Upton playing grown-up game through high expectations - East Valley Tribune: Sports

Upton playing grown-up game through high expectations

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Posted: Tuesday, July 12, 2011 5:09 pm | Updated: 9:56 pm, Wed Jul 13, 2011.

Justin Upton snuck up to the left of Miguel Montero's podium on Monday morning, grinning like a Cheshire cat.

National League All-Star media day was wrapping up, and as the crowd around him dwindled, the Diamondbacks right fielder switched occupations for five minutes, grabbing a microphone and hurling questions at his teammate.

Among them: Does Montero's nine-month old son, Angel, already have more power than his father?

The prank is befitting of Upton's age because, despite the hype and the accolades already bestowed upon him in his five-year career, he is still the youngest player on Arizona's active roster at 23 years old.

But after a half season of impressive numbers, it's clear that his game is all grown up.

Upton begins the second half of the Diamondbacks' surprising season with a .293 average, 15 homers and 46 RBIs. He has an OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) of .881 in a year in which overall offensive production is down, and he has stolen 14 bases, which has him on pace for a career high.

So far this season, Upton is worth 3.2 wins above a replacement-level right fielder, which ranks 28th among all major league position players. He is the youngest player in the top 40.

Last season, Upton dealt with a down year and an injury. Fans were on his case about striking out too much and occasionally making errors on defense. In the offseason, new Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers made it known that Arizona would listen to trade offers for its young star.

For the first time, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 MLB draft was facing questions about his potential.

But flash forward to Tuesday, and the scene was much different.

Upton sat in the dugout with the National League All-Star team for the second time, still the second-youngest position player in the group.

"People forget just how young he is," Giants pitcher Matt Cain said.

That happens, but it's a great problem to have.

Upton accumulated an OPS of .799 last season, a solid number for any regular player, but still down for one with his vast expectations.

But after striking out in 30.7 percent of his at-bats in 2010, Upton is doing so only 20.7 percent of the time this season.

With a career line drive rate of 18.2 percent, more balls put into play will almost assuredly help his average. Upton is currently hitting 20 points higher this year compared to his wobbly finish in 2010 (.273).

"I don't know what (the difference is), to be honest with you," Upton said. "At some point, you've just got to stop swinging at balls and swing at strikes. I think I've done that pretty well."

His career trajectory seems back on path, and while fans once debated the six-year, $51.25 million contract extension he was given in March of 2010, there seems little doubt he will be worth the money he is given.

He's been a big reason why the Diamondbacks are six games over .500 at the break, and why the team has scored the third most runs in the National League this season.

And at 23, he's still got plenty of room to grow, which Upton fully expects to do.

"You should get better every year you step on the field," he said.

National League All-Star manager Bruce Bochy debated starting Upton at designated hitter in Tuesday's All-Star game, but eventually went with Carlos Beltran because Bochy wanted Upton's defense in right field in the later innings.

National League Home Run Derby captain Prince Fielder nearly chose Upton as one of the participants, but instead chose teammate Rickie Weeks.

These days, those are the main gripes from Diamondbacks fans, a change from last year, when there were questions about whether Upton would ever become a superstar.

For a player that made the big leagues at age 19, Upton wasn't given much slack by fans. After one down year, it doesn't seem like he will be needing any more.

"I think he has the most potential of any player in the big leagues," Montero said. "Any player. And there are a lot of good ones. He's special. He just makes things look so easy."

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