Here's hoping Dan can tag more than runners in 2014. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

All Eyes on Uggla for 2014


 

The Financials

Dan is starting on the 4th year of his 5 year Atlanta mission to seek out new baseballs and destroy them. He was obtained by Atlanta in a seemingly lopsided deal with the Marlins for utility man Omar Infante and reliever Mike Dunn. The Marlins didn’t want to pay Dan what he wanted (good for them). They eventually didn’t want to pay Infante, either (bad for them). The Braves came up with an extension worth $62.1 million over 5 years. $26 million of that remains for 2014-15.

It has been an open/unspoken secret that the Braves have been trying to move Dan this off-season. Either there were no offers, or the offers failed to offload enough cash to satisfy the risk/reward ratio they were looking for. Thus he’s still with the Braves.

 

The Trends

First off: no one with any credibility can say that Dan isn’t durable or that he doesn’t work very hard at his game. He is seldom injured and has racked up the 6th most games played since becoming a full-time player in 2006. Of course Jeff Francoeur is also in that top-20 list, so make your own call on the importance of that stat.

The next two charts speak volumes. Over his first five seasons, Dan was productive: there were variations in performance from year-to-year, but it’s clear that there was a plateau – perhaps even a rise in production overall – then a death spiral beginning in 2011.

DanStats1

 

DanStats2

(click either one to enlarge)

Chart 1 shows mostly results; Chart 2 shows more about ‘reasons’.  Summarizing my own observations:

  • The quality of contact that Dan has been making seems to have suddenly and steadily gotten worse since 2010.
  • Infield Fly Balls are up significantly over 2006-2010: double the 2010 rate (black line; chart 2)
  • He’s chasing more pitches (higher swing %ages; orange/red lines in chart 2), but the problem is that he’s also missing more pitches – strikes and non-strikes.
  • His contact rate (chart 2: green and blue lines) was getting so bad in 2013 that he is now missing pitches that might otherwise have been infield flies.

That phrase ‘quality of contact’ is a bit subjective. Let me explain that by quoting from a fangraphs article about Freddie Freeman:

Freeman’s liners suggest a high quality of contact. Other, more advanced information also suggests a high quality of contact. Freeman, very simply, has just stung the ball. … Since [2011], he’s one of just 15 players to have a line-drive rate at least one standard deviation above the average, and a pop-up rate at least one standard deviation below the average.

Freeman’s hitting is the polar opposite of Dan Uggla’s right now. He’s averaging 25% line drives and 5% pop ups. Uggla is averaging (since the tailspin began) 16% and 14%. Those are big differences in ‘quality of contact’.

Could the problem have truly been his eyes? Yes, I think so. Let me explain.

 

Personal Story

I have a bad eye. Since high school my right eye had been compromised in vision acuity, but for a while it had been correctable up to roughly 20/30 – 20/40 or so.

Somewhere about age 30-33, changes started to occur. Changes I didn’t really notice. As a result, I didn’t get my prescription updated often enough or quickly enough. In fact, it was about five years before I figured this out.

By that time, my brain had effectively “given up” on getting the right eye to focus, and today it is literally uncorrectable. Left eye is good: 20/15. But the right eye is effectively useless. So if you were to toss a baseball toward me, there’s a chance that I could catch it – or fumble it since my ‘stereo’ vision is flawed.

This is an extreme example, and hopefully does not directly apply to Dan. What it does say it that there are imperceptible changes going on to our eyes every day… changes that only a professional can notice. But once the changes start, they continue – unabated – until something is corrected.

 

Mandatory Credit: Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports

Back to Uggla – Problem #2

I believe the statistics tell us exactly when Dan’s vision problems started: between the 2010 and 2011 seasons. Thus his vision deterioration until his Lasik surgery late last Summer.

Reports from then refer to “blurred” vision. Broadcast reports further suggested that Dan was at the point where he was having trouble seeing the seams on the baseball and that the whole thing was getting fuzzy. That suggests roughly a 20/40 acuity to me (despite other reports of 20/30). Clearly, that would cause him problems with pitch recognition and with overall contact quality.

So was his vision better since the surgery? Yes – he said so. Was he hitting better? Not in September. Why not?

Word is that Dan had also been developing bad hitting habits – probably to try and compensate for his vision. Here’s a pair of examples…maybe you can spot something!

This video of a 2007 bomb shows a fairly “still” presence at the plate.

This next one is from late 2013 – a line drive was hit, but he seems a bit less ‘settled’.

Hopefully at this point, his brain has adjusted to the new inner-lens changes. Hopefully he has enough video that he can see the good things he used to do while hitting. Hopefully he has already been working on these things with pitching machines over the past couple of months. Hopefully that list is not too much to hope for.

 

Will any of this matter for 2014?

It was right for Fredi Gonzalez to bench Dan late last year. The difference in vision quality – after being compromised for 2-1/2 years – would have been significant. It’s clear that between the new eyes and the bad swing that he wasn’t ready. From my own personal experience, I can tell you that it takes time to adjust to a new prescription… especially if your eyes had been deteriorating for 2+ years… and I don’t hit 90-95 mph fastballs for a living.

