This isn't how it was supposed to be
In first season together with Braves, B.J. and Justin Upton have struggled mightily
B.J. Upton has been around long enough to realize it's a no-win proposition to take the game home with him. So after particularly frustrating nights at the park, he'll linger in the clubhouse as long as necessary to flush the negative vibes from his system. Maybe he'll duck into the video room and queue up another tough at-bat for a second look or sit at his locker immersed in thought while other players shower and dress for the team bus.
With the exception of an occasional outburst -- such as a spirited confrontation with umpire Doug Eddings over a called third strike Sunday in Philadelphia -- Upton maintains a cool exterior and barely speaks above a whisper. But the discomfort is palpable when he's standing at home plate and he looks up at the scoreboard and sees the fluorescent lights mocking him in return. Nothing makes them look bigger or shine brighter than a .173 batting average.
"It's rough," Upton says. "This definitely isn't how I pictured it going coming into the season -- and I'm obviously not satisfied. When you know you're better than what you're doing on the field, it makes it tough."
In the case of B.J. and younger brother Justin, that sentiment resonates in stereo.
The Braves remade their outfield during the offseason with a double dose of Upton power. In November, they signed B.J. to a five-year, $75.25 million deal as a free agent. Two months later, they added Justin to the mix in a seven-player trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
The Uptons posed with right fielder Jason Heyward for the cover of the team's 2013 media guide and were a prominent feel-good story in spring training. As the city of Atlanta came to grips with Chipper Jones' retirement, Braves fans were simultaneously stoked about the prospect of Manny and Yvonne's two sons joining the Shannons (Joe and Red), Cooneys (Jimmy and Johnny), Tylers (Fred and Lefty) Torres, (Joe and Frank), Mahlers (Mickey and Rick), Drews (J.D. and Tim), and, of course, Niekros and Aarons as the ninth set of brothers to play for the franchise.
Everything was great -- on paper. Five months later, the Uptons are flashing a little too much Tommie Aaron and not nearly enough Hank.
Justin broke out of the gate with a flurry, hitting 12 homers and slugging .734 in April to win the National League player of the month award. The Diamondbacks feared he might bust out in new environs and make them regret bailing on him too soon. But did he need to make the point so emphatically in April?
It didn't last. Even though Justin contributed a big two-run double Monday in Atlanta's 7-1 win over Miami, he is hitting .223 (49-for-220) with three home runs and 23 RBIs since May. Bryce Harper overtook him for the NL's final starting All-Star outfield spot, and he mercifully won't have to go to New York and answer questions about why he backed his way onto the NL squad.
Trouble with the curve
B.J. Upton held his own against breaking balls in the strike zone after the All-Star break last season, but has tailed off markedly vs. those pitches this year:
|Pct. of swings missed||27||35|
|Source: ESPN Stats & Information (statistics through July 7)|
B.J.'s season has been a slog from the outset. Among the 161 players listed in ESPN's stats, he ranks last in batting average and 158th in OPS at .567. Only the White Sox's Jeff Keppinger is worse. Things bottomed out in early June when B.J. was hitting .146 and Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez ruminated aloud about the possibility of sending him to the minors for a refresher course.
The All-Star Game is coming at a fortuitous time for the Uptons. B.J. will go home to Florida. Justin will take a break at his home in Arizona, and they'll have a chance to clear their heads and start fresh. They're intent on turning things around so this doesn't become the worst collaboration by a pair of siblings since the Farrelly brothers made "Hall Pass."
"I think I've looked at enough film and been in the cage enough," B.J. says. "It's just a matter of going out and doing it. I feel great up there now, but it's just not happening. It can't go that way all year. At least, I hope it doesn't. I'll break out of it -- hopefully sooner rather than later."
