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Wednesday, June 26, 2013
Braves' outfield trio needs to start hitting

By David Schoenfield


The Atlanta Braves are a team built around its star outfield trio, and a big reason the Braves are a mediocre 33-32 since soaring to a 12-1 start is that Justin Upton, B.J. Upton and Jason Heyward haven't been producing.

The Braves hold the largest lead of any NL division leader at 6 games, but that two-month stretch of .500 baseball has Braves fans wondering what big move the club will make before the trade deadline.

I'm not sure they make a move; this is pretty much the team you're going to see the rest of the season, and the best way for the Braves to improve -- and to hold off that potential NL East run from the Nationals -- is for those outfielders to start hitting.

Justin Upton hit 12 home runs in his first 23 games, riding that hot start to a potential starting berth in the All-Star Game, but he's hit .211 with three home runs in 50 games since then. B.J. Upton continues to struggle below the Mendoza Line and Heyward is hitting .216 after missing time earlier following an appendectomy.

There was some positive news on Tuesday, as Heyward hit the go-ahead home run in the seventh inning off Royals reliever Tim Collins in a 4-3 victory, his first homer all season off a lefty. While Heyward has played much better in June -- .297/.354/.484 with four home runs -- the overall season lines for the three are obviously a big disappointment compared to preseason projections (via Dan Szymborski):

Justin Upton
Preseason ZiPS: .263/.348/.442, 3.0 WAR
Current stats: .241/.351/.455, 1.2 WAR

B.J. Upton
Preseason ZiPS: .251/.322/.455, 3.5 WAR
Current stats: .177/.273/.315, -0.9 WAR

Jason Heyward
Preseason ZiPS: .265/.341/.472, 4.0 WAR
Current stats: .216/.318/.356, 0.3 WAR

You probably noticed one thing, however: Justin Upton is actually hitting right near his projected numbers; maybe he's gotten there in a peculiar fashion, but his overall line isn't a surprise. Instead of hitting like an MVP candidate, he's hitting like a guy who misses hitting in Arizona. Upton is actually hitting .275 with a .941 OPS on the road, but just .203 with a .656 at home.

Through April 27 he was hitting .305 with 12 home runs. What's been the difference for him since his hot start?

Before April 27 he wasn't missing anything in the horizontal middle of the plate. Of those 12 home runs, three had come on pitches in the middle-outside part of the plate, four on middle, two on middle-in and two actually came on inside pitches out of the zone. At that point in the season, here were his various swing data:

Swing percentage: 44 percent
Miss percentage: 29 percent
Chase percentage: 22 percent
Percentage of pitches in zone: 51 percent

Swing data since April 28:

Swing percentage: 43 percent
Miss percentage: 35 percent
Chase percentage: 21 percent
Percentage of pitches in zone: 47 percent

Here's what his batting average zones look like since April 28:

Upton
Justin Upton is swinging and missing more often since April 28.


So there isn't a big difference in his approach; he's just swinging and missing more often. One note there: He's seeing more pitches up in the zone -- about 5 percent more often since that hot start -- and that's the pitch he's been struggling with. Since April 28, he's hitting .160 on pitches up. On the season, he's 0-for-22 on fastballs up in the zone (with eight walks and 17 strikeouts). He's going to keep seeing hard stuff until he shows he can turn on it.

B.J. Upton's struggles have been well documented. He's worked on his mechanics, but he's struggling to connect with the fastball: He's hit .194 against them, good for 158th out 161 regulars (only Josh Hamilton, Yuniesky Betancourt and Adeiny Hechavarria have a lower average).

Heyward's struggles against left-handers have become a legitimate problem on his path to stardom. After holding his own against them as a 20-year-old rookie in 2010, he's done little damage since:

2010: .249/.356/.399
2011: .192/.270/.308
2012: .224/.280/.354
2013: .185/.264/.308

His home run off Collins was a long blast to right-center off an 0-2 curveball. Collins wanted to go low and away but left it over the middle of the plate. "I was just looking for a pitch in the zone to hit," Heyward said. "Looking for a pitch in the zone to hit right there and try not to miss it. Put a good swing on it." It was just his fourth hit in 33 at-bats with two strikes against a lefty pitcher.

Braves fans seem to have their venom directed at Dan Uggla, but this team wasn't built to win based on Uggla hitting 36 home runs like he did in 2011. This team was counting on Upton, Upton and Heyward to be the best all-around outfield in the league. That is far from the case. It could be that the big decision the Braves face isn't a deadline trade, but manager Fredi Gonzalez determining if Jordan Schafer (.317/.406/.475 in 141 plate appearances) deserves more playing time.

Until or unless that becomes closer to a reality, don't count out the Nationals eventually making a run for the division title.