McCosky: Upton’s true colors revealed in darkest times

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Justin Upton blasted 18 home runs in the team's final 38 games while batting .309 with a .765 slugging percentage.

Detroit — A few observations as we count down to the start of spring training:

One of the most inspiring performances last season — though far too unsung, in my opinion — was delivered by Justin Upton. If you only look at the numbers on the back of his baseball card, you would say, “What’s the big deal?”

Statistically, it ended up being a mostly typical Upton season — 31 homers, 87 RBIs. He will tell you, though, there was nothing typical about it.

“Anything that knocks you down and you can get back up makes you better at what you do,” Upton said during TigerFest. “I think going through that process last year made me stronger.”

As late as the middle of August, Upton, who signed a six-year, $132.75 million contract with the Tigers last January, was being booed lustily by the fans at Comerica Park. He was being ripped daily on local and national sports talk radio and television shows. There were social media accounts created to mock his alarming, league-high strikeout rate.

On Aug. 16, he was hitting .226 with 13 home runs, 46 RBIs and 139 strikeouts — a whiff rate of nearly one in four plate appearances. It was brutal and he was befuddled. He had endured plenty of prolonged hitting slumps over his career, but none as deep as this.

He worked tirelessly with hitting coaches Wally Joyner and David Newhan, but it was like he was in quicksand. The harder he worked to extricate himself, the deeper he sank.

Finally, after going 0-for-3 on Aug. 16, and in the throes of a 3 for 42 skid with no extra base hits, manager Brad Ausmus benched Upton for three games — just to step away and clear his head. It ended up being the turning point in his season.

From Aug. 20 on, Upton hit .309, with a .397 on-base percentage, a .765 slugging percentage and a 1.162 OPS. He hit 18 home runs and knocked in 41 runs in the final 38 games, including 13 home runs in September.

“It just amazes me that he ended up with more home runs than in any year of his career,” Ausmus said. “That’s remarkable. Between him and Miggy (Cabrera) in the last couple of months of the season, they were huge reasons we were in the hunt.

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“As much as he struggled, with coming to a new club, a new city where winning is expected, with a new contract — he is one of the classiest guys I’ve been around in this game. He handled with as much class as you could.”

That, right there, is my takeaway from Upton’s season. Even on his darkest days, with the boos still ringing in his ears, he handled it all with a grace and professionalism, the likes I’ve rarely ever witnessed in nearly 36 years of covering sports in this town.

Imagine yourself failing spectacularly at your job, being publicly scorned, and then having to explain why you are failing to a pack of reporters every night. It gets inhumane at times — which is why I was very careful to pick my spots with him.

But never once did he lash out. There were times when he politely declined to speak, but more often than not, he stood up and answered our questions with his usual blunt honesty.

Character isn’t measured in statistics, nor is it typically revealed when things are going well. I learned all I needed to know about Justin Upton’s character, and his mental toughness, last year during his dark days, watching him repeatedly take accountability for his struggles without making or accepting excuses, and without ever losing faith in himself or his certainty that he’d eventually snap out of it.

Truly impressive.

'Tremendous incentive'

Both Ausmus and general manager Al Avila strongly believe Anibal Sanchez is poised for a bounce-back season. Avila talked about it at the Detroit Sports Broadcasters Association luncheon last week.

“It’s a contract year, so he’s coming in with a tremendous incentive to have a great year, looking for that next contract,” he said. “He’s got incentive to come back and let it all hang out.”

What troubles me about that is it presumes Sanchez’s struggles that last two seasons were due to a lack of motivation, as if with his annual $16 million contract guaranteed though 2017 he wasn’t properly incentivized.

For sure his production has fallen off steadily since he signed the $80 million contract after the 2013 season. But I would argue that was due more to a string of injuries more than financial security and contentment.

Sanchez is a proud man. His work ethic has never been questioned. He tinkered with his delivery and the mechanics of his arm motion all through last season trying to find some consistency.

What he’d lost in recent years wasn’t motivation, it’s velocity and command. And I am not sure pitching for a new contract can fix that.

Rare opportunity

Personal request to the Tigers’ organization: Don’t ever trade Miguel Cabrera. I want him in a Tigers’ uniform for every at-bat he takes the rest of his life. He’s going to be 34 in April and he will be under contract with the Tigers until he’s 42. And I am telling you now, barring debilitating injury, he will, much like David Ortiz did, continue to rake in his 40s.

In the next five years or less, he’s going to achieve his 500th home run, 2,000th RBI and 3,000th hit. He needs to do that wearing the Olde English D.

There is no way the Tigers would get back equal value for Cabrera. Even if a team offers its top three or four prospects, none of them are going to be Miguel Cabrera. He’s a once-in-a-generation talent and we get to watch him play night after night after night.

It’s one of the rare sports blessings we have around here these days. Cherish it.

Twitter @cmccosky