How 'embracing the vanilla' saved Justin Upton's first season with Tigers

Detroit's Justin Upton has found his stroke at the plate of late, with nine home runs since Aug. 21. Matt Marton/USA TODAY Sports

DETROIT -- Justin Upton isn't averse to outward displays of emotion. Fans have seen him chuck his bat, exchange choice words with plate umpires and rip off his batting glove in disgust. Anyone watching Sunday's game would've also likely seen -- and heard -- when he let out a loud expletive following his seventh-inning strikeout as he strode back to the dugout.

But amid all these short, controlled outbursts, Upton has maintained a certain level of steadiness, a sort of professional equanimity, that has allowed him to navigate the turbulent peaks and valleys of his first season in Detroit after inking a six-year deal worth $132.75 million this winter. And now, he's showing signs of why the Detroit Tigers chose to make such a splash in signing him. With a .273 batting average in September and nine home runs since Aug. 21, he appears to be heating up when the club needs clutch offensive production the very most.

"He's had his struggles after signing a big contract -- that was much deserved -- but he never let it get to him or distract him from working hard," teammate Ian Kinsler told ESPN.com. "And that's refreshing."

More so for Kinsler than most, considering he spends the most time with the 29-year-old outfielder in the clubhouse. Their lockers are right next to one another, so if anyone would have felt a vacuum of energy or negative pall from Upton, it would have been the veteran second baseman seated to his left. Instead, he saw Upton power through some of the difficult stretches this season with a blue-collar, meat-and-potatoes mentality.

This even-keel temperament wasn't always a calling card for Upton, who exited Monday's game with a left calf strain but will potentially return to the lineup Tuesday night. Even recently, there have been reminders of his fiery tendencies (i.e. the eminently Gif'able time he spiked his helmet and inadvertently hit San Diego Padres teammate Yonder Alonso last season). Maintaining control over his emotions has been something he has had to consciously work at, especially since his younger days when, he admitted, "I was a bit of a firecracker."

"Early in my career, I wore my emotions on my sleeve and I had to learn from that," Upton said prior to Monday's game. "It was too much. I had to learn how to be more even-keel and, as these guys have seen, I've gotten as pissed off as anybody this year, but I try not to treat my teammates any differently."

That axiom could have been greatly tested last month when Upton was benched for a three-game stretch by manager Brad Ausmus to mentally regroup and recalibrate after a prolonged stretch of scuffling at the plate.

Upton could have thrown a fit or sulked when Ausmus delivered the news. But he didn't. It helped that he has a good relationship with the 47-year-old manager, a former MLB catcher with 18 years of experience. But it also was because he knew Ausmus was right to sit him down.

He had gone eight straight games without a hit. His mechanics were off. His strikeouts were soaring. Something had to be done.

"It got to the point where I knew I wasn't being productive, so I knew I didn't have a leg to stand on," Upton said. "So even if I wanted to fight him on this, I had to look at myself and think, 'Is it time for you to get right and prepare to help this team?'"

And so that's what he did. Instead of fuming, arms crossed in the dugout, Upton watched some of Detroit's best hitters approach the plate with a more focused level of detail. He found himself studying Kinsler, Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and J.D. Martinez, not just in their respective at-bats, but in the moments before as well.

"Most of the times in the game, you're worried about your next at-bat or defense. Obviously you're cheering for your team and paying attention, but I was able to watch those guys closer and see what they did, how they got ready for pitches, things that you see normally but you don't pay as much attention to," Upton said.

He noticed how early Kinsler got his foot down in his swing, how both Cabrera and Martinez rely more on rhythm. It was a luxury, watching some formidable hitters within his own lineup without worrying about his own production on those particular nights. Did it help? He's not sure, but it was better than what he had been doing previously.

"Because bottom line, my timing's been off all year," Upton admitted.

That three-game respite ended up paying immediate dividends, as Upton went on to hit four home runs over the next five games and continued to produce into a fruitful September.

Despite the fits this season, the former first overall draft pick (2005) bristles a bit at the notion of being a streaky player. Kinsler also interjects when Upton is asked about this.

"All players are streaky," Kinsler said.

Upton feels somewhat resistant to this characterization. And maybe that's because, prior to this season, his numbers have been fairly consistent -- four of the past five seasons, he recorded 26 home runs or more and 70 RBIs or more. This season, in which his current batting average of .238 is nearly 30 points below his career average of .268, would be the only year below .250 since his rookie season in 2007.

He feels he has a track record to point to when things aren't going well, unlike earlier in his career when he'd fume after each at-bat that didn't result in him getting on base.

"When you're young, you expect to get a hit and if you don't, you're pissed off," Upton said, contrasting this with his evolved mindset. "I don't think you can really understand how detrimental that can be to have that mentality and to beat yourself up."

The facts are pretty basic: Even the best MLB players fail at the plate 70 percent of the time. So Upton has learned to quell his anxiety when his bat goes cold. The truly great players -- he motions to Cabrera two lockers down as he explains -- are able to minimize those failures and dry spells more effectively than most, but all players endure significant ups and downs.

"There are hot streaks and the cold streaks, and then there's the vanilla that people don't really get excited about," Upton said.

The vanilla -- that's what Upton has learned to embrace, because it's what he has done in those stretches that can provide him the most solace. Most fans want to see power and understandably so from a guy who signed such a lucrative offseason pact. But the true baseball purists can appreciate the sacrifice fly, the clutch RBI. And those are what Upton has come to appreciate when he isn't producing as he'd like. That doesn't mean he doesn't like racking up extra-base hits or taking an opponent deep, but there have been times this season when he has cherished the late-inning walk or the weak single off the end of the bat that felt just as important.

"It helps to know you've been successful at this level," Upton said. "The experience of knowing how to navigate through ups and downs helps. It does help that you've done it before and you know you're going to do it again."