April 10, 2014
Painting the Black
(B.J.) Upton No Good
The Braves and Nationals played a three-game series over the weekend, and obscured by the obvious storyline—the two best teams in the National League East meeting for the first time this season—was a subplot for sadists: Just how many strikeouts would B.J. Upton, who entered the series with a 44 percent whiff rate, tally against a Nationals staff that fanned 39 batters in its first 28 innings? The answer, it turned out, was five times in 13 tries; an improvement over Upton's first series, when he struck out in half his 12 plate appearances. He then started the next series with this sequence:
Seventeen months ago, the spindly center fielder signed a five-year, $75 million deal with the Braves. Now his games can be reduced to images like the one above, in which he swung through three consecutive Bartolo Colon fastballs, including two down the middle. For as much heat as Albert Pujols takes, Upton belongs in the conversation as one of the worst free-agent signings in recent memory. He entered Wednesday night with the lowest WARP since the beginning of last season among position players, and with Braves career marks of .181/.260/.281. Mario Mendoza, oft-considered the worst hitter of all-time, batted .183/.220/.225 over his stinkiest two-year stretch. Upton outhit Mendoza by a little, but then he outearned him by even more.
The velocity of Upton's transition from good to bad is more jarring than the extremity. The Braves signed him because he was a young, dynamic athlete; someone who could contribute in all three phases of the game. True, there were some question marks about his game, mostly concerning his baseball IQ. Too often Upton repeated the same mistakes—be it throwing to the wrong base on a low-percentage play, succumbing to tricky sequencing, or getting picked off base. Yet his progress during his final season in Tampa Bay provided hope that his baseball skills could sharpen enough to balance out his eventual physical losses.
So how then did Upton—an intriguing, if at times frustrating talent—morph from a talent worthy of an eight-figure sum to one of the league's worst players in such a short span? The explanation seems to reside in the intersection between the physical and mental sides of the game: between mechanics and mindset.
Ever since Upton's early-season struggles last year, the buzz around him has included talk of madeover mechanics. He needed to either truncate his increasingly deep load, or alter his trigger, or open his stance so he could see the ball better, or one of another half-dozen possible fixes. Upton's focus this winter rested on improving his balance by engaging his lower half better. Lindsay Berra detailed his optimism in a MLB.com article, while explaining the problem at hand:
In Upton's case, he was too upright, with his weight too settled in his heels, and he could not properly initiate his swing. His hips were not rotating toward the pitcher in time for his hands to take that same path. Rather, because the right-handed hitter's hips remained closed toward first base, his hands were traveling toward the lefty batter's box. In order to get back to the ball, the path the bat traveled through the hitting zone became not only much longer, but also right to left rather than straight ahead. Subsequently, Upton was pulling nearly everything he hit toward left field.
Save for a decent exhibition campaign, all that work and hope has not improved Upton's play. Despite changed mechanics, including more lower-half bend and additional hip rotation, he fails the eye test thanks to a noisy upper half and sub-optimal weight transfer. Worse yet, Upton's numbers are putrid across the board. The regular season remains in its infancy, but statistics that tend to stabilize fast, like those presented below, sing a song of a hitter who is expanding his zone and swinging and missing far more often than he did during his productive years:
Though results should remain separate when analyzing mechanics, often the two are one in the same, and if it works, it works—when was the last time someone critiqued Allen Craig's bat waggle, or Wil Myers' top-heavy swing? For as obvious as Upton's mechanical deficiencies are, he was able to succeed in the past with similar woes. Perhaps his problems are worse now, but his troubles could be about more than a late trigger, or less-than-stellar barrel control.
"The new stance and trigger are most definitely causing all sorts of timing issues, but it's to the point now that he's stuck in between all these different mechanics," our Chris King said in an email after reviewing Upton's swings over the past six years. "I would like to see him just simplify things and go back to the basics like he was in 2008 and 2009. He's never had the reputation as a cerebral player, so the less time he spends in his head the better."
Without knowing Upton, there's no definitive way to tell if his mental game has been impacted by his struggles. It is easy to string together a narrative that promotes that conclusion, however. Say Upton wanted to justify the contract while keeping pace with his brother's hot start. But he couldn't and didn't, so he tinkered with his mechanics. The changes didn't work, so he pressed harder, and changed more. By season's end, Upton had to be an exasperated mess*. Now think about how he feels after another horrendous start. If his struggles continue, he runs the risk of falling into the same rut again.
*He seemed to admit as much to Berra when he said, "It was pointless work," and "I didn't understand what was wrong."
That leaves the Braves in an unenviable position. Fredi Gonzalez has batted Upton in the second slot this season, as a means to making him feel comfortable. At some point, though, Gonzalez will have to concede that such an arrangement is hurting his lineup. Unless moving down the order removes pressure from Upton—and it didn't last season—or he figures out what ails him, then the Braves may have to approach him about a phantom disabled list stint. Such a move would allow Upton to regain his confidence against minor-league pitchers who are unable to exploit him in the same manner, and would provide him with a break away from the bright lights in the majors.
The Braves gave Jordan Schafer the start on Wednesday night, but if they want to make another postseason run, they'll need the older Upton to contribute in a positive manner—even if it takes some more creative maneuvering to get him back on track.