Henning: Upton will hit again, but maybe not until 2017

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Justin Upton

Detroit – A “mental health break” was how Tigers manager Brad Ausmus framed Wednesday’s decision to free Justin Upton from the torture rack, which in Upton’s case has been the Tigers’ 2016 batting order.

Upton was on an 0-for-12 plunge and was sitting at .226 with a 139 strikeouts, fourth-most in all of baseball as he sat out a night game against the Royals at Comerica Park. The Tigers left fielder had a .281 on-base average that was particularly preposterous for a 10-year big-leaguer whose on-base clip entering 2016 was .352.

You might say Upton has been having issues. Ausmus implied Wednesday night’s excused absence might be followed by another Thursday against the Red Sox.

What, precisely, has happened to a 28-year-old man (29 next week) who last winter signed a six-year, $132-million deal designed to pump gunpowder into Detroit’s outfield alignment is quite the missing hitter’s mystery.

The Tigers are convinced it comes down to several points unique to Upton, none of them an indictment.

► A season-long struggle that has all but killed Ausmus’ team, offensively, especially in the aftermath of so many injuries, has been largely psychological in nature. Upton is a proud athlete and good citizen who has pressed and who has grown increasingly embarrassed by his failures. Problems have compounded. And those demons might not ease until the 2017 season.

► Mechanics have been at work, absolutely. Upton has been early with his swing. He has been late. His front foot is a swing trigger – think of former Tigers outfielder Austin Jackson’s past issues – and has been out of synch throughout. No amount of coaching has been able to cure it.

Tigers give Upton a mental health break

Tigers hitting coach Wally Joyner sees the flaw and has worked with Upton in a steady quest to get Upton stabilized. Other coaches and hitting gurus have joined in. The Tigers have been privy to advice galore from some of the best hitting minds in baseball and all agree on the problem. All have offered counsel because Upton is held in high regard by baseball people everywhere.

The difficulty, known to hitters and pitchers alike, is that mechanical issues can be extremely tough to alter during the course of a regular season. Every game counts, as they say. And so does every at-bat.

Hitters or pitchers tend to revert to a safe haven even when it’s a trap waiting to spring. Muscle memory takes over. Players go with what feels truest and most secure.

Even when they’re fairly messed up.

Upton has had his breakthrough moments. But invariably old habits, fairly unique to this year, resumed and on came the strikeouts and bad at-bats.

And, for Upton, more misery. More anxiety. More feeling that he was letting down teammates and his new team.

It has nothing to do with having sewed up a contract worth at least $132 million. On that point the Tigers and everyone who knows Upton is firm and unrelenting.

This is a man in anguish. Worse, when he’s had a bad at-bat – pick your particular moment – he has taken his depression into left field and occasionally has been slow to the draw on a fly ball.

The Tigers see this as clearly as the stress he’s displaying during at-bats. He can make some fine plays, and has. But a bad trip to the plate can follow him – haunt him, more accurately – as he sets up in left.

The Tigers truly do not expect this to be a permanent condition. They see it as a one-season aberration. They believe the torment could yet cease during the regular season’s final six weeks.

And they have zero doubts Upton will follow an off-season program, in tandem with coaches’ advisories and conditioning rigors Upton has always accepted, to create a restored hitter and left fielder in 2017.

For a Tigers front office, Upton’s tough 2016 is not as bewildering as his circumstance might appear to fans. Fixes are understood. A player’s competitive ethic is appreciated.

The Tigers know, like Upton, that 2016 has been a nightmare. They insist the trauma, as destructive as it has been for a hitter and his team, will give way inevitably to a man’s surpassing talent.