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Justin Upton, the Los Angeles Angels, and when perception is reality

The true impact of trading for Justin Upton goes beyond addition and subtraction.

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Texas Rangers
Trading for Justin Upton provides more than just a small boost to the Angels’ playoff hopes.
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

You can do a lot of things in one month. You can start a new diet or end an old one. You can start a new workout regimen or decide you no longer have time for said regimen. You can pick up a new hobby, make some new friends, and generally engage in a whole host of activities that can have a profound impact on your life.

To us mere mortals, a month is a long time, enough time to achieve a whole variety of goals and aspirations. But for baseball players, a month is… still a pretty long time, but maybe not as long as one may think. Yes, an individual player can completely alter the course of his season with one especially hot or cold month. But as far as MLB teams are concerned, a single player is just one of many trying to push the boulder up the mountain. Even the best of the best (non-Mike Trout division) can realistically help his team to at best an extra win over the course of a month, and that’s only when compared to his replacement-level brethren. To swing a team’s outlook takes time, and at this point in the season time is in short supply.

On August 31, the Los Angeles Angels acquired outfielder Justin Upton. Upton falls somewhere in that “best of the best” tier, or maybe a tick below. Over the course of his career, he’s been worth anywhere between one-and-a-half and six wins above replacement in a given season, per FanGraphs. Over the last few years, he’s settled in as roughly a four-win player, save for a 2016 campaign marred by a vicious first-half slump.

It’s probably fair to consider Upton as about a four-win player who is currently performing a little ahead of that pace this season. Adding a player like Upton is as good as a team can expect to do in a waiver deadline trade, and the Angels are no doubt thrilled they were able to make the addition. But the guy Upton replaced is no slouch. In order to make room for Upton (and his salary, it would seem), the Angles let Cameron Maybin go on waivers to the Houston Astros.

Maybin is not Upton. Ever since his 2011 breakout he’s been about a two-win player, combining average-ish hitting with average-ish defense into an average-ish output. Over the course of a full season, the difference between Upton and Maybin is stark. It could easily be the difference between a playoff birth and a September shutdown.

But over a month? Variability aside, the math tells us that the difference just isn’t that great. Swapping Upton in for Maybin may help the Angels to an extra win over the course of the month, which may be the difference in getting the Angels over the hump and into the wild card game. Of course, the Angels may play well enough that they would have made the playoffs even with Maybin, or they may play so poorly overall that adding Upton becomes trivial.

Yet something seems off about that. There’s something about adding Upton to the middle of the Angels’ lineup that makes them just seem more formidable. Before adding Upton, the Angles featured just one player with an OPS above .800. They still looked like the 2016 Angels, a team that struggled to a 74-88 record. Before adding Upton, the Angels were still Gilligan’s Island, but with Gilligan being joined solely by the rest.

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Texas Rangers
The Angels’ recent additions have revamped the team into one that feels like a true playoff contender.
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Now, at least the Angels look like a team who should be challenging for the wild card, at least on the position player side of the ledger. With the additions of Upton and Brandon Phillips, the Angels can send out a lineup with roughly average or better players at every position, save for the ongoing Albert Pujols saga. The two additions combined with better play from Kole Calhoun and C.J. Cron give the lineup depth that it hasn’t had in some time.

Of course, not everything can be attributed simply to adding Upton, and the Angels still have to navigate this month with a starting rotation that can charitably be described as full of question marks.

But Upton is the catalyst. Without him this is still a lineup of Trout, Andrelton Simmons, and a group whose upside is “not bad enough to waste all of Mike Trout’s prime.” Upton may not be significantly better than Maybin this month. In fact, as while Upton has played pretty well since the trade, Maybin has been doing pretty well himself.

But adding Upton leads to the perception that the Angels are flat out better. Cameron Maybin is a fine player, but adding someone as good as Justin Upton just gives the Angels the feel of a much better ballclub, one with greater potential to make some noise over the final month of the season and into the playoffs. The math says that the perception of the Angels as a significantly improved team is just that: perception. But in reality, it now doesn’t feel so strange to say the words “Los Angeles Angels, playoff contender.”

Jeremy Klein is a writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @papabearjere.