Can Melvin Upton bounce back from his own rock bottom?
When the 2013 season opened, Melvin Upton Jr. — or B.J. as he was known then — had just signed the richest free-agent contract in Braves history, just over $15 million a year, and was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated alongside his kid brother Justin, who had been traded from Arizona to Atlanta in the same offseason. In the photo, the brothers are sitting next to the (unrelated) supermodel Kate Upton, all wearing Braves uniforms. The caption read: Can the Uptons power Atlanta?
After the fifth game of the year, fans seemed to have their resounding answer: YES! In the bottom of the ninth inning, down a run to the Cubs, Melvin led off with a blast over the left-centerfield wall, and two batters later, Justin ended the game with his own home run. At home plate Melvin, elated, joined his teammates and surrounded Justin.
Their father was behind the dugout, his cheering drowned out by the home crowd, "It was crazy, everyone chanting ‘UP-TON, UP-TON,’" Manny "Bossman" Upton says. "That was definitely the high point."
Now, if you would, hit the pause button on that moment, then loop those 3 minutes — the delirious fans, the Braves announcer Chip Caray yelling, "Let’s go home!", Melvin and Justin hugging — over and over.
Melvin, the eldest, had seemed to reach his once nearly impossible expectations. Just before his 18th birthday, he was drafted second out of Greenbriar Christian Academy in Chesapeake, Virginia, and some predicted he’d be the next great five-tool player. "Scouts compare Upton to a young Derek Jeter, right down to his swagger," Jim Callis and Allen Simpson wrote in Baseball America.
Six years later, in 2008, he had one of the great postseasons of all time, tying for the fifth most runs scored of any player (16) and the fourth most playoff home runs ever (7) in a single campaign.
Now, before we stop the loop of the home-run celebration, and press play on Melvin’s story, remember that he was only 28 years old then, in his prime, and despite batting just .246 the year before in Tampa Bay, he also hit 28 home runs and stole 31 bases while displaying Gold-Glove caliber defense. Some warned of an impending demise – his strikeouts were high, and fans questioned his hustle — but for the moment, as he was cheering on his brother, he was on top of the world.
So now, instead of hitting play, tap the fast forward button. Zip past the Atlanta Journal-Constitution calling him "one of baseball’s worst hitters," skip past his manager Fredi Gonzalez threatening to send him to the minors in 2013, and definitely skip past the humiliating season-ending .184 average and postseason benching that same year. Wait for it … and now hit play.
Melvin is sitting on a steel bench, in a Peoria, Az., complex outside of Phoenix in March. His lanky body, leaned back, his arms folded in front of him. He’s wary of journalists, and peppers cliches in with every answer, barely speaking above a whisper. He can be engaging, but more than anything, he’s in essence a sports psychologist’s dream — a study into understanding the psyche of an athlete. How can someone with so much early success unravel so completely? And then, after everything, come through to the other side.
"It’s difficult to explain," he says.
Manny Upton was a football and baseball star at Norfolk State and taught Melvin from an early age how to hit and play quarterback. Melvin — who was nickmaned "Bossman Jr." or B.J., after his father — idolized Charlie Ward, and dreamed of also playing two sports at Florida State. In the backyard growing up, he and the more outgoing Justin, who was three years younger, would play Wiffle ball for hours. Melvin looked out for his kid brother but never took it easy on him. If he was batting against Justin, he’d stay at the improvised plate until Justin could get him out — sometimes until it was dark. Then they’d move inside and play Nerf baseball while their parents tried to sleep.
In high school, Melvin was part of one of the greatest AAU baseball teams in Virginia history. He played middle infield alongside David Wright, currently of the Mets. Ryan Zimmerman of the Nationals was in the outfield, and Mark Reynolds of the Rockies played third. Before school, Wright would pick up Melvin and they’d head to the local batting cages and work on their swing.
"He was a ridiculous athlete," Wright said of Melvin. "Everything was so natural. For the rest of us, it looks like we’re straining. For him it’s effortless."
Before Melvin’s junior year, their team played in a tournament in Las Vegas and dominated nationally recognized competition. "We didn’t know it, but we were already playing against the best in the country in our own backyard," Wright said.
Melvin was drafted by the Rays, moved through the farm system fast, posting a .302/.394/.445 split at Low-A, and was ranked the second-best prospect in baseball behind Joe Mauer. In 2006 he yo-yoed between Triple-A and Tampa Bay, but at spring training the following year, coaches didn’t see the improvement they wanted. He admits now, his confidence in his hitting was lagging behind his other skills.
"Don Zimmer (the Devil Rays’ senior advisor) sat me down (and said), ‘This is yours, but you have to go get it,’" Upton said. "It was more about belief. I think sometimes you have to trick yourself into it. Transform yourself."
