B.J. Upton approaching new season with clean slate
Rough Braves debut in past, outfielder feeling confident in mechanical adjustments
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- When Braves hitting coach Greg Walker drove to Tampa in January to watch B.J. Upton take batting practice, he had a chance to view the mechanical adjustments the veteran outfielder made this past offseason.
At the same time, Walker took advantage of the opportunity to strengthen Upton's psyche by letting him know that he views last year's miseries as a thing of the past.
"When I was hitting in the cage, I said something about last year, and [Walker] said, '[Heck], I don't even remember last year, all I remember is that swing you just took," Upton said. "That's kind of where we're at, and that's a good thing."
The dawn of a new season has allowed Upton to come to Spring Training with renewed confidence and a chance to find the comfort that eluded him last year, as he spent his first season attempting to live up to the expectations that came with the five-year, $75.25 million contract the Braves had just given him.
Along with dealing with the pressure that came with the lucrative deal, Upton also found it difficult to get acclimated to a new organization for the first time since the Rays took him with the second overall selection in the 2002 First-Year Player Draft.
While it was nice to go through this acclimation process with his younger brother at his side, the pressure that surrounded Upton mounted as he got off to a slow start while his sibling, Justin Upton, introduced himself to Atlanta with a torrid stretch that earned him the National League Player of the Month honor in April.
"I think all of that came into play," Upton said. "Once it started to snowball, there was no getting it back. I tried and tried and tried. It just wasn't happening. At some point, you just have to chalk it up to the game."
By the time last season concluded, Upton found himself with a .184 batting average, nine home runs and a .557 OPS -- the fourth-lowest mark in Atlanta Braves history, which dates back to 1966. Instead of sulking as he spent most of September in a reserve role, Upton spent the stretch run focusing on making those adjustments that proved too difficult to make in the midst of playing on an everyday basis.
As the season progressed, Upton realized that a mechanical flaw was creating too much inefficiency with the lower half of his body. But regardless of how many times his father, Manny Upton, or Walker made suggestions to create more efficiency with his legs, the 29-year-old outfielder was not able to fix the flaw that led him to strike out once every 2.95 plate appearances -- nearly one plate appearance fewer than his previous career low mark (3.75) the year before.
"You knew he was fighting the fight," said Walker, who has repeatedly praised Upton's work ethic. "It's just something that wasn't working, and you knew it was probably going to take the winter to work it out. The talent is there. It was there last year. There's no reason to question the talent."
Recognizing that fathers often have a solid feel for their son's swing, Walker talked to Manny Upton multiple times last summer and kept in touch with him throughout this past winter, when the elder Upton made multiple visits to Tampa to help his son. The fatherly advice helped create the adjustments that led the Braves center fielder to come to Spring Training with a stance that is much less upright than the one that was seen last year.
"He was trying to tell me the same thing last year," Upton said. "But when you've got things going on, it's tough. I couldn't really grasp what he was trying to tell me. When we started working on it during the [offseason], within the first five minutes, I understood what he was saying. Ever since then I've been right where I want to be."
While Upton has stressed that he did not make too many adjustments to his swing, he has continued to provide the Braves encouragement as he has spent the first week of Spring Training looking much more comfortable and athletic while using a more crouched batting stance.
"I like where he's at," Walker said. "We'll see in games if it comes back. But right now, against live pitching, he's staying right there."
As he batted .347 with a .849 OPS in the 75 at-bats he compiled during last year's Grapefruit League season, Upton did not provide any indication of what was to come. But a year later, he admits that he exited Spring Training feeling uncomfortable at the plate.
"I know I had a good spring last year, but it wasn't the right me," Upton said. "I will take a horrible spring doing it the way I'm doing it right now, rather than having a good spring and leaving Spring Training like I did last year.
"Right now, It's not even close to what it was last year. This is where I am at and this is where I want to stay. No matter what happens, I want to stay right here because what I am doing right now is efficient and it will work. It's just when it isn't going well, I can't hit the panic button like I did last year."
Instead of dwelling on what transpired last year, Upton is determined to follow the advice of Rays first-base coach George Hendrick, who often told him and many others, "Once it happens, it might as well have happened a hundred years ago."
"Last year is history," Upton said. "There's nothing I can do about it. It's over with. There is nothing I can do about it now, other than regroup and get ready for this year. I'm in a good place, especially mentally."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.