'New guy' Upton appears to fit at No. 2 spot

Tigers' study shows outfielder could see better pitches batting in front of Miggy

February 29th, 2016

LAKELAND, Fla. -- The Tigers' lineup card had "NEW GUY" listed for the second slot in their unofficial Spring Training opener Monday against Florida Southern College, a 7-2 Tigers win. It was bullpen coach Mick Billmeyer's way of joking with Justin Upton.

Even though Upton hasn't been a Tiger for long, there has been enough talk about where he'd hit in the order that nobody confused "NEW GUY" with Cameron Maybin or Mike Aviles.

Spring Training:Tickets | Schedule | Complete info

"I've said from the time we signed him that it's a logical spot to hit him," manager Brad Ausmus said.

That doesn't mean Ausmus has committed to it, but it's a prominent consideration. It's the spot in front of Miguel Cabrera in Detroit's batting order, the spot where Ausmus wants somebody who can get on base. But the idea of batting Upton second has as much to do with Upton's opportunities as those of Cabrera.

Though Upton is just 28 years old, he has 4,934 plate appearances in his nine-year Major League career. Just more than half -- 2,520 -- have been from the third spot in the order. Just 448 have come from the second spot. He's a .279 hitter out of both spots, while his .365 on-base percentage and .504 slugging percentage out of the second spot are both slightly higher than what he has done batting third or fourth.

Nearly half of Upton's two-spot plate appearances took place in 2013 in Atlanta, where he moved up from third around midseason. He batted .263 that season with 27 home runs and 70 RBIs, good for an .818 OPS. Yet he hit .301 with a .381 on-base percentage and .922 OPS from the second spot, compared to .254, .346 and .795 batting third.

All season, Upton hit in front of Freddie Freeman, who finished fifth in National League MVP voting that year. Yet even that might not compare to hitting in front of Cabrera.

The notion of lineup protection -- putting a formidable hitter behind a good hitter to make sure the good hitter sees more strikes and more pitches to hit -- is much-debated. Ausmus said he isn't a big believer in most cases, suggesting the difference isn't big enough to justify a switch. He makes an exception for Cabrera after the Tigers looked into it two years ago.

After the 2014 season, the Tigers studied how many strikes Torii Hunter saw batting in front of Cabrera compared to behind him.

"There was a difference," Ausmus said, "because Torii that year had significant at-bats hitting second and significant at-bats hitting fifth. Often, there's not a difference, but hitting in front of Miggy, there was a difference."

The study happened as Ausmus debated where to hit Yoenis Cespedes last year. He eventually settled on batting Cespedes lower, hitting Ian Kinsler second and leading off with Anthony Gose or Rajai Davis. Cespedes batted second in July before his trade to the Mets, but the shift happened once Cabrera went on the disabled list and Victor Martinez moved up to third.

"You'd probably find across baseball that it's not significant statistically," Ausmus said. "That would be my guess. But with Miggy and Torii, it was significant."