Upton not resting on laurels after strong 2011
D-backs right fielder feels he can improve on breakout season
PHOENIX -- Last season, by any measure, was an outstanding one for Justin Upton.
The D-backs right fielder, who turned 24 in August, hit .289 with 39 doubles, 31 homers and 88 RBIs, finishing fourth in the National League Most Valuable Player voting. Even better, in his eyes, was that his team won 94 games and made the postseason for the first time since 2007.
Upton, though, was hardly satisfied either by his own performance or that of his team, which was eliminated by the Brewers in five games of the NL Division Series.
"I think as well as I hit last year, I wasn't as consistent as I could have been," he said. "I still hit those long slumps. I think being a good hitter is about being able to get out of those a little quicker and still producing when you're not feeling great. That's something that comes with time and being able to take a step back and play the game."
W: Kennedy (1-0) L: Lincecum (0-1)
SV: Putz (1)
Upton has learned over the past few years to look at the big picture. It's something that does not come easy to someone who demands greatness from himself every game. It comes with the territory of being the first overall pick in the 2006 First-Year Player Draft and being rushed to the Major Leagues at age 19.
"I just beat myself up about things and was out there pressing too much," Upton said. "Now, I could care less what people are saying. I don't mean that in a bad way, it's just that I'm enjoying playing the game. However my numbers end up at the end of the season is how they end up. As long as we're winning, that's what matters. I've had good seasons like '09 when I was an All-Star, and my team was awful, and I know how that feels. There's nothing more fun than playing on a team that's winning."
When Kirk Gibson took over as Arizona manager in July 2010, one of the first things he did was downplay the talk of Upton's potential.
That's because Gibson remembers all too well what it was like as a young player with the Tigers to have his manager, Sparky Anderson, refer to him as the next Mickey Mantle.
So when you ask Gibson if there's another level for Upton to get to, he steers things in a different direction.
"I've encouraged him just to enjoy what he does and let it happen," Gibson said. "I don't worry about 'J-Up.' He's maturing, he laughs a lot more. I want him to enjoy it and not put too much pressure on himself. We know he's got ability. It will fall into place for him."
The presence last season of hitting coach Don Baylor helped Upton tremendously. In the past, Upton would often take a bad session of batting practice and carry it over into a game. That started to change last season.
"I'm still going to bang as many balls as I can until I feel good," Upton said. "But being able to separate cage time from game time, that's what helps me the most."
Another way that Baylor helped was in keeping things simple at the plate. Upton used to return to the dugout after a bad at-bat and wonder if it was the result of something in his mechanics.
"When you're younger, and you don't have somebody in your ear that you trust it's tough," Upton said. "You come back to the dugout thinking it's your swing when a lot of times it's not. A lot of times you just swung at a bad pitch. You want to have your mind clear when you're up there and just play and let your ability come out."
Upton reaching his full potential can not be a pleasant thought for opposing teams.
"Everyone has that one guy in their lineup that other team doesn't want to see coming up, and he's that guy," D-backs general manager Kevin Towers said. "We've got several weapons, but he's the guy that most clubs don't want to see come up."
Steve Gilbert is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Inside the D-backs, and follow him on Twitter @SteveGilbertMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.