Under manager Joe Maddon’s tutelage, Melvin indeed transformed into the player scouts had drooled over. "Joe allows players to express themselves and be who they are," pitcher James Shields — a teammate of Upton’s in Tampa and San Diego — says. "He grew up with Joe." Together they took the Rays to their first and still only World Series in 2008, where Melvin put himself on the map by first dominating White Sox pitching in the ALDS, then the Red Sox in the ALCS, at one point knocking in a run in five straight games.
Maddon, who never played in the majors, learned the craft of managing from observation. He learned that a player’s confidence is like a delicate thread. If it’s pulled with too much tension, it snaps. Maddon never understood why, he told the Chicago Reader in 2015, "when things weren’t going well (for a player), people would pile on or become punitive because guys are really trying and working hard."
Players, Maddon deduced, crave encouragement, and none of his players perhaps more than Melvin. After his 2008 postseason performance Melvin had become the face of the new generation of baseball superstars. But inexplicably, and almost immediately, he battled confidence issues, and struggled at the plate in 2009. His average dipped 32 points. His brother Justin meanwhile was steadily making a name for himself with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Without, perhaps, the raw athletic gifts of Melvin, his approach was more direct. "Justin is detail-oriented," their father Manny says. "He’ll ask, ‘What do you think about my hands?’ (Melvin), though, feels like if I didn’t get it this time, I’m going to get it next time. For him it’s always about the challenge."
Baseball analysts, who track advanced statistics recognized obvious deficiencies in Melvin’s game early in his career. His contact rate was obscenely low, and his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) was unusually high — in other words, stat nerds surmised he was getting lucky. However, these various stats are really a way for people who don’t play the game to attempt to understand and decipher what they see. Melvin thought he could instinctively feel what he was supposed to do, and eventually overcome any perceived problems. Maddon would tell his players, "The mind once stretched has difficulty going back to its original form." In essence, think in a tunnel, without losing your sense of self-expression. Because once you truly lose your confidence, it might never return.
By the time Upton was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, Braves fans were hoping — expecting — that he’d do exactly what the picture with Kate Upton professed: his incredible skills would match her incredible beauty. He knew, of course, that while she could get by on looks alone, he could no longer skate by on his glittering potential. In the inflated market, Melvin was likely overpaid before the season started, but his .141 average by mid-May was abysmal. In an organization like the Braves, with 14 consecutive postseason appearances in the ’90s and early 2000s, they needed results immediately.
Hitting coach Greg Walker took Melvin into the cages and began to tinker with his swing. Hitting a pitched baseball is one of the most subtle yet complex of art forms in sports. The entire process happens in about half a second, and for someone like Melvin, with a high strikeout rate, each adjustment meant he’d have to fundamentally reconfigure his entire approach. In the book "Psychology of Baseball," Mike Stadler explains the fallout of these constant small changes, "Think of tying your shoes or buttoning a button and imagine you were asked to change one small part of that action. To comply, you would have to slow everything down." Melvin had gotten into bad habits his last couple years in Tampa Bay and was "loading," Walker said, or rocking backward then coming forward as the pitch was made.
Others around the Braves chimed in with advice. Sportswriters dedicated columns to Melvin’s swing, and every fan became a hitting expert. Melvin would listen, but it only seemed to confuse him more. "I was getting it from here and there," Melvin says. "And I was thinking instead of playing."
His strikeouts piled up and he was moved further down in the order — the pressure mounted. By June, his manager, publicly debated sending him down to the minors, and his old high school friends David Wright and Ryan Zimmerman texted him, telling him to hang in there. "We all look out for each other," Wright says. "We’re like a fraternity."
At home games Braves fans began to lose patience. How could a player making $15 million forget how to hit a baseball? A portion of the crowd at Atlanta’s Turner Field would boo each of his strikeouts.
"The worst is when they scream, ‘You suck!’ at him," Manny says. "His wife would bring his kids to the game. That’s a hard thing to hear."
He was determined to figure out his struggles, but a player that had built his career on intuition could no longer feel the right thing to do. His failures now began to affect his younger brother. Justin, who started out leading the league in homers after a handful of games, saw his average dip below .250 in June.
"I think for him to sit there and watch everything I was dealing with, he had to deal with it, too," Melvin says. "I know if I don’t come out of this, then (my family is) going to have to deal with it."
Perhaps he needed Maddon’s understanding arm around him. Maddon was the only manager he’d ever had in the majors, and Melvin likely didn’t realize his importance. In order to wall off negativity and remain positive, Melvin tried what sports psychologists label "mental conditioning" to convince himself he was in fact playing well.
