We hear the justifications every year, when stars struggle early in their debut seasons with new teams: He’s adjusting … He’s pressing … He’s settling in … He’s trying to do too much … It’s not easy to change divisions/leagues/cities/positions.
Then there’s Justin Upton.
In his first month as an Atlanta Brave, he’s been the best player on the planet.
“That’s what we say,” teammate Reed Johnson affirmed. “He’s got 11 homers. He’s swinging the bat the way he is. We’re in the best league in the world. You can technically say, ‘Man, this guy is probably the best player in the world right now.’
“When you say that about somebody — even if it’s only for the first month of the season — that’s pretty special. He’s obviously put up some good numbers in Arizona. In that sense, it’s not much of a surprise. But I’m sure he’s pretty happy with the way he’s started out.”
Happy? Yes, Upton is that. His new team has the National League’s best record. He leads the league in home runs and WAR. Before this weekend’s series in Detroit (Saturday, MLB on FOX, 12:30 p.m. ET), Upton talked about how much he’s enjoyed watching the Braves’ supporting players contribute while Brian McCann, Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman have been out with injuries. More than once during our 10-minute conversation, Upton said the Braves have a “great clubhouse.”
And he’s still only 25 years old.
To understand the extent of Upton’s fulfillment, and the ease with which he’s made the transition, we must acknowledge what he endured in 2012. When the season began, he was the Arizona Diamondbacks’ franchise cornerstone. By the time it ended, he had been booed at home and criticized publicly by managing general partner Ken Kendrick.
Despite leading the National League with 19 hit-by-pitches in 2011, Upton apparently didn’t do enough to convince general manager Kevin Towers and manager Kirk Gibson that he fit the team’s “grinder” mentality. So the Diamondbacks traded him in January, barely more than 14 months after he finished fourth in the 2011 NL MVP vote.
Upton arrived in Atlanta with Chris Johnson (.980 OPS in 17 games) for infielder/outfielder Martin Prado, right-hander Randall Delgado and prospects Nick Ahmed, Zeke Spruill and Brandon Drury.
“It happened quick,” Upton said of the change in his status with the only team he’d known. “When I got to spring training (this year), that’s when it was really sinking in. I thought, ‘I’m part of this organization. It’s time to go.’ I feel at home now. This is a great clubhouse, a good group of guys. We’re having fun.
“We’re having a lot of fun.”
Upton is thriving in his first month with the Braves, while his brother, B.J., has struggled after signing a five-year, $75.25 million contract. The explanation for Justin’s hot start could be a matter of perspective. Even while facing high expectations in a new city, Justin Upton said that last season — the constant trade rumors, the chorus of criticism, the uncertainty of where he’d end up — was harder mentally.
“Your goal every year is to go on the field and not worry about anything off of it,” he said. “There were a lot of things floating around. As much as you try to ignore it, walking into the clubhouse every day, someone’s going to come up to you and talk about it. That wasn’t fun. That’s not something you want to play with every day. But you deal with those things in your career.
“Being traded, being on the trade block — that stuff doesn’t bother you. That’s part of the game. But having my character challenged by a lot of people who didn’t know me, who weren’t in the clubhouse, that’s one of the parts that gnawed at me, got to me a little bit. As far as challenging my skills as a player, that’s fine. That happens every day. But when people challenge your character, that’s bothersome.”
Upton said he has “no clue” as to the precise origin of those criticisms. Unlike many franchise-star divorces, we can’t identify a single incident as the moment at which everything went terribly, horribly wrong. Kendrick did describe Upton as “an enigma” in an interview with XTRA 910 AM radio last year. More than anything, though, the trade rumors assumed a rare momentum unto themselves. Many believe Gibson and Upton had a philosophical difference. But when I asked Upton if that was the case, he replied: “To be honest with you, I don’t know. I couldn’t tell you.”
I sensed no bitterness from Upton about his time with the Diamondbacks, even as we spoke for several minutes about his tenure there. Asked if he feels his performance this season has proved something to Kendrick or his other critics, Upton answered: “No, I know what type of player I am. I’ve had good seasons before. I just happened to start off a little hotter than usual this time. It feels good to be here and winning ballgames with this team. We have one goal, and that’s getting to the postseason. For me, the fact that I’ve helped this team win some games this month has been fun.”
The Braves are enamored with Upton now, and not only because of his .768 slugging percentage — although that helps.
“He’s one of the better teammates I’ve played with, and this is my 11th season,” Johnson said. “I’ve played with a lot of good people. He’s right up there with the best teammates I’ve been around.”
Hitting coach Greg Walker said Upton is among the team’s hardest workers, and manager Fredi Gonzalez acknowledged that Upton shares some traits in common with a certain right-handed batter from the first team he managed in the major leagues: Miguel Cabrera. Both can launch balls to right field that look as if they came off the bat of a left-handed hitter.
“They’re very similar players, very similar approaches at the plate,” Gonzalez said.
Cabrera, as the reigning Triple Crown winner, will retain the title as the game’s best hitter until someone proves otherwise. But in April 2013, no player in baseball has been better than Justin Upton. And one wonders if last year’s criticism has had a little something to do with that.
“Each year is a battle,” Upton said. “You learn new things. You learn more about yourself and what can make you better. The goal every year is to get better, so when it’s all said and done, if they say you were one of the best hitters they’ve seen, that’s the reward.”