Justin Upton gives month of immediate returns to Braves

On Wednesday night, I watched and waited to see if Justin Upton would get yet another chance to play the hero for the Braves, this time against Nationals reliever Rafael Soriano while in a 2-0 ninth-inning hole.

The powerful left fielder was due to hit fourth in the final frame. After a groundout and a strikeout, he took his place in the batter’s box, a scary proposition for any major league pitcher over the past month.

While watching shortstop Andrelton Simmons run up a hitter’s count on Soriano, though, I began to ponder my own expectations for a potential Upton at-bat in such a situation.

What are the odds he ties the game with one swing? What goes through the mind of high-strikeout pitchers like Soriano when preparing to face the 25-year-old slugger? In one month, has he redefined the No. 3 hitter’s role in Atlanta?

Through his first month with the Braves since coming over from the Diamondbacks in a January trade, Upton appeared to be the ultimate feast-or-famine batter, an early, early MVP candidate toying on opposite ends of a hitter’s spectrum of success. Home runs and strikeouts came in impressive bunches.

The results: Upton’s production varied from climactic to anticlimactic from one plate appearance to the next.

He has quickly become the must-watch player in Atlanta’s lineup.

And in many ways, his torrid April run provided significance beyond the box scores, particularly for a franchise not only looking to replicate the middle-of-the-lineup production of one Chipper Jones, but also one still searching for its next superstar, having previously anointed and demoted past candidates in rapid succession.

Upton is a guy the team can hang its hat on. His manager, Fredi Gonzalez, has stated and verified on multiple occasions that he’s willing to juggle his lineup card on a moment’s notice, but that Upton is the quintessential No. 3 — day in and day out.

But as Simmons lined a two-out shot down the right-field line, I was still trying to put Upton’s April numbers into split-second perspective. Was the 26-game sample size too small to start formulating concrete expectations, or did he display enough power, confidence and volatility over that stretch to warrant initial judgments? It’s probably a little bit of both.

Here’s a look back on the month that was for the premier slugger on the National League’s premier April team (with perspective provided):

The Home Runs

Upton hit more single-season April home runs than any other Braves player in history, which instantly puts him in any conversation concerning the hottest starts in franchise history. He hit an MLB-leading 12 home runs — two more than Ryan Klesko’s and Andres Galarraga’s previously shared team record — becoming the first Braves player to lead the league in April homers since Dale Murphy in 1985.

Home runs are simple to recall, simple to assign value. More home runs … more valuable, right?

Yes and no.

Of Upton’s 12 homers, 11 were of the solo variety. In terms of run creation, his April numbers do not even rank in the top five over the past three seasons. In fact, through some twist of fate that seems to plague Atlanta hitters of late, Upton hit just .176/.348/.235 with runners in scoring position last month, including zero home runs, four walks and seven strikeouts.

His cause, of course, was hurt by the fact Atlanta’s lineup produced below expectations (.293 and .250 on-base percentage in the Nos. 1 and 2 spots, respectively) in April; but, all things considered, Upton came up short in limited opportunities in such situations. 

In other words, even though he put up elite numbers individually, his overall effect on the scoreboard was less than one might come to believe.

Because of this, it would not be fair to ignore past great starts in franchise history just because the monthly home run record fell. When looking at Fangraphs’ weighted runs created, a metric to determine just how many runs a player was worth to his offense, for each Braves player in April over the past 20 seasons, Upton ranks among the leaders, but not as the leader:

1998: Chipper Jones — 31
2008: Chipper Jones — 28
2013: Justin Upton — 26
2001: Chipper Jones — 26
1998: Andres Galaragga — 26

Translation: It’s never easy to match Chipper. That 1998 season, Jones hit for a higher average (.368), struck out half as much and still hit for power (nine home runs). It was a similar story in 2008. Additionally, four other Braves posted April numbers worth 25 runs created or more during that stretch — Kelly Johnson (2007), Gary Sheffield (2003), Ryan Klesko (1996) and Fred McGriff (1996).

The main takeaway? Home runs are captivating and headline-worthy, especially those traveling 450 feet, which Upton does more often than anyone in baseball right now. But his April power display was not enough to warrant all-time great months nods.

It was, however, enough to put him at the top of the 2013 MVP conversation.

