Nearly three weeks have passed since Justin Upton was told by Angels manager Joe Maddon that he would no longer play with regularity.
The Angels wanted Upton to get right to help him emerge from a slump in which he started the season five for 37. With an abbreviated schedule and top prospect Jo Adell awaiting his first major league opportunity, the team didn’t have enough flexibility to allow Upton to work out his problems during games.
The diminished role has had the opposite effect of what the Angels hoped. Upton, who is earning a prorated portion of his $21-million 2020 salary, has two hits in 31 at-bats since Adell’s promotion Aug.4.
His latest hit came in Monday’s 11-4 loss to the Houston Astros, a fourth-inning solo home run that just cleared the right-field fence at Minute Maid Park. The ball left Upton’s bat at 99.6mph, marking the fourth time he had struck a ball harder than 90mph since Aug.6.
Upton hadn’t reached base in 17 consecutive plate appearances before the hit.
For everyday players, hard contact on a hit like Upton’s opposite-field home run often can spark a turnaround. But Upton, who turned 33 on Tuesday, doesn’t have the luxury of playing consistently anymore. Before Monday, he was on the bench for four consecutive games.
Building momentum is even more challenging for Upton this season than it was in 2019, when he batted .215 with a .724 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 63 games and lower-body injuries compromised the second year of his five-year, $106-million contract.
“The stuff that I’m working on, not being able to test it in the game, I think that’s been the toughest part,” Upton said in a videoconference call Tuesday before the Angels split a doubleheader against the Astros in Houston.
The homer only alleviated some strain. Upton is still trying to find a groove. He went hitless in three at-bats during the Angels’ 6-3 loss in the first game, extending his August slump to two for 40 with 17 strikeouts.
“It’s tough to get in a little rhythm when you’re not getting at bats,” Angels outfielder Mike Trout said. “But once he’s in there, he’s obviously doing his best to get hits and hit the ball hard.”
All Upton can do is remain positive, continue to work on his swing and provide advice to young Angels. “I don’t know if it’s an enjoyable role,” he said. “I’d rather be on the field, but I’m taking the mind-set of being able to do anything to help the guys.”
Adell, 21, presumably is one of the players seeking Upton’s guidance. He has had a rough go of adjusting to major league play, committing mistakes on what should be routine fly balls in right field and struggling to hit.
Adell made some progress in the second game of Tuesday’s doubleheader, a 12-5 win for the Angels. The team sent nine batters to the plate in the first inning, and Adell, the No.7 hitter, provided the final blow in a four-run inning, lacing a double into the right-field corner. Brian Goodwin scored easily from third base, and Adell had the first RBI of his career.
Adell finished one for four with a walk and one strikeout.
As much as newcomers such as Adell need to constantly adjust, so do veterans like Upton.
Hitting coach Jeremy Reed said last week that he and fellow coaches identified “some things” from before Upton’s arrival in Anaheim in late 2017 that could help the veteran. He didn’t want to specify the changes he wanted Upton to implement, but he seemed optimistic about the outfielder returning to form.
Before the Angels traded for him, Upton hit .260 with an .833 OPS in 278 games with Detroit in 2016 to 2017.
“There’s things that we see in all of those years that aren’t coming out,” Reed said.
The Angels were supposed to play the Astros on Wednesday afternoon, but the game was postponed because of the potential impact of Hurricane Laura on the Houston area. The game will be made up as part of a doubleheader Sept.5 at Angel Stadium. … Maddon was ejected in the sixth inning of the second game for arguing the strike zone of plate umpire Clint Vondrak. A called third strike on a 3-2 fastball thrown down and away in Shohei Ohtani’s at-bat drew Maddon from the dugout. ... Left-hander José Suarez, who gave up five runs in recording just three outs in the first game Tuesday, was demoted to the Angels’ alternate training site in Long Beach after the start.