Posted: 5:04 pm Friday, February 21st, 2014
By David O'Brien
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – After watching them during three days of full-squad workouts, Braves hitting coach Greg Walker is encouraged with offseason adjustments made by B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla, the duo anything but dynamic in 2013.
Walker is not, however, going to jump to conclusions based on a few days of batting practice.
“B.J. and Danny definitely worked smart this winter, and right now we’re on the driving range,” Walker said, using a golf analogy to describe the progression ahead. “We’re taking BP, we’re in the cage flipping (balls to hitters), and our driving range right now is really good. But when the games start, we’ll be on the first tee box.
“Can they take it from the driving range to the tee box? If they do the same thing in the game that they’re doing in the work, they’ll be good. And we need them, man. It’s no secret.”
The Braves won 96 games and a division title despite career-worst seasons from both Uggla, who hit .179 with a .309 on-base percentage, .362 slugging percentage and 22 home runs, and Upton (.184/.268/.289 with nine homers). They had the two lowest batting averages in the major leagues among players with at least 300 plate appearances, and struck out a combined 322 times in 839 at-bats.
“We need a deep lineup,” Walker said. “If we want to be an elite offensive team, we have to have a deep lineup. We can’t have three, four, five guys doing the heavy lifting.”
What Walker noticed first when he visted Upton at his Tampa home in January was how much movement he’d cut out of his swing and stance, including eliminating the leg lift and long slide step with his front foot. Upton, 29, said his swing gradually deteriorated over the past several years after he began trying to pull the ball more after his early success with the Rays.
“If you go back and watch (video of) B.J., his misses got bigger from year to year,” Walker said. “His swing got looser and looser. The only thing we told him to do — we don’t want you to change anything, we don’t want to turn you into somebody you’ve never been. All we want you to do is go back to the way you hit when you were a kid.
“And the talent is still there. If he does it right, the talent is elite. And that’s all we’ve asked him to do.”
The Braves and Upton hope the simpler, more efficient swing will help him get back to being the hitter he was earlier in his career, when he sprayed line drives to all parts of the field and utilized his speed more instead of trying to hit balls out of the park.
“He had so many things going on that he was chronically late (on pitches) last year,” Walker said. “Between bat movement and sliding (with his foot) – he had a big body movement to get into the hitting position – he ended up being late all the time. When you’re late, it just kind of falls apart on you.”
“He would reach out (with his front foot), slide forward, and then put his heel down. And he was turned. By the time he got there, he was here and the ball was by him. He just had too much going on.”