LAKELAND, Fla. — In seasons gone by, most have simply come to expect Justin Upton to be missing in action for long stretches.
Upton is one of the most notorious streak hitters in Major League Baseball. Many scouts say that for a week or so, he’ll look totally lost at the plate. Often, barely able to put the ball in play. Other times, Upton is locked in and can put a team’s offense on his back and put up incredible numbers with his bat.
“That’s what history says,” said Upton, a three-time All-Star, about his streaky ways. “But every year I come in, I hope to be as consistent as possible.
“You’re going to hit your low points in the season, but you have to pull yourself out of them as quickly as possible.”
The Tigers are hoping that’s the case in 2016. After all, Detroit opened up their bank account in order to sign the free agent left fielder.
Upton, 28, got an eye-popping six-year, $132.75 million deal. He played last season with the San Diego Padres, where he batted .251 with 25 HRs and 81 RBI.
“It’s huge for me to play for an organization with a history, that wants to win every year,” Upton said. “They put a winning product on the field every day. That was big for me.”
The Tigers are well aware of his past struggles and hope to derail or shorten them when possible.
“With every hitter, there’s going to be the good and the bad, they are going to have ups and downs,” Tigers’ manager Brad Ausmus said. “Nobody gets hits every single day.
“He seems to be a little more streaky, maybe you can get him a day off after a few days if you think he’s in one of those cold streaks.”
The spring started off in one of those Upton’s streaks – a bad one. In his first 16 at-bats in Florida, Upton had two singles. He drove in a run and had a team-high 10 strikeouts.
Coming into exhibition play on Monday, Upton is batting just .207 with no homers and two RBI.
“I try not to get too down, obviously,” Upton said about dealing with a batting funk. “The biggest thing is that there are other aspects of the game where you can help the team.
“Everybody might look up and say ‘Oh, he was 0-for-4.’ But if I did something in that game that changed the face of the game, then I did my job.”
Enter his glove.
Upton should help in the outfield as well. He was one of three Gold Glove finalists for left field in the National League last season.
On his fourth team as he enters his eighth MLB season, Upton just might finally be in the right spot.
Yes, he’s making a lot of money and will be expected to produce. Still, Upton is a complimentary player, not the team’s star. Miguel Cabrera has that title.
Upton is in a prime spot to flourish this season. Ausmus has him slotted for the second spot in the batting order, right ahead of Cabrera – arguably the best hitter in the game.
Upton can expect to see good pitches to hit. Most pitchers don’t want to walk Upton and have to face Cabrera with a runner on base. Normally, it spells disaster.
“That’s something I need to take advantage of and help the team anyway I can,” Upton said.
Upton’s batting average last season was nothing to brag about. But he does have a good career .352 OBP because he will take a walk.
“I’m learning his personality and the type of person he is,” Ausmus said about Upton. “We’re aware, from his track record, what he can do on a baseball field.
“But you never know what a guy’s personality is, what his work ethic is. So far, go good.”
For the Tigers, the bottom line is that, when the dust clears and Upton has had a season filled with cold and hot streaks, he’ll put up the numbers they expect for the season.
“Ultimately, his numbers bare out through the course of the season,” Ausmus said. “Often times, you just have to let guys work through difficult struggles.”
Thus far, Upton has been able to do that. That’s why he got paid.