You don’t have to go back very far to remember a time when Justin Upton was one of baseball’s premier hitters year after year.
For a decade-long stretch from 2009-2018, Upton was a mainstay in the middle of many different lineups, averaging 27 home runs per year while running a very good .270/.349/.482 triple slash and 124 wRC+. He made four All-Star Games over that time period, won three Silver Slugger awards, and was generally considered one of the more feared sluggers in the game.
The last two seasons haven’t looked quite the same for Upton, however, as his consistently great numbers took a sharp nosedive across the board after a 30-homer effort in his full-season debut with the Angels back in 2018, leaving him off many people’s radars entirely. On the surface, Upton’s sudden decline in production combined with his advancing age (he turned 33 in the middle of last season) don’t paint a pretty picture for his future prospects in 2021 and beyond. Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll find that the J-Up of old might be closer to returning than you might think.
A Rough Patch
Coming into the shortened 2020 season, Upton had a lot to prove. His last typical Upton season wasn’t that far in the rearview mirror, but his 2019 campaign was a struggle from start to finish. Two separate significant injuries hampered him for much of that year (a turf toe issue suffered just days before Opening Day delayed the start of his season until mid-June, and a patellar tendinitis diagnosis in mid-September ended it prematurely), and he never found a rhythm in the 63 games that he did play, leading to career worsts in pretty much every notable offensive metric, including a very underwhelming .215/.309/.415 triple slash and 92 wRC+.
This performance in 2019 was a bit concerning considering Upton had never really struggled to that extent at any point in his career, but given the extreme stop-start nature of that season for him, it was easy to give him the benefit of the doubt heading into 2020. This leeway soon started to fade pretty quickly, however, when you see how a healthy Upton came out of the gates last season:
|Rank (min. 70 PAs)||Worst||Worst||Worst||Worst||8th Worst|
To put it very lightly, the beginning of the 2020 season did not go Upton’s way at all, as he was quite literally the worst everyday player in baseball for the first month’s worth of games. The problems that he had at the plate during his abbreviated 2019 season reappeared in an even worse fashion than they did before, which led to Upton looking more lost at the plate than he ever had. His struggles got so bad, in fact, that he started losing playing time in favor of top prospect Jo Adell, who had played just 27 games at AAA before getting the call to the majors.
It wasn’t just one thing that led to Upton’s poor play in the first part of 2020, either, but instead a myriad of uncharacteristic issues that all manifested at one time. His walk rate, which sat at a very solid 10.3 percent for his career? It fell all the way to 6.6 percent, easily the lowest of his career. The ability to make consistent hard contact, one of his best attributes as a hitter for upwards of a decade? His average exit velocity came in at 87.7 miles per hour, which would’ve ranked in just the 36th percentile of qualified hitters across the full season. His strikeout rate, which already sat at a less than ideal 28.1 percent over the five years prior? It rose up to 35.9 percent, which would’ve been fourth-highest in all of baseball if it held all year.
As you can see, everything that could’ve gone wrong for Upton through the first month did go wrong. This cold 20-game stretch wouldn’t have been that big of a concern normally, but when you combined these struggles with the ones he underwent the year before, you had over half a season of games at sub-replacement level from Upton, which understandably had people hitting the panic button with him.
Small Change, Big Difference
Starting on August 28 and running through the last 22 games of the season, however, something clicked for Upton. Like a switch suddenly being flipped on, the old J-Up was back, as he slashed .303/.398/.605 with six home runs over that stretch. By wRC+, he went from far and away the worst hitter in baseball over the first month to 12th best over the last one, ranking right behind guys like Juan Soto and DJ LeMahieu.
Considering how bad Upton looked to start the season, you might be wondering how exactly that happened. The streaky nature of Upton as a hitter (he has always been prone to pretty drastic peaks and valleys throughout his career) is one potential explanation, especially when you factor in the small samples that these stretches occurred in, but according to the man himself, there might’ve been another factor:
“I think it was a strange season for everybody,” Upton said. “Some guys reacted to it well, while some guys didn’t, and I just happen to be one of the ones that didn’t react to the changes very well. I got off to a slow start, but I feel like I found a rhythm and tightened some things up, and those are all things that I can carry on into this year.”
This quote that Upton gave to reporters back in February at the start of Spring Training doesn’t give us too much insight into what changes he might’ve made to reach that level of performance beyond just “tightening some things up”, but if you look at his at-bats from both early in 2020 and later in the season, you might notice some differences in his stance at the plate. For example, take a look at this at-bat from July 31…
and compare it to this one from September 16:
Upton’s setup at the plate has never been overly complicated to begin with, so the adjustments that he made may seem subtle. There are definite differences between the two GIFs, though, starting with the placement of both his hands and the bat. In the first one, his hands are lower with the bat resting at a pretty flat angle, while the second one shows the bat at more of an upward angle with his hands a bit higher than before. His posture is another difference, as the late season version of Upton is standing taller than the more crouched setup he employed before that.
This change in his stance might not seem like that big of a deal, but it helped Upton cut down on some unnecessary movement in his swing. Both the early and late-season versions of Upton were ending up in roughly the same spot at the point where his swing would start, but because of where his hands were pre-swing in the former, it took more time and effort to get to that point. This caused some issues with timing, which led to Upton swinging through balls and mishitting them when he did make contact. After making this adjustment, though, these issues became a lot less common, which you can see reflected in some of the numbers mentioned earlier:
|Through 8/25||After 8/25|
|Avg. Launch Angle (degrees)||25.3||13.7|
|Avg. Exit Velocity (mph)||87.7||94.5|
By simplifying his swing, Upton was able to rediscover some of his better qualities as a hitter. He was once again hitting the ball extremely well with regularity, and his average launch angle returned to being more conducive to line drives rather than the mishit fly balls from before. He also both swung and missed less and made contact more, both very encouraging signs that allowed him a lot more opportunities to do damage than he had before making his adjustments. The combination of all of these things created a much healthier profile at the plate for Upton across the board, and those sterling numbers across the last month came as a result.
Like a lot of things that came from the shortened season, it’s hard to accurately predict just how 2021 will go for Upton. Even during his hot month of September, there were still some less than ideal aspects of his game (namely that his walk rate was still somewhat low for his standards and that he still had some trouble against breaking pitches), but the tangible changes that he made to his setup and the results that followed definitely give a reason to be encouraged about him going forward. These changes seem to have carried over to 2021 as well, as he had an excellent Spring Training (.364/.404/.727 with four home runs in 19 games) and has already hit seven balls at triple digit exit velocities since last Thursday’s season opener, including this go-ahead home run on Saturday that left his bat at 106.5 miles per hour:
The 2021 season is still very young, so only time will tell if the old J-Up is truly back for good or not. If he can continue to successfully implement the adjustments that he made at the end of last year, though, it would go a long way toward making that happen, and doing so would be a tremendous boost to an already strong Angels lineup.
Photo by Keith Allison / Wikimedia Commons | Adapted by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)