Reporting Grant McAuley
A hitting coach’s job is seldom easy. Just ask Greg Walker of the Atlanta Braves.
His club sits in first place in the National League East by a comfortable seven games, yet the offense has yet to fire on all cylinders this season.
With a nice mix of righty and lefty bats, it seemed entirely possible that the Atlanta batting order may require very little tinkering.
That has simply not been the case.
A trio of Braves hitters have been under scrutiny this season after slow starts turned into prolonged slumps.
Make no mistake, however, these are three very different players.
B.J. Upton was Atlanta’s marquee free-agent signing over the winter. Jason Heyward is the youthful face of the franchise. Dan Uggla is a power-hitting middle infielder in need of a bounce-back season.
Their slumps are a major reason why there have been so many moving parts on the lineup card. Those struggles could be because, in some cases, there are so many moving parts to their swings.
“They’re working,” said Walker. “Some of them have gotten in some bad mechanical habits that we’re trying to get out of. This team is an extremely physically talented team. They have talent. Some of them have really complicated swings with a lot of moving parts.”
Juggling multiple cases comes with the territory for Walker and assistant hitting coach Scott Fletcher, and there are two opposite ends to the spectrum.
Walker and Fletcher are charged with helping no less than 13 different hitters maintain their current success or comfort level, or find a way to help certain hitters fix what is broken.
Taking an inventory of what has gone right for the Braves offense, there are several things worth highlighting. Atlanta leads all of baseball with 88 home runs. The Braves have scored 286 runs, good for fourth in the NL, while their 228 walks and .416 slugging percentage rank second in the league.
On the flip side of that coin, the Braves are in the middle of the pack or bringing up the rear in several other categories, including an NL-leading 583 strikeouts.
“We haven’t been consistent but we’ve done some real dynamic things,” said Walker. “We’ve hit with a lot of power and we’ve taken our walks, which I think has kind of gone unnoticed.”
That walk total is crucial considering the high strikeout rate. It has helped a club that is batting a collective .245 to post a .321 on-base percentage.
“The strikeouts are a big story, but overall we’ve scored runs,” said Walker. “It hasn’t been pretty but the production is there. We’re trying to get better, cut our strikeouts down and retain our production.”
Case in point, Heyward seems to have turned the corner in June after the worst two months of his career. Not only were his extra-base hits hard to come by, but he also missed more than three weeks after undergoing an emergency appendectomy on April 22.
Through 30 games in April and May, Heyward batted just .146/.290/.243 in 125 plate appearances. He scored 17 runs, but had just two home runs and eight RBI.
Poor performance in the top two spots of the order has robbed Justin Upton and Freddie Freeman of numerous RBI chances. However, Heyward’s injury actually made it possible for rookie Evan Gattis and resurgent reserve outfielder Jordan Schafer to see more playing time.
Heyward is making up for that lost time in June. After turning in just four multi-hit games in the first two months, he has cranked out six multi-hit nights during his current nine-game hitting streak. All of those hits have helped Heyward raise his batting average from .142 on June 1 to .208 on June 11.
Another department that has seen vast improvement for Heyward has been strikeouts. He was called out on strikes 24 times in his first 106 at-bats, but has fanned just four times in 38 at-bats during the hitting streak.
Despite the struggles and the injury, Heyward never lost the perspective needed to find his swing again.
“It’s going to take at-bats, it’s going to take feedback, it’s going to take doing it, it’s going to take screwing up sometimes, but the only way to get better at it is to play,” said Heyward.
His approach and work ethic have led Heyward to find his way out of the dark and back into the light when it comes to on-field results.
The elder Upton has also shown signs of life in late May and early June. To say that April and May were the worst two months of his career would be putting it lightly.
New team, new league, big contract and the sibling comparison all seemed to coincide with Upton’s woeful start. He looked lost at the plate at times, piling up an alarming 63 strikeouts in his first 159 at-bats.
“The one thing I think we’re fighting with some of the new guys [like Upton] is just not being around them enough to help manage their game, but that’s going to get better,” said Walker.
