Angels' Justin Upton has mellowed with age but maintains an inner edge

Angels' Justin Upton has mellowed with age but maintains an inner edge
Justin Upton, center, is congratulated by Angels teammates in the dugout after scoring Sept. 2. (Jeffrey McWhorter / Associated Press)

Three hours before the Angels took the field Saturday in Seattle, Mike Trout and Justin Upton lounged inside Safeco Field's visiting clubhouse. A question about his new teammate occurred to Trout.

"Hey," he said, "when's the last time you hit outside?"


"Psssh," came the reply.

Upton later estimated that he has hit outside — taken batting practice — only once this season. He has not done it since the Angels acquired him from Detroit on Aug. 31. Earlier in his 11-year career, he said, he took batting practice before every game.

That began to change in 2014, and Upton said he now prefers to do all his hitting drills within indoor batting cages.

"I realized that I get better work done in there," he said. "I just like to work at a different pace. Out there, it's just rapid-fire repetitions. I like to work more controlled, more meticulously."

That mirrors the rest of Upton's game. Once a hotshot teenage prospect prone to outbursts of passion and frustration, Upton has become a calming presence, a man who says little but can be quick with a quip. He desires to be dependable, not particularly noticeable.

"He'll be that veteran guy if you need him to be," said Angels shortstop Andrelton Simmons, a teammate for two seasons in Atlanta. "But he doesn't go out of the way to do it, like addressing rookies and stuff like that."

Upton has collected more than 10 years of major league service time, though he turned 30 only late last month. All of that time in the spotlight changes a man. His wife, Ashley, once told ESPN Magazine that her husband, "was so cocky when he was younger."

That was when he was 24. Now, Upton is living out of a hotel for his one certain month as an Angel, learning his teammates, hoping to help them into the American League wild-card game, trying to decide whether to opt in for four more years in Anaheim. And he's doing it quietly.

"The older I get," Upton said, "the less edgy I get."


Justin Upton scores on a wild pitch by Marc Rzepczynski of the Seattle Mariners on Sept. 10.
Justin Upton scores on a wild pitch by Marc Rzepczynski of the Seattle Mariners on Sept. 10. (Lindsey Wasson / Getty Images)

Arizona selected Upton first overall in the 2005 draft, and he tore through their minor league affiliates. On Aug. 1, 2007, the Diamondbacks were 60-49, pushing toward a playoff spot, when right fielder Carlos Quentin suffered a pulled hamstring.

The next night, an hour before the first pitch, Upton arrived at San Diego's Petco Park to debut. It was three weeks before he turned 20.

"Everybody was talking about him," said Angels reliever Yusmeiro Petit, who started that game for the Diamondbacks.

Over 43 games in those final months, Upton hit .221 with a substandard .647 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. But he played regularly during Arizona's playoff run and clubbed two extra-base hits in a season-ending National League Championship Series loss.


"It really inspired the team when we got him," said Oakland manager Bob Melvin, who was then Arizona's manager. "You can't say, OK, here comes a 19-year-old basically out of double A and he's going to be your savior and you're gonna ride him to the playoffs. That would be awfully difficult to do. We made it a point to not make that the message with bringing him up. But guys were pretty fired up."

Now with his fifth organization, Upton has never made it further in the postseason.

Justin Upton and Brandon Phillips of the Angels walk back to the dugout after scoring on a double by C.J. Cron on Sept. 3.
Justin Upton and Brandon Phillips of the Angels walk back to the dugout after scoring on a double by C.J. Cron on Sept. 3. (Richard W. Rodriguez / Getty Images)

His teams have frequently made their World Series aspirations known, including Arizona in 2012. In that season's third game, Upton hurt his thumb breaking up a double play. For a week, he tried to play through it but finally succumbed to the team's requests to go on the disabled list.

But before he actually went on the DL, outfielder Chris Young suffered a separated shoulder. With Young out, Upton decided he had to keep playing.

So he did, but not to a high standard. Fans booed him at home, he lashed out to reporters, the owner of the team called him inconsistent and an enigma, and trade rumors swirled. After the season, in which the Diamondbacks finished a disappointing third in the NL West, Upton rejected a trade to Seattle, then was moved to Atlanta, with Arizona citing its desire to get grittier.

Upton does not regret his decision to play while diminished. He came to view 2012 as the year he began to learn how to lead.

"I think that was, honestly, the start of it," Upton said. "Every team I've gone to since, I've learned different things."

Once hyped as a superstar in the making, a future perennial MVP, Upton is not that. But he is among baseball's more consistent hitters. According to two advanced metrics, he has hit 20% better than league average for his career and run the bases well. In today's game, those attributes are worth his current $133-million contract.

"It would've been really hard for him to live up to the expectations that everybody had for him," Melvin said. "He did really well, and he's continued to do well in his career. So, I think, the expectations were probably unjust when he first got there."

Melvin described Upton as "very soft-spoken," but noted an inner edge he was sure the Angels had already noticed.

On Sunday in Seattle, that emerged for the first time. Frustrated with voices from behind the outfield wall who twice shouted out for fly balls headed his way, Upton drilled a go-ahead double to the same spot and demonstratively dropped his bat.

"These guys don't know me very well," he said of his teammates afterward. "But we're getting to know each other."

Short hops

Right-hander Alex Meyer will undergo surgery on a torn labrum in his shoulder on Tuesday with Dr. Neal ElAttrache. Based on the typical yearlong recovery, he's likely to miss the 2018 season. … A Monday MRI examination on left-hander Andrew Heaney's sore shoulder showed no strain, the Angels announced. He has not been ruled out to start this weekend.

Follow Pedro Moura on Twitter @pedromoura