Healthy Upton ready for rebound season

February 23rd, 2021

Scoring wasn't the issue for the Angels last season, as they ranked fourth in the American League by averaging 4.9 runs per game.

But they did this without a fully productive Justin Upton, who could prove to be a wild card of sorts for the Angels if he can get back to his prior production that made him one of the top offensive outfielders of the past decade. Upton, 33, batted just .204/.289/.422 with nine homers and 22 RBIs in 42 games last year, but he’s coming off a normal offseason and no notable injuries after dealing with turf toe and a right knee injury in 2019.

Upton’s 2020 was a tale of two seasons, as he began the year mired in a slump that lasted the first half of the season before turning it around. Upton is hoping to build on the late-season success that saw him hit .303/.398/.605 with six homers and 15 RBIs over his final 22 games of the year after batting just .099 with three homers and seven RBIs through his first 20 games.

"I feel good," Upton said via Zoom on Tuesday from Tempe, Ariz. "I had a normal offseason and got to go through my full process. It's always exciting to be able to do that. There's no hang-ups, so I'm ready to go. This has been my first normal offseason in a while, so I feel even better than last year."

A healthy and productive Upton would be huge for the Angels, especially considering he also remains under contract through the 2022 season. The club does have outfield depth, especially after the offseason acquisitions of Dexter Fowler, Jon Jay and Juan Lagares to join talented youngers Jo Adell and Brandon Marsh. But Upton could make the lineup much deeper after the big bats of superstars Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon.

"I think it was a lot on his plate last year, so I think this is the perfect year," Angels manager Joe Maddon said. "He looks great. He's in wonderful shape. He's extremely motivated. There's a lot left in the tank. Let's get out there for a full year and ride the ups and downs."

Upton remained in close contact with hitting coach Jeremy Reed throughout the offseason, trying to keep that rhythm he found late in the 2020 season. He believes he could’ve kept that going in a longer season and that he didn’t have enough time to make up for his slow start that even had him relegated to bench status for a short time.

“I think it was a strange season for everybody,” Upton said. “Some guys reacted to it well, while some guys didn’t, and I just happen to be one of the ones that didn't react to the changes very well. I got off to a slow start, but I feel like I found a rhythm and tightened some things up, and those are all things that I can carry on into this year."

Defensively, Upton has also seen his metrics slip in recent years, so Maddon said it’ll be back to the basics for him this spring. Trout is doing a similar thing, and the Angels brought in veteran coach Bruce “Jeter” Hines to help with the outfielders. According to Statcast's sprint speed metric, Upton has roughly league average speed, but he has had trouble getting good jumps, ranking among the worst in baseball in that category.

"When I watch him on the bases, he actually moves pretty good, so I think it's more of a refresher course technique-wise,” Maddon said. “Hines is going to have a lot to do with that. Let's just go with technique first and ‘Outfield Play 101.’ Things that may have been dormant a bit. Get that mentally back to the forefront and go from there."

It still could lead to the Angels using a defensive replacement for Upton in left field late in games, especially if Jay or Lagares make the roster. But Upton said he’s ready for whatever the Halos throw at him, and he believes he’s learned how to overcome adversity better over the past few seasons.

"Coming back from injuries and not being in the lineup every day, those are things I've had to learn how to deal with and how to do,” Upton said. “But being 100 percent healthy this year, having a normal offseason, I feel like I'm back in a rhythm I'm accustomed to. So I'm just excited to be back on the field and be back here with the guys."