Angels slugger Justin Upton salvages his season with a late kick
Upton opened the 60-game season with the worst 20-game stretch of his 14-year career, batting .099 with a .392 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, three homers and 28 strikeouts. .
His struggles were so deep that the Angels called up top outfield prospect Jo Adell on Aug. 4 and dropped Upton into a left-field platoon with Brian Goodwin. Upton was praised by manager Joe Maddon for handling his demotion like a pro, but it’s not as though Upton had a choice.
“I wasn’t helping the team win, so you have to put your ego aside and understand that the team is trying to win,” Upton said before Monday’s 8-5 victory over the Texas Rangers in Angel Stadium.
“It’s not about you, so I had to look in the mirror. That actually helped me, knowing we were putting our best [team] on the field. Then behind the scenes, I had to continue to work.”
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Through batting practice and extensive video study with hitting coaches Jeremy Reed, Paul Sorrento and John Mallee, Upton detected some flaws. There was too much movement in his hands, which threw off his timing and caused him to hit too many lazy fly balls and popups.
“I had to make a little adjustment to shorten the swing,” Upton said. “I think with my timing being off, I was just under a lot of baseballs and under a lot of pitches, and that never goes well. … I finally came to the conclusion that it’s timing and finding the top of the baseball was a key for me.”
Upton snapped a two-for-44 slump with a three-hit game against Seattle on Aug. 28, and he entered Monday’s game with a .339 average (20 for 59), 1.054 OPS, four homers, five doubles, 13 RBIs, 10 strikeouts and four walks in his previous 17 games.
He walked twice, was hit by a pitch and flied to right field Mondayand is batting .206 with a .705 OPS, seven homers and 20 RBIs in 38 games on the season.
Upton, a four-time All-Star who was acquired from Detroit in 2017, hit .257 with an .808 OPS, 30 homers and 85 RBIs in 2018 but was limited by knee and toe injuries to 63 games in 2019, when he hit .215 with a .724 OPS, 12 homers and 40 RBIs.
He said he was “probably in the best shape I’ve been in in a while” when he reported to spring training in February, and he felt encouraged after hitting his first Cactus League homer against Cleveland on March 9.
That turned out to be his last exhibition at-bat until late July, after baseball’s 3½-month shutdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I hate to sound like an old guy, but doing this for so long, you get comfortable going through spring training, opening day and those routines,” Upton said. “I’ll just admit I adapted poorly to the second spring training. That’s definitely on me.”
Upton has two years and $51 million left on his five-year, $106-million deal and is confident he can be a productive slugger.
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“This is a new period of my career, but my body still feels good,” Upton said. “I feel like I’m running better. I feel like I’m moving better. I feel like I have a lot of good baseball to play.”
Upton won’t necessarily carry any momentum from 2020 to 2021 — it will be another five months before he reports to spring training next season — but with his strong finish, he won’t have to spend all winter stewing about his brutal start.
“I mean, it is rewarding,” Upton said. “Obviously, I would have liked to start out better and help the guys early. That’s just athletes man, we’re gonna compete no matter what, and I take pride in competing.
“But I was able to continue to compete, and when things were going bad, and I was able to right the ship. Definitely just proud of the work I put in to get back and be able to help the guys.”
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