Wrapped in a mental bubble of false positivity, Melvin sought to correct his hitting deficiencies with hours in the video room, then in the cages. He tried glasses, a heavier bat, then a lighter one, but his mind had supplanted his body. He was outthinking his overthinking. The care-free attitude of his youth was replaced with a hardened professional.
In 2006, Andy Roddick — the former US Open tennis champ — explained this loss of innocence that some athletes deal with when their confidence evaporates. Going through a difficult slump, and surrounded by reporters, Roddick was asked why if he’s working harder the results weren’t different.
"I used to hit for half an hour then go eat Cheetos the rest of the day," Roddick said of his early success. "Now I’m really trying to make it happen, being professional. And I miss my Cheetos."
Once the thread of confidence snaps for an athlete, the psychological scars form. Melvin could hear Maddon in his ear: The mind once stretched has difficulty going back to its original form. His average plateaued well below .200, and his manager had no choice but to bench him. The team then went on to win 14 straight games in late July and August. Upton returned to the lineup for the last six of those wins and actually had one of his best stretches of the season, going 10-for-25.
But by October, he was just a bit player in Atlanta’s first-round loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the playoffs, tallying just three at-bats – all strikeouts – in the series. Hoping to turn his career around, he instead struck out a career-high 173 times the following year. He changed to his birth name, Melvin, after the season, though he denied it had anything to do with his mounting struggles.
With three years left on his inflated contract, only the San Diego Padres were willing to trade for him, in essence a contract dump so they could acquire the much sought-after closer Craig Kimbrel.
Every athlete’s deepest fear is failing miserably in front of millions, then being discarded. It’s the sports equivalent of being on stage, the curtains are drawn and you’re in the buff. Immediately when Melvin was dealt to the Padres, he was placed on the disabled list. "I knew a lot of people were down on me," Melvin says. "I had hit rock bottom."
Melvin had no one to blame but himself. Padres teammates and coaches saw a timid player, albeit one whose broken ego now allowed him to fully embrace the process of change.
"The biggest thing he did is own the problem," Padres first-base coach Tarrik Brock says. "He’s a guy that has to figure it out himself, once he gets it, then you can help him."
He took a step back from the pressures in Atlanta and hit a mild .259 in 2015. "Once I got past the failing part I was good," he says. "You can’t hit rock bottom again." At 31, he had made more than $56 million in his career, but fair to say from the second pick in the draft, and the darling of the Rays in the late 2000s, his career has been fraught with disappointment.
At spring training with the Padres in Peoria, he stopped by a restaurant and across the room spotted Joe Maddon. Over the last couple of years they have exchanged a few cordial texts but little more. Maddon came over to his table and they talked for a few minutes. "He told me, ‘I can hear it in your voice, you’re in a different spot, that’s what I want to see,’" Melvin says. "That was cool that he said that. I talked to him as much as I could, he’s such a positive guy, you don’t want to let him down."
Perhaps it was the meeting, or the inevitable increase in maturity, but Melvin started out solid, moving up to fourth in the Padres’ lineup. On April 16, the Padres were playing at home against the Diamondbacks. In the bottom of the 14th inning with two outs, Melvin smashed a Rubby De La Rosa pitch over the center-field wall for the game-winning home run — San Diego’s first win of the season at Petco Park. After he dashed around the bases, his teammates encircled him at home plate, jumping up and down in unison.
Suddenly, he broke away and in a brief show of raw emotion, spun around in a circle punching through the air with his fist, yelling into the night sky. Nearly 14 years removed from draft night, and three years removed from his abysmal first year in Atlanta, maybe the psychological scars had healed.
If this was our movie, we’d hit pause again, run it on a loop and Melvin would have erased his demons. But again, confidence is a thread, and realization of its fragility is baseball’s toughest lesson.
When we hit play, his average had dipped, to around .250 by mid-May, and his strikeouts were up. He had seemed to plateau as a solid player on an unspectacular team. But a recent stretch of eight hits in four games before running into Giants ace Madison Bumgarner on Tuesday has him hitting .273 as of this writing, second on the team. He leads the club in OPS. He’ll never be the perennial All-Star player many once predicted, but he’s accepted his place in baseball and has, perhaps, found a level of comfort in himself.
"I stopped trying to live up to other peoples’ expectations," he says. "I’m just thankful for another opportunity."
Flinder Boyd is a former European professional basketball player turned writer. His features have appeared at Newsweek, SBNation Longform, and on the BBC among others. He grew up in Los Angeles, before attending Dartmouth College and later Queen Mary, University of London. On Twitter he can be found @FlinderBoyd.