When a player signs a $75.25 million contract, he can afford to purchase plenty. What he can’t buy is peace of mind, nor sympathy from many fans who expect a reasonable amount of production from their team’s big-ticket acquisition.
Enter B.J. Upton, who last winter got a five-year deal for the above amount — the largest the Braves ever gave a free agent — then proceeded to have the worst two months of his career. He hit a majors-low .145 with four homers, eight RBIs, three stolen bases and 63 strikeouts in 46 games through May.
If you were among those frustrated or angry watching him strike out repeatedly and walk back to the dugout with a look that didn’t show enough anguish to suit you, know this: His expressions didn’t convey how he roiled inside.
“You don’t work all offseason, and work during spring training, and work at the stadium, to go out there and not succeed,” said Upton, 28. “Especially when you work hard, man, you want to see results. And not having results is definitely frustrating. Especially when you know you’re better than that.”
After digging a statistical hole that will be difficult to extricate himself from, Upton has at least made progress since working with Braves hitting coaches to clean up his swing.
Even after going hitless the past two games at San Diego, Upton is 8-for-34 (.235) with two homers and four RBIs in 11 June games, with eight walks, a .381 on-base percentage and a .441 slugging percentage. If that doesn’t sound overly impressive, he had a .230 OBP and .245 slugging percentage through May.
He also flied out twice to the wall at San Diego, prompting Upton to joke he needed to see the team chef about adding some weight to his slender frame.
“He looks normal now, like himself,” Braves general manager Frank Wren said of Upton’s recent performance. “Really, if you look at all the guys who were struggling, if you just look at the June numbers, they’re pretty strong.”
The other conspicuous strugglers were Jason Heyward and Dan Uggla. Heyward has hit .393 with three doubles, three homers and a .675 slugging percentage in a 10-game hitting streak, including seven multihit games. This after hitting .142 with two homers, eight RBIs and .236 slugging in 32 games through June 2, missing 3 1/2 weeks for an appendectomy.
Uggla hit .300 with three homers, a .432 OBP and .600 slugging percentage in his past nine games, after batting .175 with 10 homers, a .303 OBP and a .379 slugging percentage in his first 52. He still strikes out at a prodigious rate, with a league-high 84 in 207 at-bats. The Braves can live with that when he hits homers and gets on base.
“The thing we’ve talked about all year is, once our offense normalizes, once everybody kind of gets back to their norms, we’ve got a chance to improve,” Wren said. “I think the strikeouts will drop. Some of those guys were hitting half of what you would expect. I think you’ll see more productive outs.”
There was consternation among some team officials when Upton’s slump extended beyond April. The Braves made a big investment in him, and traded for his brother, Justin, who hit 12 homers in April and is under contract through 2015.
B.J. Upton’s deal runs through 2017, and the Braves didn’t like seeing a player struggle so much after they gave a franchise-cornerstone type of contract.
“You hate to see any of your players scuffle,” hitting coach Greg Walker said. “You care about all of them, and you see how tough it is for them to go through it. But he went about it the right way. He kept working.
“I think this free-agency thing, if you look over the last five years, I don’t care how good you are, there’s hardly any who are not vulnerable to (struggling). From Albert Pujols, to (Josh) Hamilton, to (Adam) Dunn, to B.J. It’s a huge change, especially when you leave an organization. Then you come over, and there’s high expectations.”
Upton’s frustrations boiled over once and he threw his helmet after a strikeout.
“It ain’t about the money,” he said. “You want to be winning and holding up your end. When you don’t feel like you’re doing that, it’s just frustrating. At some point you’ve just got to put the big contract aside and just go out and be yourself. But at first, you want to live up to it. And when you’re not, it’s tough.
“You don’t see me lose it much. But I remember that one day in Atlanta where I lost it on the field a little bit. And I didn’t like that. But it just got to the point where …”
He laughed softly when asked if he broke anything around his house.
“No, man,” he said. “That’s not me. I’m super laid-back. Honestly, I want to do well and it hurts when I don’t, but at the same time, it’s not life or death.”