -1.67 in 2015 with the Padres, following a -1.3 with the Braves in 2014. Not very good at all. By contrast, Matt Kemp had a positive clutch score of 0.30, Yangervis Solarte at 0.52, and Derek Norris at 0.31.

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So from that stat alone – Justin Upton didn’t really bring much to the ball club when they needed him most. The question of course now that Upton is signed with Detroit and not coming back is seeing who will play left field for the Padres. Right now the top two candidates are Melvin Upton Jr.or Jon Jay, whoever isn’t playing center field. Upton Jr hasn’t had a positive clutch since 2011 with the Rays. Jay sported a -0.87 last season for the Cardinals.

All this of course does go back to a quote earlier, which mentioned that one year does not determine the next. So we can certainly hope that both of them can have seasons to make up for losing the pure numbers of Upton’s home runs by being able to capitalize when they are needed most, to get the hit in the bottom of the 9th, and show Padres fans that they are indeed…clutch.