So many reasons, excuses, stories, rumors were thrown around during B.J. Upton's first season in Atlanta that it's easy to gloss over the facts that would otherwise hit you square in the face.
For many, Upton's swing might not be an obvious red flag for his troubles in 2013, because many don't know the ins and outs of swing mechanics. It's certainly understandable. Swing mechanics aren't easy to pick up, especially in real time, even in slow motion over multiple takes.
But breaking down Upton's swing this year compared to last year in photos will perhaps draw some attention to those red flags and help explain why he hit just .184.
First of all, Upton's zone contact percentage this season was 72 percent. That means he swung and missed on 28 percent of pitches inside the strike zone. This is an incredibly high number - last in MLB this year, 8 percent off his career average.
To swing and miss that many times, and have it that far off his career average, means something is wrong, and this is where the reasons, excuses, stories, rumors cropped up. For good reason, because it's not every season you see a career .250 hitter batting .184 over an entire season with no sign of breaking through.
What happened to Upton? And how do you fix it? Perhaps it's swing mechanics. Below is a crude list of my observations based on the attached photos from a game on April 20, 2012. The comparison is based on a game from Sept. 25, 2013.
1) (2012) More upright; less knee bend; hands are a touch closer to his body; more closed; less butt
2) (2012) Considerable leg kick (not shown in photo); comes down on closed front toe; closed hips; shows butt; hands are higher; more bat wrap from bigger load; bigger load head to toe; more movement
3) (2012) Clears hips; uses lower body more; head remains good despite more movement
Old Upton is more closed and has a considerable leg kick for timing. He remains closed during load and has a bigger hand load. His head stays fairly still during load. He clears his hips and isn’t as stiff on his front side.
New Upton is more open before pitch. He moves his front leg toward the plate with no leg kick, just a toe tap. He’s square to the pitcher at load. He has almost no load, just bat waggles. His hands stay away from the body and he doesn’t generate momentum. He flips the bat at the ball with a stiff front side and no lower body help. Any momentum goes toward the plate instead of the ball.
The result is a slower bat, less momentum to react to a fastball, stiff front side handcuffs his ability to adjust breaking ball, any power is generated from his upper body.
This is what I came up with based on viewing game footage from this year and last year. I'll be the first to admit I'm not a swing coach, nor will I ever become one. I find pitching mechanics easier to spot, and I have a better eye for pitching. But sometimes I can spot a thing or two in the box, and Upton's changes seem pretty obvious.
Why he made these changes is a different matter. No one makes swing changes to make themselves worse. Upton, and the Braves hitting coaches, likely felt these changes were for the best; or at least his attempt at making changes were for the best. Considering his results this season, I'm guessing he attempted to make changes and never fully applied them.
I'm not in the coaches' heads. I'm not in Upton's head. I can't explain why the changes were made. Upton has been a streaky hitter in his career. The last time he hit for average was 2008, but as he progressed in the majors, he grew into more power and substituted some of his on-base ability for more extra-base hits. His swing prior to this season was suited for being streaky. He had a high leg kick and a lot of pre-pitch movement. But even so, it generated momentum toward the ball and he was doing pretty well with it, especially when you consider his total skill set.
His swing this season was suited for better on-base ability and more contact, while sacrificing some power. The problem is he sacrificed all three because of slower bat speed, the result of killed momentum and no pre-pitch movement.
The only thing I know to suggest is reverting to his old mechanics, or at least utilizing more of his mechanics from last year. Upton needs to develop some sort of hand load and use more of his lower body. Both were crucial to his success in the past, and neither was used in his new swing this season.