B.J. Upton looking to hit on offensive success
Braves outfielder, Walker hoping offseason swing work pays off in 2014
ATLANTA -- As his first season with the Braves continued to grow more disappointing last year, outfielder B.J. Upton spent countless hours with hitting coach Greg Walker, attempting to regain the simple controlled swing Upton possessed during the early years of his career.
Once Upton concluded the season with a .184 batting average, nine home runs and a .557 OPS, he entered the offseason with the hope that the relaxed winter setting would allow him the opportunity to decompress and make the necessary adjustments.
Upton will not realize the results of his offseason endeavors until the regular season arrives. But Walker gained some encouragement after he traveled to Tampa, Fla., earlier this week to watch the talented outfielder take some swings in an indoor batting cage.
"The swings I saw work for me," Walker said. "It was a lot different than what we saw last year. It was a lot more simple, with a lot less moving parts."
Walker and Upton have maintained contact over the past couple of months. When they saw each other at Dan Uggla's wedding in early December, they agreed that it would be best to meet at least once before the start of Spring Training.
"I talked to him at Danny's wedding, and he told me he felt great and that he'd been working," Walker said. "I told him I was going to come down. So I just took a quick trip down to just kind gauge where he was at. He's done some good work. [His swing] is a lot closer to what it was when he first broke into the league."
When Upton became a mainstay in the Rays' outfield during the 2007 season, he was surrounded by the hype and promise that had followed him since being taken with the second overall selection in the 2002 First-Year Player Draft. Upton lived up to expectations as he hit .300 with 24 homers during that rookie season and then grabbed the attention of the baseball world again as he homered seven times during the 2008 postseason.
While he has not hit above .246 during any of the past five seasons, Upton continued to interest scouts and executives with his speed and power potential. After he hit 28 home runs and stole 31 bases in 2012, the Braves rewarded him with a five-year, $75.25 million deal.
Upton admits the struggles he endured during his first season in Atlanta were partly influenced by the pressure he placed on himself to live up to the expectations of this contract. But Upton was also significantly hindered by the mechanical flaws that developed with his swing.
"He's an ultra-talented guy," Walker said. "He had just gotten to where there was too much going on [during his swing]. It created timing issues. He was consistently late last year, and that was not because of bat speed, because he's got great bat speed and great talent.
"I think it caught us all off guard last year. I hate to say that, but it's true. You sure didn't expect that and he didn't either. I think it shocked him a little bit and became like a snowball rolling down the hill. We just couldn't stop it."
Walker and Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez have repeatedly said that Upton's struggles were not a product of a lack of effort. In fact, the veteran hitting coach believes the 29-year-old outfielder might have actually spent too much time in the batting cage attempting to make adjustments that proved too difficult to make in the midst of the regular season's daily grind.
"Sometimes, these changes do have to be made in the winter," Walker said. "They take a time when there is no pressure and you can just go out and work on things. The thing that I'm encouraged about is we're not asking him to do something he has not done before. We're not saying, 'The way you have hit your whole career, that's not going to work.' That's not it. That's not what we're saying. We're saying, 'When you broke into the league, you were a talented young guy who was a lot more simple and lot more efficient with your swing and body movements.'"
With four more years on his contract, Upton has plenty of time to make amends for what transpired during his first season with the Braves. More importantly, Walker believes Upton is already on a path that could allow him to reconnect with the tremendous promise he had as recently as this time last year.
"He's worked hard this winter and he seemed to be in a good frame of mind," Walker said. "He's ready to go. We just want him to get back to being B.J. Upton. That is the goal."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.