Daniel Cooley Uggla is an easy target for Braves’ fans to pick on. He’s short…relatively speaking. He’s got Popeye’s forearms. His facial expressions range from ‘bored’ to ‘bemused’. When he swings, the bat whips through the strike zone with enormous speed, occasionally making contact with the ball. When he fields grounders, he has all the ferocity – and grace – of a young Schnauzer going after a tennis ball in the backyard. But nobody can argue his effort… he even slimmed down noticeably this off-season and is seemingly has a bit more range around the infield. But the results? That takes a bit to explain.
When the Braves traded Omar Infante and Mike Dunn to the Marlins, it looked like a steal: a 35-homer guy who would hit .250-.260 and at least stop the parade of second basemen that had been going through Atlanta since the days of Marcus Giles (Uggla ranks second to him in innings played at second base since 1990). That hasn’t exactly gone as hoped, though with each forgettable bit, there have been moments of greatness included. Uggla is now nearly halfway through his 5 year, $62m deal with Atlanta. Let’s see how that’s working out.
When evaluating Uggla’s performance, there isn’t a single direction to go. Is it fair to evaluate him against the two guys most likely to have been stationed at second base had the Braves chosen to allow Dan to stay in Miami? (Answer: kinda) Is it fair to compare him – offensively and defensively – against the rest of the league? Definitely – particularly given his contract. We’ll do this – and more, I promise – as we try to figure out the ultimate answer to the ultimate question: was the Uggla trade a good deal for Atlanta and what happens from here?
I have two ‘takeaways’ from this chart: (1) Uggla’s game is different from that of both Prado and Infante, so you have to think about an entirely different lineup role to compare these guys; (2) If you want to look at the overall ‘product’ – offensively speaking – then Uggla probably has a slight edge, based on OPS and On-base Avg. That said, you’d have to ask whether this differential was worth the $62 million… or at least the difference between that contract and Prado’s $40m deal with Arizona. The answer is inevitably ‘no’ to both, but I will argue those are not fair questions to ask, and here’s why:
Uggla’s deal was made before the 2011 season. He just had a ‘breakout’ year and was still in his prime, but the Marlins decided (as they do) not to spend the money. The Braves needed a big RH bat – and this one fell into their lap when nothing else presented itself. You can review the list of available 2010-2011 free agents for yourself. The best RH bat then was probably Gary Sheffield… and he was 41. The Braves evidently decided that Uggla would probably be a consistent performer, and inked him for five years. Based on the available information at the time, this looked like a reasonable deal, though perhaps a little pricey. There are always naysayers, of course, but the idea of getting a perennial 30-HR player who averaged 155 games per year was too good to pass up. Note also that the Braves could wrest him from a division rival, then leverage him against the Phillies and their own uber-secondsacker Chase Utley.
Additionally, the Braves apparently didn’t truly know what they had in Prado and Infante. In 2009 and 2010, Prado established himself as the super-utility guy who could also hit for average, and was the ideal number two place hitter in the lineup. Infante was – at that time – even less of a role player; certainly not an ‘everyday’ player… and it’s hard to use one guy like Prado in your lineup, much less two. Infante, therefore, became the odd one out at that time. No big deal – we got a big bat, and we still have Odarp*. Nothing lost. So I would submit that Infante was going to be gone in any scenario… shuffled due to lack of space. Good on him that he was able to thrive elsewhere. We’ll likely have to say the same for McCann at year’s end. Moving on…
Had the Uggla deal not been done, then yes: Prado would be the Atlanta second baseman today… or maybe the third baseman with Pastornicky or somebody else roaming over there. There would likely be no Justin Upton and Chris Johnson. Is that a better scenario? I don’t think that’s a winning argument, given the outcomes thus far, though it may be too early to make that call. To many other possible deals may have occurred in the meantime that would change the points of debate as well. The best thing a General Manager can do is to make the best projection he can based on all of the information available to him at the time, and that data – to me, at least – still argues for Uggla. We’ll get to the cost component a little more later.
The Performance – Uggla vs. the World
I have taken a composite of the statistics for the top qualified second basemen for 2013 – through the end of play on June 9th (Sunday night). I extended the plate appearances limitation to drag in a few more in the hopes of covering the primary 2B player for most every team, so there are 33 names on this list.
- Matt Carpenter (no relation) is eating everyone’s lunch this year so far, though it is close. His .894 OPS leads a logjam of players – nine of whom OPS above .800, with one more (Jed Lowrie) at .796. You can pretty much guess the names of the elites here: Dustin Pedroia, Ian Kinsler, Marco Scutaro, Howie Kendrick, Robinson Cano, Chase Utley, et al.
- Uggla (14th of 33 in OPS) appears in the next tier, which includes Daniel Murphy, Infante, and Ben Zobrist (in something of a down year for him). So Dan is firmly in the middle.
- In fWAR, Uggla is 18th… and that’s because WAR favors RBI, hits and extra-base hits rather than walks. To change this, he has to convert K and BB numbers into H, 2B, and RBI.
- Uggla is at or near the bottom in strikeouts, BABIP, stolen bases, and batting average.
- Uggla is #1 in walks and ISO power. He’s 2nd in HR. When he hits it, the ball goes a long way.
- Overall: he’s in the middle of the pack… and definitely not among a solid group of elite performers.
>> Note: after a hot start, Prado himself has run into a wall, offensively: his OPS is down to .637, batting .248 (.175 in June). Just sayin’.
