Many Atlanta Braves fans gave up on B.J. Upton after last season, resigning him to the icy lands of hopeless disdain already occupied by Dan Uggla. Still, some fans hope for a turnaround for B.J. in 2014. Is such a rebound possible? Just taking the 2013 season as a baseline, it’s hard to believe it could get much worse before Fredi Gonzalez would be forced to bench him again. In 391 ABs, B.J. only managed 72 hits, for a .184 batting average, further illustrating his less-than-stellar play, which revealed one question: What does B.J. have to do to get back on track?
- Improve Eye Discipline – In 2013, we saw B.J. swinging and missing in record fashion. Many of his strikeouts looked like he didn’t even see the ball until it was already in the catcher’s mitt, not to mention the fact that B.J. loved to complain about the strike zone, even when he was dead wrong. I think that B.J. was so mentally out of it that he completely lost the handle on the strike zone, and as a result his eye discipline. What do I mean by eye discipline? One of the first things your little league coach teaches you in hitting is to keep your eye on the ball. That sounds easy until you get to the major leagues and pitchers are tossing 96 mph gas mixed with ungodly breaking stuff. When a hitter has less than four-tenths of a second to make a decision, his best tool is his ability to recognize the pitch with good eye discipline. B.J. needs to make better contact, and at the very smallest levels, he just needs to get in the box with a pitcher and start relearning the zone. If he can train himself to start recognizing pitches without a bat in his hand, he’ll be one step ahead when it comes to hitting the ball.
- First Pitch, Best Pitch – A little known fact about B.J.’s hitting last year was that when he put the ball in play on the first pitch, he was hitting .396 with an OPS (slugging percentage + on-base percentage) of .910. That doesn’t sound like the B.J. we knew, but it’s true. When B.J. got the pitch he was looking for early, and he could actually make contact, he was an amazing hitter. However, the downside was that if he missed and got into an 0-1 count? His batting average from that point went down to .115. Yes, the falloff is that bad. He was the very definition of boom or bust, and it was mostly bust after pitch number one of any plate appearance. How does he improve that in 2014? The best way is for him to be looking for a pitch in the zone early, and then to put that in play. If pitchers want to throw him junk out of the zone early, that’s fine. B.J.’s batting average in 2013 after a 1-0 count was .203. That might not seem great, but it is an almost 90 point different in success at the plate.
- Relax, Shut Up, And Hit – Baseball umpires are human and make mistakes. However, they are also human and will hold a grudge against a hitter that complains all the time. There’s no better way to push yourself into a worse zone as a hitter than to complain about every single call. B.J. acted like a temper tantrum-throwing child at times last season, and it did him absolutely no favors with the fans or the umps. If there’s one thing those two groups hate more than anything, it’s a “Diva” attitude from a hitter that isn’t performing up to par. B.J. can’t control the calls, but he can control his reactions, and I guarantee that Bobby Cox (among others) wouldn’t have put up with some of the stuff he pulled in 2013. It was shades of Yunel Escobar before he got yanked and traded, and it would behoove B.J. to stop the drama.
- Have A Smaller Zone When Ahead – One of the things that drove me absolutely crazy in 2013 was B.J. striking out after he got into favorable counts. B.J. had a 2-1 count during 104 plate appearances last year, and in that stretch, he walked 23 times, struck out 41 times, and only hit for a .160 average. He also hit 6 of his home runs after those counts. B.J. seemed to get power happy in that scenario, and instead of working the count to his advantage on possibly going 3-1, he was often hacking and getting himself into a 2-2 count. What’s the difference? After a 3-1 count, B.J. had an OPS of 1.148. That’s enormous. After a 2-2 count, he had an OPS of .384. Do I even need to point out the night and day aspects of those two scenarios? I thought not.
- The Pitching Learning Curve – It would be easy to forget that B.J. switched leagues last year, and in many cases, he was facing pitchers he’d never seen before. In a situation where neither the pitcher nor the batter has ever seen the other, the advantage is to the pitcher. Over and over again, B.J. was seeing teams and hurlers with limited experience against him, and that won’t necessarily be the case this year. In addition to having NL experience, B.J. will have rolls and rolls of film he can request to analyze his appearances against NL pitching. I’m sure it will be a full highlight reel of “What Not to Do,” but for him, that will be valuable information with pitching tendencies.
- Look Back To 2008 - I fully believe B.J. was performing at his best from a pure hitting standpoint in 2008. The home run numbers weren’t that robust, as he only had 9 total on the season, but he walked 97 times and had a .273 average with an on-base percentage of .383. In addition to that type of work with the bat, he also stole 44 bases. Those numbers are the stats that every team would want in a lead-off hitter. Strong on-base, taking walks, hitting for average, and swiping bags. Frankly, I think B.J. has declined in value to his teams as he’s moved away from the speed game towards the power game. He’s forgotten how to slap hit and use his wheels to beat out a throw. However, those are tools that can come back if he moves his focus towards the role the Braves need, a really good lead-off guy. That would give the club a chance to move Heyward back to a power slot, along with Freeman, and Justin. The Braves don’t have a shortage of home run hitters, and it may help B.J. to focus on being a contact and speed guy to help the team, and let the power come when he really lines up a pitch.
I believe that B.J. Upton will rebound to at least a .235 hitter in 2014 if he continues to work on what’s important. Everything that seems to arise from Braves camp references that B.J. is working harder and harder on getting things right, and that he’s trying to get the timing back on his swing. Note, I didn’t say a thing about the timing, because I believe B.J.’s problems are almost entirely mental. His eyes, his attitude, his mentality all need to get right, and the feel of the swing will follow along with that. I don’t believe he’s mechanically broken at all. I think he just went too far down the mentally depressing hole in 2013.
Now? It’s a new year, and like the holiday Groundhog B.J. is ready to poke his head out of the ground for an early spring training.