DETROIT — At long last, the Justin Upton that the Detroit Tigers were waiting for has arrived. After two solid months of strikeouts and more strikeouts, the left fielder has broken out — or settled, rather — into the hitter he was expected to be. And the timing couldn’t be more perfect with J.D. Martinez unable to contribute for the next 4-6 weeks.
Upton’s struggles have been evident, and by his own admission he hasn’t been seeing the ball well for much of the season. Already a high strikeout hitter, Upton led the majors in strikeouts for the first month and a half. His strikeout percentage was 38.4 percent in April, second in MLB only to Indians’ Mike Napoli (who played three games fewer).
But in May, the strikeouts began to fall. Only slightly, but Upton dropped to No. 5 in baseball with a 34.7 percentage. His walk rate increased (from 3.0 to 9.2 percent) and his wRC+ went from 47 to 62. Nothing big, but there were subtle improvements. Then, June began and the difference has been night and day, starting with improved contact with pitches made.
Upton began June with an 0-for-4 night and a strikeout versus the Angels, the last game of a West Coast road trip. But he came home to Detroit and put together a five-game stretch where he hit .400/455/.650 with two doubles and a homer. His swings were better and the results showed. Then, he was quiet for two games, before picking up where he left off, and he hasn’t stopped since.
In June, Upton has walked 9.9 percent of the time and lowered his strikeout percentage to 24.7. His .274 ISO and 146 wRC+ aren’t even on the same planet with his earlier season numbers. None of these rank in the top 30 in MLB for production, but given Upton was one of the worst batters in baseball for two months, it’s a godsend.
Upton is in the middle of a 10-game hitting streak and he’s hit five home runs in 19 games. The latest two occurred on Monday night, with the former landing in the bushes to dead center at 446 feet, according to ESPN Stats & Info. That’s typically reserved for Miguel Cabrera, and not once, but twice did Upton put the Tigers in the lead — with the second going as the game-winner.
Quite the change from a batter who’s been so frustrated with his slump, that at times he threw his bat or helmet in frustration.
Upton isn’t one to admit he’s been pressing — and still hasn’t to this point — but after Monday night’s victory, Tigers manager Brad Ausmus acknowledged the struggles had been getting in Upton’s head to some degree. Given that, the five-game streak he had at the beginning of the month was crucial in helping him break out of the worst slump of his career.
However, Upton tweaked his approach at the plate, too. The credit for noting the difference goes to Kirk Gibson, as he pointed out during Monday’s broadcast that the angle of Upton’s leg/knee was more extreme. That came as a result of a change to Upton’s hips, which were dropping mid-swing and he’d since eliminated.
As such, Upton’s stance has been noticeably stiffer as opposed to flailing at the plate, producing more contact with better results.
Upton’s exit velocity hasn’t deteriorated, even during his struggles. The raw power was there: he just couldn’t access it properly — much like what White Sox’s Jose Abreu was going through this season until June, and he’s now batting .348/.387/.621 this month. Upton’s issues have always been strikeout-driven, and even in June he has just four games where he hasn’t struck out once.
The strikeouts aren’t going to go away. Power hitters tend to strike out at a higher rate regardless, but it’s what happens with the other at-bats that makes the difference. Upton is seeing the ball better because of a minor tweak and getting out of his own head. Now, instead of non-strikeout hard-hit balls going for flyouts, they’re landing beyond the fences.
With J.D. Martinez on the disabled list for the next good while, Upton will need to pick up some of the slack. If the Tigers are going to stay within arms reach of contention — especially given the pitching staff’s combustible nature — they’re going to need Upton’s hot bat. Lucky for them, it looks like he may have finally found it at the perfect time.