- Dan Uggla is not a very good defender. He has the most errors and fielding errors among all of the second basemen (9, 7 respectively). He has logged the sixth-most innings, however, so there is a slight bit of a scaling factor to consider… but it’s still 4th worst.
- His UZR/150 number this year ranks 30th; the raw UZR is 34th. He is last in Defensive Runs Saved.
- …but he tries: 18th ranked in ‘out of zone’ plays made. He’s also kinda in the middle in terms of double play performance. We’ll give a nod to Simba for that.
Uggla’s contract is currently among the richest in the league for a second baseman. Is he playing like one of the elites? No – no argument can be made for that. You certainly cannot point to the offensive numbers and say “we can tolerate poor defense because of his hitting”… unless you’re only concerned about homers.
Will his contract still look bad in 2015 – the fifth and final year? At this point, I’d have to say “probably“: Pedroia will be under control through 2015 (team option at $10m). Cano will become lottery-rich pretty soon. Zobrist signed a sweetheart deal for the Rays that also goes through 2015. Jedd Gyorko is under team control for quite a while. Currently, only Utley’s deal (expiring after this year) is bigger than Uggla’s (even Brandon Phillips‘ deal) and over a dozen players are out-performing him. And it is that – the performance and the money – that brings the criticism.
But whether the deal looks any better by 2015 will depend on whether Dan can make an adjustment at the plate. And that’s the next topic: what’s wrong with Uggla and can he fix it?
The Performance – Uggla vs. Uggla
But the biggest offensive difference between Uggla 2010 and Uggla 2013 is that a lot of hits are turning into strikeouts… not even so much a reduction in home runs (he’s on pace for 30-35 again this year) or even On-Base Average (close to career norm), but it’s the K rate.
Strikeouts are in red; walks in green. It is evident from this chart that strikeouts – which had been present all long – started to balloon even more in 2011. As you likely recall, Dan got off to a horrendous start in 2011… and finally dug himself out thanks to the most improbable 33 game hit streak in the history of baseball.
In 2012, however, that magic did not return, and the hitting problems – perhaps masked or even ignored during that 2011 streak – were left exposed for all to see. Strikeouts multiplied. Oddly enough, walks did, too: Uggla league the National League in walks, a fact that kept his on-base percentage surprisingly (tolerably?) high. Huh.
But these stats are not ‘reasons’ – they are symptoms, and we have to dig deeper. Time to check the plate discipline stats:
Wow. There’s a difference! The red data points represent Dan’s rate of contact with pitches that are in the strike zone – the ‘Z-Contact’ rate. He is literally missing 10% more pitches now than he did 3 years ago. Let’s go one step further… but without a fancy graphic this time:
Fangraphs has charts on pitch values. They gather data from multiple sources to see what types of pitches hitters are seeing and what the hitters do with them. Further, there are various measures of how well hitters translate certain types of pitches (fastball, curve, slider, etc.) into runs scored. There is one column on that chart that sticks out like a sore thumb for Uggla: wFA – or Fastball Runs Above Average. Here’s the data:
- 2007 – 3.0
- 2008 – 18.3
- 2009 - 25.5
- 2010 – 15.5
- 2011 – 10.9
- 2012 – 5.7
- 2013 – 4.6
I’m not saying that Uggla can’t hit a fastball (note that every number shown still represents a number that’s ‘above average’). I’ll spare you the rest of the charts, but here’s what the data indicates: pitchers aren’t throwing him as many fastballs, and he isn’t hitting any other pitch very well. It had been that Dan was seeing ~50% fastballs. Not any more. That number is continuing to decline, and is now at in the 35-40% range for this season. The change seems to be toward Cutters and sinkers instead. But that presents a problem, for on almost any pitch that’s not a fastball, Dan Uggla is an average hitter (hanging curves excepted).
I don’t believe there’s any lack of focus or confidence in Uggla’s hitting… he’s just not getting the pitches he knows he can hit. I would also argue that this is also directly leading to the noted increases in both strikeouts and walks: he is waiting for a pitch, and the plate appearance outcome is being determined by the pitcher’s ability to throw strikes with his non-fastball repertoire.
Basically, the way for Uggla offensive numbers to come up is that he needs to adjust and figure out how to start hitting change-ups and sliders better. These are his worst-performing pitches, relative to percentages. He doesn’t have to be a lot better with these, but it does need to be enough to make a pitcher willing to throw something else… and Dan can hit fastballs and curves.
The Braves have Uggla for 2-1/2 more seasons. There are a lot of fan calls for a trade, but you have to have a willing partner. You also have to have a plan to actually replace the guy you are trading away. Are the Braves simply going to go out and have the Cardinals give us Matt Carpenter for Uggla? Uh, no.
Should the Braves have done something else for second base? Hard to say. As I look at the other elite second base performers, exactly one of them (Marco Scutaro) has changed teams in the past few years… and he was once another ‘Omar-like’ role-player. The best players are not moving… which is why the Justin Upton deal was so big. The Braves opted to take the chance… an expensive chance… that Uggla would be their guy. I know that everybody – Uggla included – have been hoping for more. If he were in the midst of that elite group of 8-10 guys, then this would no longer be a question. But there is certainly something to say about being able to count on someone to play every day, and for sure: Dan Uggla will grind it out for you.
Personally, I was expecting that the presence of Justin and BJ in that lineup would allow Uggla to see a few more fastballs. That hasn’t happened so far… possibly because of BJ’s lack of hitting. Let’s see if recent upticks in the hitting of all of these guys can continue. It would certainly take the pressure off everybody, and make the fans a lot happier, too.
* – if you don’t know about the ‘Odarp’ reference, then just watch this!