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OC Register: Angels’ Justin Upton hopes a hot finish to 2020 and a normal winter can lead to a strong 2021


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Like just about everyone else in the world, Justin Upton is ready to get back to some kind of normalcy.

For the Angels left fielder, though, the interruption to his normal baseball life started a year before the pandemic interrupted everything else.

A series of injuries in 2019 and the shortened season in 2020 have resulted in Upton’s playing time being sporadic and his performance being inconsistent, at best, and awful, at worst.

“Being 100 percent healthy this year, having a normal offseason, I feel like I’m back into a rhythm that I’m accustomed to,” Upton said before the Angels workout on Tuesday in Tempe, Ariz. “I’m excited to get back on the field and excited to be here with the guys.”

Upton, 33, has some work to do to reclaim even a portion of the stature he once held in the game. A former No. 1 overall draft pick and a four-time All-Star, Upton comes into this season after two forgettable years.

In 2019 he had a knee injury when he arrived in spring training, a foot injury just before Opening Day, and then another knee injury in September. Last year he started slowly in the shortened season and briefly lost his everyday job, before getting hot at the end.

All told, over the past two seasons Upton has 422 plate appearances in 105 games, posting a .719 OPS with a .210 batting average. He has hit 21 homers. Coming into 2019, he had a career .826 OPS and he’d averaged 29 homers per 162 games.

It would be surprising if Upton returned to that level, but the end of last season gave some hope that he can rebound.

Last season Upton started in a 5-for-37 slump that prompted the Angels to bench him in favor of Jo Adell.

When manager Joe Maddon told Upton about his reduced role, he was encouraged by the way Upton handled himself.

“If I’m honest with J-Up, he might not like it in the beginning, but he will do something about it,” Maddon said. “If I’m not honest with J-Up, he’s gonna turn me off forever. So by being honest with him, he probably didn’t like it in the moment — even though he didn’t indicate that to me; he was very respectful — but then he did something about it.”

After about two weeks of working on his swing while playing sporadically, something clicked for Upton when he was able to focus his swing to use the whole field. From Aug. 24 to the end of the season, Upton hit .289 with a .981 OPS, and seven homers in 24 games.

Upton said he kept in “constant contact” with hitting coach Jeremy Reed over the winter to make sure that he maintained the swing that was so good in September.

Besides Upton’s hitting, the other issue in recent seasons has been his defense. His outfield play deteriorated to the point that the Angels were removing him late in games, a couple times putting converted catcher Taylor Ward in left as a defensive upgrade.

Maddon said on Tuesday that he doesn’t believe the health of Upton’s legs was the issue.

“I watch him on the bases and he’s actually moving pretty good,” Maddon said. “I think it’s more of a refresher course on technique, and that’s what we’re going to get done (in spring training)… Let’s go back to Outfield Play 101.”

If that doesn’t work, the Angels have veterans Juan Lagares and Jon Jay in camp, and either of them could be Upton’s late-inning replacement.

“We have acquired people based on that thought,” Maddon said. “Most players don’t like to be taken out of the game, but eventually the really good self-evaluators realize that what they’re doing is for the benefit of the group, and the guy coming in is actually pretty darn good.”

NOTES

The Angels began having pitchers throw to hitters on Tuesday, with mostly the non-roster pitchers or relievers further down the depth chart working. They will continue that each day until exhibition games start on Sunday. …

Jose Alberto Rivera arrived in camp after being delayed by visa issues. Rivera is a Rule 5 pick with a shot to make the team as a reliever. If the Angels don’t keep him in the majors, they’ll need to offer him back to the Houston Astros…

The only players still not in camp are relievers Junior Guerra and Jose Quijada, who are still delayed by visa issues.

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Justin Upton
2:26
Will I stay healthy this season? Can I hit 30hr 100rbi???
 
Steve Adams
2:29
If I could successfully predict whether a given player would stay healthy, I would be making seven or eight figures for some team's front office!

I'll say Upton's batted-ball profile last year was way better than his actual numbers. Still has near elite exit velocity, well above-average hard hit rate. A .378 expected wOBA when he makes contact is strong. I like him as a rebound candidate.

...If he can avoid the IL.
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