Print and Go Back ESPN.com: SweetSpot [Print without images]

Wednesday, April 24, 2013
Not even Mr. Freeze can stop Justin Upton

By David Schoenfield


 
There have been sporting events played in cold weather through the years in Denver, but most of those involved John Elway hitting wide receivers for touchdown passes, not Justin Upton hitting baseballs through the chill of a late-April deep freeze.

The Braves and Rockies entered Tuesday's doubleheader tied with baseball's best record and left with numb fingers and toes, hot-chocolate stains on their jerseys and a new appreciation for domed stadiums. The Braves also left with two victories and the red-hot Upton left with two more home runs, one in each game, his 10th and 11th, putting him in shouting distance of the April record of 14 shared by Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez.

The amazing thing is that he could even swing a bat while wearing approximately seven layers of clothing. Game-time temperature for the afternoon portion of the freezebill was 23 degrees, the coldest temperature for a game since STATS began recording such info in 1991. Upton, wearing garb suitable for climbing Pikes Peak, hit a 3-2 changeup from Jeff Francis on a low line to center in the top of the first; it was a pretty good pitch, low and away, but Upton showed off his tremendous power and bat speed with a quick rip through the ball.

Justin Upton, B.J. Upton
Justin Upton gets high-fives after his Game 2 home run against Colorado -- which came after a solo shot by brother B.J., foreground.
In the nightcap, with a game-time temperature a balmy 26 degrees, Upton followed a fifth-inning home run by his brother, B.J., with a first-pitch blast off Jon Garland to right-center, a long smack off the back wall behind the bullpens. Nothing can stop Upton right now, not cold weather and certainly not 87-mph fastballs from Jon Garland. The Braves won the first game 4-3 and completed the sweep with a 10-2 win.

Players admitted it wasn't easy staying warm while on the field. (You have to question why the games were even played, but baseball's schedule -- it's the only trip Atlanta makes to Colorado -- means making up postponed games are difficult to squeeze in.)

"It's more in your hands," Justin Upton said between games. "You use your hands a lot in the game and that's the worst part -- your hands get a little cold. But if you can keep your hands warm and keep them feeling the bat and the ball, you'll be fine."

The back-to-back home runs with his brother -- how cool does "Uptons homer" sound? -- was another highlight of Upton's monster April, as the siblings joined Lloyd and Paul Waner of the 1938 Pirates as the only brothers to hit consecutive home runs (the Uptons homered in the same inning earlier in the month, but it wasn't back-to-back).

Justin Upton is now hitting .307/.391/.813 with those 11 home runs and 16 RBIs (10 of the homers have been solo shots) and considering that Jason Heyward just landed on the disabled list following an appendectomy and was hitting .121, his brother is hitting .160, Andrelton Simmons is hitting .212 and Dan Uggla is hitting .167, you can certainly make a case for Upton as April's MVP in the National League.

The obvious question: Is Upton doing something different than last season, when he hit 17 home runs for the Diamondbacks? There's nothing in the results that shows a change in an approach. His swing rate is the same (44 percent) and he's actually swinging and missing a little more often this year (31 percent to 25 percent). His chase percentage -- swings on pitches outside the strike zone -- is 24 percent both seasons. His hit distribution is similar, as his line-drive rate about the same (20 percent in 2012, 22 percent in 2013).

There are, however, a couple differences: Upton is hitting more fly balls (11 percent higher rate than last year) and more of those fly balls are landing on the other side of the fence. This suggests he's probably been a little lucky (his home run/fly ball rate is 13 percent higher than anyone from last year) or that he was injured last year.

Oh, that's right, he was injured; he played through a thumb injury suffered on a slide in the third game of the season. He played through what the Diamondbacks called a bone bruise for six weeks before finally going on the disabled list, and it might have bothered him for a period of time even upon his return. But as this blog post from Capitol Avenue Club pointed out, by September, Upton looked more like the Upton of 2011, when he hit 31 home runs.

In that post, Andrew Sisson writes that Upton apparently stopped using a padded brace on his thumb Aug. 25 -- and hit eight of his 17 home runs over his final 36 games.

Why the Diamondbacks were so eager to trade Upton remains a little cloudy, but the insinuation that they believed he dogged it a little certainly persists. It seems like an unfair rap to me, even if intended by D-backs management; Upton was injured and when he got healthy he started hitting home runs again.

He's completely healthy in 2013 and now he's hitting a lot of home runs. He's back to the MVP-caliber talent he was in 2011 and the Braves -- and not the Diamondbacks -- are reaping the rewards. You don't win awards for being the MVP of April, but in Upton's case, I think he'll end up being in that discussion in September as well.