Braves are hoping a refreshed B.J. Upton strengthens their red-hot offense
After totaling 40 runs and producing a .999 OPS in this week’s four-game series against the Rockies at Turner Field, the Braves will spend the next three days at Citizens Bank Park facing three Phillies starting pitchers, none of whom are named Cliff Lee or Cole Hamels. This is kind of like asking the third round Masters’ leader if he would like to finish the weekend by making the move from Augusta National to Augusta Municipal.
We have not gained a sample size large enough to know whether it is just a coincidence that the Braves have enjoyed their recent offensive surge right after manager Fredi Gonzalez finally moved Andrelton Simmons out of the leadoff spot and replaced him with Jason Heyward. But it’s pretty safe to assume we’re going to see Heyward at the top of the order for a while and quite possibly for the remainder of the season.
Dating back to Spring Training, Heyward has been the most popular candidate in the “Anyone But Simmons Should Bat Leadoff Campaign.” Gonzalez waited until last Friday to move him into this role. When asked why, he told reporters “I succumbed.” I guess he was just sick of replying, “Because we don’t have Rickey Henderson” every time he was asked ‘why are you still batting Simmons in the leadoff spot?’
While handling the leadoff role throughout the perfect seven-game homestand completed on Thursday night, Heyward batted .321 with a .424 on-base percentage. The five walks he drew in the 33 plate appearances compiled during this span were nine fewer than the total Simmons has drawn while compiling a .290 on-base percentage in 288 plate appearances as a leadoff hitter this year.
With more than three months worth of data, we were able to confidently deduce that Simmons was one of the game’s worst leadoff hitters. Seven games has not provided us enough to confidently know how Heyward will fare in this role moving forward. But he’s seemingly been the best candidate for a long time and the early results have certainly not altered this belief.
Now that the old and tired leadoff debate has been put on the back burner, it is time to discuss the new hot topic, which is what will the Braves do when B.J. Upton ends his Minor League rehab assignment tonight and returns to Atlanta’s lineup on Saturday.
While some in the Twitter world have said they hope the Braves don’t mess with what they’ve got going by putting Upton back in the lineup immediately, this obviously isn’t going to happen. Nor should it. This is the first year of a five-year, $75.25 million agreement with an extremely talented player who has simply played well below expectations since the start of the season.
If the club was confident enough to make this kind of financial obligation to him, there is no reason for them to not be confident in his ability to perform much greater than he has while hitting .177 with eight home runs and a .565 OPS through his first 84 games in Atlanta. The pressure of the contract, the challenge of changing from the American League to the National League have been cited as explanations to explain these struggles that have weighed on B.J. enough to the point that he has reached out to veteran friends from around the league and told them that he is committed to making the changes necessary to turn things around.
The Braves are hoping the injury (strained right adductor muscle) Upton suffered just before the All-Star break proves to be a blessing in disguise. If nothing else, it has given the veteran outfielder a chance to have a brand new start and aim to end this season like he did last year, when he hit .252 with 19 home runs, 12 stolen bases and a .876 OPS in his final 57 games with Tampa.
While spending the past few days completing his rehab assignment with Triple-A Gwinnett, Upton has been reunited with Braves’ hitting guru Lee Elia, a Tampa-area resident who has worked with Upton in the offseason during recent years.
Braves hitting coach Greg Walker was pleased with what he saw from Upton during batting practice earlier this week and the club was further encouraged on Thursday night when Upton went 3-for-4 for Gwinnett.
Upton’s return will end Evan Gattis’ recent stint as one of Atlanta’s regular outfielders. This will upgrade the club’s outfield defense and bench.
Gattis has hit just .246 with one home run and a .570 OPS in the 15 games he has played since returning from the disabled list on July 14. In the 26 games he has played dating back to May 31, he has hit .195 (17-for-87) with three homers and a .563 OPS.
Despite Gattis’ struggles over the past two months, opposing managers are not going to be comfortable going into the late innings with the reality that his powerful bat is on the Braves’ bench. They will be well aware of the fact that he has gone 6-for-8 with four home runs and two walks in 10 pinch-hit plate appearances. That success rate is utterly ridiculous.
Now, if Upton returns and resumes his struggles over the next couple of weeks, the Braves will not allow his contract prevent them from making the decision to give Jordan Schafer a chance to play center field on a frequent basis.
But for now, the Braves are simply looking toward the next couple weeks and months with the hope that this is a new beginning for Upton, one that will allow him to prove he is capable of strengthening a lineup that has finally started to live up to expectations.
NOTES: The Braves enter this weekend’s series with an 11 1/2-game lead in the National League East standings. This is their largest division lead since Sept. 21, 2003…Thursday night’s win allowed the Braves to complete their first perfect homestand of at least seven games since they swept a nine-game homestand against the Phillies, Pirates and Dodgers in April 2000.