The difference between a decent hitter and a great hitter is consistency. It's a pretty simple concept that has held true through history, but that has not stopped us all from proclaiming a decent hitter as great during their streaks and pitiful during their slumps. The 2013 version of that player is Justin Upton.
Upton started the season as the next big thing, hitting 12 home runs and batting .298 in April. But then, May and June came along and he has hit a combined three home runs and batted .224 in 183 at-bats. And this is not the first time that Upton has suffered a major slump.
In July 2012, Upton batted a slim .244 after batting .333 the previous month. Similar dips like these can be seen throughout his career arc, but what makes it so hard to dismiss Upton as a bad hitter is the incredible streaks he goes on. He has finished the last four seasons with .300, .273, .289, and .280 averages. With the aforementioned slumps every season, you would have to assume that Upton is coupling them with some stellar performances to maintain his solid end of the season numbers.
Both of these reasons are why the Diamondbacks were looking to trade him and the Braves were giddy to add him to the roster. But can an inconsistent hitter like Upton be the face of a lineup? Well, it depends where the inconsistency stems from.
In Upton's case, one could argue that dealing with all of his injuries throughout his young career has derailed his ability to get in a solid groove for an entire season. From 2008-2010, he dealt with oblique problems, and last season he suffered an injured left thumb that bothered him for the majority of the summer.
He did not suffer any major injuries in 2011, his best statistical season to date, when he hit 31 home runs with a .289 average. But if you look closer at his 2011 season, you will also notice that Upton only amassed 88 RBIs, which was behind hitters like Dustin Pedroia and Asdrubal Cabrera, who are two guys not known for racking up the RBI.
In fact, Upton has a history of struggling at the plate with runners in scoring position. In his seven-year career, he has only batted over .300 with RISP once, in 2010 when he only played 133 games.
A large disparity between a player's batting average and his batting average with RISP generally means one thing: the hitter is weak-minded. Hitters are supposed to become better when ducks are sitting out on the pond, not the other way around. Great hitters take what they want and poor hitters crumble under the pressure. Upton seems to be the kind of guy who crumbles.
Such a hitter might also be prone to suffer slumps because he constantly over-thinks his approach, leading him to lose confidence in his swing and appear lost at the plate. With this added frustration, he watches loads of game tape to try and figure out what is wrong with his swing. But the problem is that there is nothing wrong with his swing, but rather his head is not where it should be.
And that is essentially the state I believe Upton falls into whenever he turns into the slump version. He is known for obsessing over his swing, which is the worst thing he could do during a slump.
Maybe what is causing him to lose his confidence is the expectation that he needs to be the best hitter in the lineup, not an absurd request given his talent, but perhaps it might be considering his mental makeup. The numbers suggest he would be better suited for the two-hole or even the 7-9 slots. He is at his best when a limited numbers of runners are on base, so dosen't it make sense to put him in that position, even if that's not what he's paid for?
It is apparent that Upton does not have the chops at this juncture to handle the run producing slots, but that does not mean that he is a bad player. The Braves should take the pressure off Upton and let him mature into a run producer. Although in his seventh season, Upton is only 25 and leaps and bounds ahead of most hitters his age. He definitely has time to get better, and although he is not ready to be the best hitter in a lineup for an entire season, that does not mean he never will be.
When Upton learns the mental aspect of baseball is as important as the physical aspect, I expect him to become one of the best hitters in the league, not only for a month, but for an entire season.
By: Matt Levine