Hours in the film room and in the cages have led Walker and Upton to get a better understanding of what changes could benefit the speedy center fielder.
“B.J. Upton’s swing—there’s a lot of different things going on there. We’re trying simplify it and get it down to just a few things. We think we’re getting real close. B.J. feels better about his swing right now than he has at any point this season and when he gets going, he’s going to be real hungry and push it.”
The process of taking the work from batting practice and film sessions and then applying those adjustments to the game is still ongoing, but results have started to show.
Turner Field boo-birds were silenced when Upton stroked a walk-off single in a 2-1 victory over the Washington Nationals on June 1. He followed it up with a go-ahead home run the very next day.
Those key hits seemed to help put the fans back in Upton’s corner, something his manager took note of.
“It was nice for him to get some kind of reward for all the hard work and that two and a half weeks or three weeks of getting beat up pretty good,” said Atlanta skipper Fredi Gonzalez.
“Sometimes a bloop-single, or a game-winning RBI or a solo home run will get you going, and we’re hopefully getting him going in the right direction.”
After settling in the eight spot of the order, things have started to turn around for Upton, who has batted .258/.410/.484 with a pair of home runs this month.
“I’ve always been confident,” said Upton. “Going up to the plate, I feel like I’m going to get a hit every time and obviously that wasn’t happening, but [I’m] just starting to see some results and that’s the big thing.”
Perhaps a sign of better pitch selection, Upton has already drawn eight walks in 10 games in June after walking just seven times in 22 games in May.
As Upton presumably moves up in the order, his opportunities to steal bases will return as well. He has just three steals in six attempts through 65 games so far, and has gone 50 games between stolen bases. That drought began on April 8 and is easily the longest of his career.
Being able to use all the different facets of the game to beat opponents is something Upton realizes Atlanta is capable of doing.
“We’re a good all-around ball club,” said Upton. “I think the power kind of [makes people] overlook everything else, but we have the ability to beat you any way. We know we can do it, and we just have to keep doing it.”
That leaves Uggla, who has put together some better numbers this month as well.
In his third season with Atlanta, Uggla’s struggles have been a constant conversation. A 33-game hitting streak and career-high 36 home runs highlighted his 2011 season. That gave way to a career-low 19 home runs and .220 batting average in 2012.
It became clear that no stone should be left unturned when it came to making the necessary adjustments to get him back to form. With that in mind, Uggla and Walker ventured back seven years into the tape library to recreate some past magic.
“We went back to ’06 when Danny was a really good all-around hitter,” said Walker.
“He’s using those mechanics now and he’s starting to get comfortable with it. So we’ve just got to keep moving forward with him. He’s got  home runs already and has driven in some big runs for us. Hopefully, he’s trending up.”
After going 0-for-7 with five walks in his first three games this month, he hit safely in six of his next eight games. Uggla cranked two home runs in an 8-1 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers on June 9, his first multi-homer game since June 5, 2012.
Through 11 games in June, Uggla is leading the club with both a .422 OBP and .500 SLG for the month. He has drawn a team-high 11 walks, while his seven RBI are second only to Freeman’s 10.
While the batting averages of Heyward, Upton and Uggla are not close to the desired level, or even career norms, there is no doubt that positive strides have been made of late.
That leads to optimism that the Braves lineup is finally coming together.
“We’ve got enough talent and power and speed—a lot of different things that we’ll start using and become more efficient and create more runs,” said Walker.
“I know at times it’s been real ugly this year, but I’m still encouraged. I think everybody is moving forward. Their arrow is pointing up instead of down, so we feel good about that and we’re healthy. We’re encouraged and we’re in first place and we’re really young and we should get better.”
If Atlanta’s entire starting lineup starts clicking at the same time, it could be a dangerous proposition for opposing pitching staffs.
Grant McAuley covers the Braves for Atlanta Sports Radio 92.9 The Game. You can follow Grant on Twitter.