Last January, after a year of chipping away at their rightfielder as both a player and a person, the Diamondbacks traded Justin Upton to the Braves. The deal was the centerpiece of Arizona's off-season plan, which, when distilled, valued intangibles over talent. Never mind that Upton had nearly been the National League MVP in 2011, the best player on a division champion. Owner Ken Kendrick, general manager Kevin Towers and manager Kirk Gibson determined that their team was better with Upton elsewhere and a grinder, the multipositional Martin Prado, in Arizona.
It was a curious choice. Upton was the first pick of the 2005 draft, and he reached the majors—at 19—just two years after being selected. He's one of 15 righthanded batters in baseball history with at least 100 homers and 700 hits through age 24. Nine of the other 14 are in the Hall of Fame. In two postseasons he batted .265/.405/.529, an exceptional line for any player. While a wrist injury limited Upton to 17 homers in 2012, he showed improvement in his plate discipline; in fact, the only element missing was the power, and that had begun to return late in the year. Upton hit six homers and slugged .522 in the season's final month, underlining the point that it was the sore wrist, and not some deficit of character, that tamped down his numbers.
The Braves can attest to this. Upton has been their best player so far, helping them to an early lead in the NL East despite three starters' being sidelined (catcher Brian McCann, first baseman Freddie Freeman and rightfielder Jason Heyward) and three others performing so ineffectively that they might as well be (second baseman Dan Uggla, shortstop Andrelton Simmons and centerfielder B.J. Upton). Justin has 12 homers (best in NL) and a .657 slugging percentage (second), and his game-winning home run on April 6, two batters after brother B.J. tied the game with a homer of his own, is one of the signature moments of the season. Upton has played all but three innings this year (he was pulled in the final frame of a trio of blowouts), the rare dependable performer on a team that is in first place despite its wounded and struggling stars.
Upton's success at the plate is hardly surprising, but how he's achieving it is. For the past two years in Arizona under the Towers regime—which made lowering batter strikeouts a goal even in the face of sabermetric research showing that strikeouts are no worse than other outs—Upton cut down his whiff rate from more than 25% to less than 20% of his plate appearances. In Atlanta, freed from a mandate to make more contact, Upton has turned it loose. He's swinging harder and missing more pitches (a 12% swing-and-miss rate, his highest since 2009), but he's crushing the ones he's hitting: An absurd 35.3% of his fly balls leave the yard. He's a perfect fit for a Braves offense right out of the late 1990s: second in the NL in homers, first in strikeouts, third in slugging and fourth in walks.
The team he didn't fit? Well, Arizona is getting a .226 batting average, with a .273 OBP, from Prado, whose OPS is less than Upton's slugging percentage. Now maybe Prado's grit has helped the Diamondbacks go 6--0 in extra-inning games, but Upton's homers have helped the Braves go 17--10 in regulation and avoid the crapshoot that is extra innings.
Upton isn't going to hit 60 bombs. His home-run-to-fly-ball rate isn't sustainable; his career mark coming into this year was 13.2%. The league leaders in the category usually end up around 25%, however, and Upton may be ready to make that kind of leap, free of the pressure to strike out less and free to return to the approach from the one that made him the top pick in the draft at 17 and a near MVP at 23. Free of the need to be gritty (whatever that means).
Free to just hit home runs.
Upton is the rare dependable performer on a team that is in first place despite its struggling and wounded stars.