SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Arizona right fielder Justin Upton has been tested.
He passed, with flying colors.
Now, it’s time for the opposition to move on.
A year ago, Upton was hit by a pitch 19 times, sharing the top spot in the National League.
He would take some extended stares at the opposition pitcher, but avoided charging the mound.
This year, the Diamondbacks, as a team, won’t be as understanding.
“Most of them were intentional,” said Arizona hitting coach Don Baylor, who was hit by more pitches (267) than any other player who did not wear padding. “I think, with him, there is a perception as to what (opposing players) think he is or what he was.
“He is still young (24), but he is a guy who plays every day and wants to play every day. I think he is perceived as something else.”
The Upton of today is far from the cocky kid the Diamondbacks brought to the big leagues at the age of 19. After being coddled by the previous front office to the extent that his original manager, Bob Melvin, was ridiculed by his bosses for wanting to discipline the youngster for a lack of respect for the game, Upton has been challenged by the current men in charge in Arizona.
And, to Upton’s credit, not only has he accepted the demands of manager Kirk Gibson, he has embraced a better focus on what his responsibility is to the game. In turn, he also has been more productive.
Arizona shocked the NL West by winning the division last year, and Upton was the focal point of the Arizona offense, along with the target for too many pitches from the opposition.
Baylor has become a mentor to Upton, and for Baylor there is an emphasis on a top player making sure he is available to play. He has emphasized that to Upton. As a point of reference, Baylor charged the mound only three times out of the 267 times he was hit by a pitch. And each of the three times he was hit in the head — by Dennis Leonard, Dick Pole and John Denny “when he came over from the National League to the American League and thought he could intimidate people.”
Baylor gave Denny something else to think about. It, however, was not part of Baylor’s routine.
“You get suspended for three or five games, and that’s chances to impact a game you miss,” said Baylor. “That’s what other teams want you to do. We’ve talked to him about that. He does have a quick trigger, but he has developed an understanding of how important he is to the team, and how much the team needs him in the lineup.
“With that in mind, there are some times a statement needs to be made. He can’t just stand there time after time and get drilled.”
Baylor made many statements during his career. He would respond to being hit by a pitch by stealing second and/or third base, and he would go into the base with a vengeance. The message would be delivered to the opposing pitcher by the middle infielder who was the victim of Baylor’s arrival at second base.
“You would see him on first, staring at you, and you knew exactly what was going to happen,” said former Baltimore second baseman Richie Dauer.
And like Baylor, Upton has the type of speed to get that point home on the base paths.
He also has teammates ready to take up the battle to protect him.
Right-handed pitcher Daniel Hudson said he isn’t issuing any warnings, but during a recent radio interview he did say, “Obviously, everybody knows he’s our best hitter, and teams tried to take him out of the games as much as possible. The scouting report on him might be to try pounding him inside, but it comes to a point where you either hit your spot or you don’t.
“And when it becomes a problem and you start doing it more than once in a game or more than once in a series, then it becomes a problem. Every once in a while I’m sure it’s accidental, but at the same time we’re aware of it.”
Upton said he plans to keep the same focus he had last year, when he hit .289 with 31 home runs and 88 RBI, and finished fourth in the NL MVP voting, even earning one first-place vote.
“Going out and fighting a guy for hitting you is not part of the game,” he said. “That’s something I won’t do. I’ve stared down quite a few of them, though.”
Baylor said if Upton maintains his approach, teams will pitch him more carefully.
“I’m sure a lot of it was testing him, seeing if he’d take the bait,” Baylor said. “He didn’t. So now teams will have to re-evaluate the approach. I know a guy of his potential would be the last guy I’d want to put on base intentionally.
“This is a guy who can run, hit and hit with power. He’s a guy who is on first base and can change a game.”
Upton proved that last year, in part by stealing 21 bags.
He also proved to opposing pitchers he would not be intimidated.
Just how well those pitchers learned the lesson, only time will tell.