The Strikeouts

Let’s get this Gonzalez quote from Wednesday night out of the way, because, you know, he’s answered the strikeout question enough already:

“Everybody keeps asking me the same question, so I’ll keep giving the same answer: At certain times in the game, sure (strikeouts are a concern). When you’ve got a man on third base and the infield is (playing) in or out and you need a productive out, a fly ball or a ground ball up the middle, sure a strikeout is a concern then. Other than that, this was what we were built as. Teams that don’t strike out are probably complaining that they don’t have any power in the lineups.”

No, the Braves are not pining for power, thanks in large part to Upton.

But the team’s 255 strikeouts are not ringing too many alarms. Though they are viewed as the ultimate sign of hitting ineptitude, strikeouts are far from the worst play an offense can make. For instance, a player hitting into a double play or a baserunner getting caught stealing are worse. 

And in every situation, in terms of run production, a home run offsets multiple strikeouts.

More than any other player in the league last month, Upton drove those facts home. 

Despite striking 26.8 percent of the time (26th-worst among qualified hitters), he, along with Colorado’s Dexter Fowler, was baseball’s most valuable player according to Fangraphs’ wins above replacement (WAR). For what it’s worth, Fowler struck out 21.4 percent of the time, but received a greater bump in value due to his defensive metrics.

Upton was worth nearly two wins above a replacement-level player for the Braves in April (1.9 WAR), a starting point not to be scoffed at. Over the past decade, only eight players boast 2.0 WAR or better through the first month of the season — four of those players (Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Braun and Albert Pujols) hold MVP trophies. So, given the pace he’s on at the moment, it’s hard to assume strikeouts are deteriorating Upton’s effectiveness.

Yes, if the home runs regress to the mean and he begins whiffing even more, the Braves’ up-and-down lineup may be in for some troublesome stretches. But Upton, along with some surprising contributors, has in large part carried and stabilized Atlanta’s lineup this far as injuries and slumps (or a combination of both) have held back Freddie Freeman, Dan Uggla, B.J. Upton and Jason Heyward.

Swing away.

The Immediate Returns

Frank Wren didn’t have to wait long for his return on investment.

Of the many moves the Braves general manager made throughout a busy offseason, Upton was the pinnacle. Bar none. Trading relatively little for a 25-year-old hitter with MVP potential — and one with a presumed chip on his shoulder — is a front-office win, no matter how you slice it. Obviously, the trade has paid off handsomely thus far.

But Upton was just one of many new Braves that had a profound effect on the team’s 17-9 April start.

His fellow former Diamondback, Chris Johnson, led the National League in batting. Catcher Evan Gattis led all rookies with six home runs and 16 RBI. Free agent pickups Gerald Laird, Jordan Schafer and Ramiro Pena each are hitting .270 or better to help compose one of the best benches in baseball.

Rookie Julio Teheran, who the team chose to keep while trading away Randall Delgado in the Upton deal, has shown signs of improvement and the team is undefeated in his five starts. Jordan Walden has been as good as advertised (1.69 ERA in 10 appearances) for baseball’s top bullpen.

(Side note: It also helps Wren’s case that many of the pieces he gave up or let go this offseason have stumbled out of the gate. Martin Prado finished April as a below-average MLB player, hitting just .225/.271/.358 while struggling in the field. Delgado sports a 9.62 ERA for Arizona’s Triple-A affiliate. And although Tommy Hanson, who was dealt for Walden in December, is 2-1 with a 3.91 ERA for the Angels so far, Atlanta was clearly not willing to pay $3.7 million for his services.)

So, can Wren miss?

Considering Justin’s brother, B.J., who signed a five-year, $75 million deal in the offseason, is the only newcomer to post underwhelming April numbers — incumbents Uggla and Heyward are another story altogether — the organization should feel free to hang its April hat on its offseason moves.

Not that it mattered Wednesday night — Simmons’ coulda-been home run tailed off just to the right of the foul pole and Soriano eventually induced a groundball to secure the final out. Upton retreated to the dugout once more, bat in hand, a new month off to a slower start than the last.

The Braves are 0-1 in May. Newer is not always better.

But his April slugfest will not soon be forgotten, if only for its reinvigorating effect on a city ready to re-enter the winner’s circle and discover its new superstar. In his first 26 games in a Braves uniform, Justin Upton played the part — not to perfection, but enough to warrant interest in the many encores to come.