By: Will Burchfield
Isn’t it amazing what can happen in a year?
On July 2, 2016, Justin Upton was Public Enemy No. 1 on the Tigers. He was flailing at the plate and failing in the field. Fans were wailing about his contract and railing against his play. They were bailing on him altogether. The boos, loud and angry, were hailing down like stones.
Today, July 2, 2017, the sailing is much smoother. Upton is nailing the ball, his cool temperament prevailing. The fans are hailing his swing. GM Al Avila is likely exhaling, for Public Enemy No. 1 is now a man worth regaling.
Ain’t it something, Justin?
“I just stunk it up early in the year last year. I was able to swing it a little better there at the end. This year just knowing what I want to accomplish and sticking to the process, that’s the big thing. And I’ve been able to do that,” said Upton.
Well, when you put it like that.
But this is Upton’s way. He’s a soft-spoken guy who keeps thing simple. No frills, no fronts; no exaggerations, no excuses. When he talks, reporters often have to lean in closer to hear him. When he talks about himself, they all but have to hold their recorders to his mouth.
His teammates, meanwhile, gush about him. They commend his ability, of course, his power and his strength and his flat-out athleticism. But they also praise his character. They describe him as selfless, thoughtful and upbeat. They paint the picture of a guy everyone likes to be around.
They’re lucky he’s been around this year.
Through 79 games, Upton leads the Tigers in home runs (15), RBI (52) and WAR (2.7). In a season where many of the team’s big hitters have underproduced, his steady bat has been a godsend. This is what the Tigers signed up for when they inked the left fielder to a six-year, $132 million contract in January of 2016.
“I don’t know how many guys we’re gonna have representing the Tigers this year, but Justin’s been a huge part of our offense, a huge part of our defense, he contributes in all facets of the game,” said Upton’s clubhouse neighbor and close friend Ian Kinsler. “In my eyes, he’s probably our All-Star.”
“I don’t want him to go because then I can’t chill with in Michigan over the break, but he’s well-deserving.”
Imagine making that assertion last year. At this time, Upton was hitting .228 with eight home runs, 34 RBI and a .655 OPS. He was cast as an utter bust and criticized for not living up to his contract — as if anyone would ever turn down $22 million per year. Caught up in their own vitriol, many people – many outsiders – seemed to forget the fact that Upton was in the midst of a major transition.
“I feel like last year he really wasn’t feeling comfortable with his swing,” said J.D. Martinez. “He wasn’t used to the American League, wasn’t used to the division, didn’t know any of the pitchers. This year he’s a little bit more aware of what they’re trying to do with him. He’s a lot more calm, a lot more relaxed.”
“He’s definitely not breaking bats every day like he was around this time of year last year,” Martinez added with a chuckle.
Ask around, and that’s the only example of Upton loosing his cool. (Heck, who hasn’t broken a bat or two?) By all other accounts, the dude making over $22 million per year never lashed out, never shut down and never turned inward during the worst stretch of his big-league career.
“He was obviously frustrated with his performance the first half of last year but he was pretty steady the whole time, and it’s not much different now. In terms of showing up at the ballpark with a smile on his face he’s kind of been the same. He didn’t change with the performance, which is tough do,” said Brad Ausmus.
That’s when Kinsler knew he was sitting next to someone special in the clubhouse.
“The first half of the season really, really showed me a lot about what type of person he is. When somebody’s struggling or when somebody’s failing, you really find out a lot about them. And he was the same guy everyday,” said Kinsler. “He never said he was frustrated, he never said that he was struggling, he never said, ‘What do I do?’
“He just continued to plug away, continued to work. Worked extremely hard. That shows me a lot. That he believes in himself and that he’s not up and down. He’s not a rollercoaster, he’s stable. So it was nice to have him next to me.”
Upton turned things around in the second half, especially in the last month and a half of the season. His bat carried the Tigers for large stretches of play. He finished the year with 31 home runs and 87 RBI, the kind of raw production most big-leaguers would kill for.
As Kinsler pointed out, had Upton put up his second-half numbers in the first half of the season, he likely would have been an All-Star.
“And we probably wouldn’t even be having this conversation,” Kinsler said.
Upton’s plain assessment of his drastic turnaround is rooted in his expectations. The surprise isn’t that he’s bounced back over the past year. The surprise was that he fell so far in the first place.
I just stunk it up early in the year.
It’s simplistic because it’s true. For Upton, 2017 hasn’t been a comeback so much as a continuation.
“I mean, the guy has a track record. This isn’t a new discovery that he can hit,” said Kinsler. “He’s been a three-time All-Star, two-time Silver Slugger, he has a lot of ability on the offensive side of the ball. Just because last year he struggled in the first half doesn’t take away from what he’s done in his career.”
In trying to explain why he struggled last year, most of his teammates point to his change in environment. It disrupted his comfort level, they suggest, which affected his performance on the field. That in turn diminished his confidence, which only hampered his performance further, and suddenly a snowball was rolling downhill.
But the narrative is often warped to fit the story.
“People are going to use that theory to explain negative results also. ‘Oh, he’s too comfortable. He needs a change of scenery.’ You can use anything to prove anything else, I guess,” said Kinsler. “I know when he’s at the plate he’s not thinking, ‘Man, the clubhouse is uncomfortable. How am I gonna hit Carrasco?’”
Upton, right in line with his close friend, dismissed the idea that his emotional or mental wellbeing fed his results at the plate. He’s not looking for a crutch, anyway.
“Obviously the longer you’re somewhere the more comfortable you get, but these guys made me feel comfortable from day one last season so I can’t use that as an excuse. I just didn’t play well last year and I’m playing well this year,” he said.
That’s not to say Upton hasn’t felt more at home in the Tigers clubhouse this season. He has.
“This year he’s obviously way more comfortable with his teammates, his environment,” Kinsler said. “He’s talking with more people.”
And that’s not to say this hasn’t made a difference. But the effect is being felt off the field, often at times when the team is in need of a boost.
“He’s come up as a leader,” said Michael Fulmer. “On our tough times, especially the last road trip (when the Tigers lost seven straight), he’s kind of the one that stepped up, saying, ‘Let’s go, we got this.’ Obviously he’s showing it on the field, too, with his bat.”
This is Upton’s 11th season in the majors. The back of his baseball card is stuffed with crooked numbers. Between his track record and his tenure, he is a teammate worth listening to.
“He’s an older player, he can speak up. A lot of guys can’t speak up,” said the 29-year-old Martinez. “Like, if I say something in here, there’s a lot of guys with a lot more time than me, so it’s one of those things where you gotta stay quiet a little bit.
“Justin has over 10 years in the big leagues, the things he can say, especially in this clubhouse — last year he wasn’t comfortable, he didn’t know the environment. Now he knows a little bit of everything and what he can say or what he can’t.”
By no means is Upton suddenly the Tigers’ vocal leader. He isn’t wired to be. But he’s put himself out there more, and his teammates have noticed. Those who talk carefully often say the most.
He’s been less tactful at the plate. And that’s just fine for the Tigers; the louder and more disruptive his bat the better. Thus far, the offense has largely marched to the beat of Upton’s drum.
“Last year he was the New Kid On The Block,” said Ausmus. “This year he’s more NSYNC.”
Then the manager grinned, and who could blame him?