B.J. isn't the first free agent to labor in his first year with a new club. Josh Hamilton is producing well below his career norm in Anaheim. Last year, Albert Pujols hit .217 with a .570 OPS in his first month as an Angel. The year before that, Jayson Werth entered the All-Star break with a .215 batting average as a National. And who can forget Adam Dunn, who hit .159 and logged a wins above replacement of minus-2.8 with the White Sox in 2011 after signing a four-year, $56 million deal as a free agent?
The natural takeaway: Even players with abundant self-confidence and lengthy track records can fall victim to self-imposed pressure and a desire to justify the big dollars invested in them. In the case of the Upton brothers, a residual trace of empathy might have to be factored into the equation.
"I'm not a psychologist," Braves hitting coach Greg Walker says, "but they see each other scuffling, and I know they worry about each other. They love each other like brothers and they worry. They're human."
Beyond the mental and emotional factors, the brothers have enough mechanical issues to occupy a pair of swing doctors. Walker and his assistant, Scott Fletcher, have tried every drill and pregame ritual imaginable to turn things around. As a complement to underhand flips in the cage, the Uptons have taken their hacks against overhand tosses with a little more zip. They've also taken batting practice from closer than the usual 60 feet -- a la Alex Johnson during his batting title days with the California Angels -- as a possible antidote to bad timing.
After a decade-plus as a hitting instructor with the White Sox and Braves, Walker has learned that no piece of information is too trivial to be discounted, so he's on alert for every snippet he can glean about the Uptons from current or former teammates, coaches or anyone else who can help. He has exchanged cellphone numbers with the Uptons' father, Manny -- aka "Bossman" -- and maintains an open line of communication with the man who knows their personalities and swings more intimately than anyone else.
"They'll come in and say, 'I was talking to my dad, and he reminded me of this,'" Walker says. "And 100 percent of the time, I've agreed with him. He's known them since they were kids. He helped create them. I've never been against a player talking to somebody else. I encourage it if I feel they're getting the right message. In this case, that's not the problem."
The problem is related more to mechanical flaws than a lack of plate discipline or a change in approach. Earlier this season, B.J. had so much excess motion in his swing that he was consistently late on balls. He eventually remedied that issue, but now he's plagued by too much lower-body movement and a tendency to spin off balls. He is also a victim of what Walker calls "bad posture," leaning so far back in his stance at times that he's essentially swinging uphill.
Justin's problems are more evident with his upper half. Rather than using his top hand to pull the bat back, he's pushing forward and cutting himself off midswing. As Walker explains, the glitch is doing a number on both his swing plane and his bat "whip."
"They're both physically gifted to hit fastballs," Walker says. "Sometimes it's approach, but most of the time with these two, it's swing mechanics. They have things that come out when the game speeds up that beat them. In B.J.'s case, it usually starts with his lower half. With Justin, it usually starts with his top hand."
Struggling against the heat
Justin Upton wore out fastballs, cutters, sinkers and splitters in April, but has struggled mightily against the hard stuff since May:
|Source: ESPN Stats & Information (statistics through July 7)|
Some numbers provided by ESPN Stats & Information help illustrate the negative fallout:
• Justin's "chase rate" on pitches outside the strike zone has increased from 19 to 23 percent since his big opening month. He's hitting .206 against right-handed pitching in May, June and July, compared to .313 in April. He's pounding a lot more balls into the ground -- and when he does manage to elevate the ball, it lacks sufficient carry to go behind the warning track. In April, 26 percent of his at-bats ended in a hard-hit ball. Since May, it's down to 13 percent.
"It's day to day," Justin says. "Some days you come in and feel great and you'll ride that for a week or so, and then you're trying to find it again. I know it's a cliché when people say the season has ups and downs. But you have to ride it out."
• B.J. would be ecstatic with a good week, much less a torrid month. He's a pale imitation of the hitter who went on a 19-homer power binge in Tampa Bay in August and September last season to help stoke the free-agent market.
He's hitting the ball on the ground 48 percent of the time, compared to 34 percent in the second half last season. He's struggled against fastballs and breaking balls, hitting .045 (3-for-67) with 40 whiffs when he swings at a pitch outside the strike zone. The ultimate indignity came June 20, when he went 0-for-5 with two strikeouts against the Mets on B.J. Upton Bobblehead Night at Turner Field.
The Uptons' travails are not from a lack of effort. It was 94 degrees with stifling humidity in Philadelphia on Saturday when B.J. emerged in the clubhouse, clad in shorts, carrying a bat and sweating from a round of early swings in the indoor cage. He proceeded to put on a show in batting practice, sending four majestic shots into the Citizens Bank Park stands during one impressive five-swing span. He looked relaxed, fluid and effortlessly powerful with his stroke.
When B.J. smoked two balls off third baseman Michael Young for base hits and scorched a liner to right field for an out in Atlanta's 13-4 victory over the Phillies, it looked like the kind of day that might provide him with some desperately needed traction. But it was a false alarm. In his final at-bat, B.J. flailed at two breaking pitches from reliever Phillippe Aumont for his 95th whiff of the season. The following day, he was ejected by Eddings for arguing from the dugout.
Another game, another day at square one.
"We're just trying to take it from the practice range to the tee box," Walker says, invoking a golf analogy. "That's where we're stuck right now. I tell B.J.: 'When you get in the batter's box, make sure the fight is between you and the pitcher, not you and yourself. If it's between you and the pitcher, then we've got a chance.'"
I'm not a psychologist, but they see each other scuffling, and I know they worry about each other. They love each other like brothers and they worry. They're human." -- Braves hitting coach Greg
Walker on the Upton brothers
The Uptons have had the luxury of working through their problems because the Braves continue to win. Atlanta leads the NL East by five games over Washington, on the strength of a pitching staff that ranks second in the league with a 3.24 ERA and an offense that's third in runs scored. The Braves lead the NL with 108 homers and rank second to Cincinnati with 312 walks. But the lineup is underachieving, with the exception of Freddie Freeman, Chris Johnson and Brian McCann, and the Braves are going to be hard-pressed to hold off Washington if they can't find a way to manufacture more offense without the long ball.
Amid the oh-fers, the Uptons say the support of their teammates has been a godsend during the rough patches, and they love playing for a tradition-laden team with playoff aspirations. As a bonus, they've enjoyed the opportunity to play together, go to dinner together and strive toward a common goal.
"I see two good kids -- I really do," Gonzalez says. "They're two of the hardest workers I've ever been around or seen. And I see two stand-up guys. When they make a mistake or know they've screwed up, they're the first ones to admit it. I haven't heard a writer say, 'He dodged a question,' or, 'He hid in the cafeteria for three hours.' Even when I've spoken to them about stuff, it's always, 'I screwed up,' or, 'I'll do better.'"
This is a common refrain from people who've been around the Uptons: They can be stubborn and inwardly sensitive to criticism, but they genuinely care and understand that there are no shortcuts to success in baseball. If Manny and Yvonne taught their sons one particularly valuable lesson, it's the importance of being accountable and refraining from lame rationalizations.
Case in point: Justin has had so much trouble catching up to high-octane fastballs, it's fueled a run of Internet speculation about his health. You don't have to search hard to find a blog advancing the theory that his hand is hurt or he's toughing it out through an oblique injury. But he quickly lays that issue to rest.
"I'm 100 percent healthy," Justin says. "I've got no ailments."
B.J. is healthy as well, unless you count wounded pride and battered self-esteem. He seeks refuge in the timeworn homilies that are the refuge of sub-.200 hitters. Baseball is a humbling game. The cream rises to the top. What doesn't kill you can only make you stronger. You get the idea.
"This game will test you," B.J. says. "You just have to find a way to keep it as simple as possible and have a very short-term memory. The beautiful thing about baseball is, you get to play every day and come out there the next day ready to go."
The brothers have no choice but to remain positive and believe that talent and hard work will win out in the end. The Braves' season is turning into a family test of wills as the Uptons try to recapture the promise of spring.
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