____________

A week+ ago, my friend Josh wrote our official projection piece on Dan Uggla. He pointed out that Dan must cut down on the strikeouts. As you can see from the first chart above, he nailed it: that’s a key indicator. His threshold seems to be roughly in the 24-25% range (still too high for my tastes, but welcome to baseball in the 21st century). Unfortunately, I believe Dan will start slowly even if things are working better for him, as it will take time to bring him back from the brink.

If his K-rate is below 24% by June, then maybe he’s on to something. If it’s higher than 27%… then we might be seeing a lot more of Ramiro Pena.

Dan Uggla is never going to be a hitter like Freddie Freeman or Chris Johnson. But there’s still a lot of room between where he was in 2006-2010 and 2011-2013. Potential suitors will at least want to see something trending in the right direction if the Braves will ever have a chance to move him.

To the degree that the rest of the Braves’ offense is productive enough to allow Dan to work through his own personal rehab program – that’s the degree of patience that Fredi will likely have in giving Dan rope to lasso this beast… or to hang himself trying.

His prescription? Lots of Spring ABs.

 

Tags: Atlanta Braves Dan Uggla

  • http://tomahawktake.com/ carpengui

    In case anybody was wondering, Dave O’Brien had an answer just yesterday (figures – I was already finished with this piece by then) for the question “what would it take for the Braves to relent and sell off Uggla?”

    Answer: somebody would have to accept him at the rate of at least $4m-$5m per year. The Braves would then eat the remaining $16-18m on his deal. His phrasing suggests partial speculation/partial knowledge on those dollar ranges.

    Trouble is, the Braves need him to actually show progress/promise during the Spring to show that he’s worth even $4m-5m per year to somebody… anybody.

  • http://www.tomahawktake.com/ Chris Headrick

    Good piece. I think beyond the obvious problems with Dan, including the increased K rate, and propensity not to make solid contact – which very well could be a product of the vision issues, there’s always more to a struggling players’ issues than meets the “eye”. Just as I contend with BJ, I contend that Dan has lost a good deal of confidence as a result of whatever the true cause of his issues. I know from my baseball days than when you lose confidence off the mound, it’s difficult to get that back sometimes. It’s true of hitters as well, just as it’s true of any person in any walk of life engaging in any activity on a daily basis where the outcome is often pass/fail. There is certainly no easy fix for confidence problems, but I learned a long time ago that when someone “seems” sure of themselves, often that if simply overcompensation for the lack of real confidence they have. Dan seems fine, and at last year’s close when benched, even cocky to the point of suggesting the Braves couldn’t win without him. He may seem fine, but I guarantee you he’s having confidence issues. As you said, the prescription may be as many ABs in spring as possible, but his problems, like BJs, I again content, go well beyond mere mechanics and muscle memory. If his vision issues are truly fixed, he’ll need the ABs, but I hope he’s already been working on the mental intangibles that none of us can see, but certainly see in a lack of outcome on the job.

    • http://tomahawktake.com/ carpengui

      Agree, agree: maybe getting married helps, too? Thanks for saying that: I was already long!

  • Benjamin Chase

    My athletic career was ended by retinal detachment surgery at 19, and I very well could have prevented it by getting it checked sooner. The problem is that mine was a genetic detachment, so it took time and slowly got worse until I realized things weren’t right months later. By then, my retina had already partially detached in my right eye. My left eye was pulling away with the same genetic defect. Today, 14 “procedures” later, I have virtually no peripheral vision in my right eye, and even after cataract surgery at 27, I have only retained 20/40 vision in the right eye along with a lazy eye now. My left eye is 20/15 or 20/20 when I go in for quarterly checkups on my eyes because it was caught before it had detached.

    Dan very well could see some dramatic differences, but much like parallel parking for me with my changed depth perception, the best way to improve his pitch recognition will be tons of time in the cage and tons of at-bats. I’d love to find out that he gets at-bats in every Braves game on the main field and back fields through spring training, as a DH if need be just to get his eyes back locked in. What a coup it would be to pull a 2010 Dan Uggla into the lineup from what we’re currently expecting from the 2B slot.

    One other aspect to consider was that Uggla’s hard work had been present with his defensive work at 2B. The Braves lost a major asset for Dan when Glenn Hubbard was let go just before Dan was acquired. Even then, Dan has improved by most metrics in his play at 2B. How much of that can be attributed to playing next to Andrelton and how much is Uggla’s hard work is two things, but his vision absolutely has held back his reaction time at second base. The main thing I’ve noted with Dan in the field is his struggles with “at-’em” balls. Your typical infield flies or groundouts, he does well with, but a ball coming quickly at him is dangerous for him as he typically isn’t seeing it right off the bat (I’m assuming). We could even see an improvement at 2B for Dan along with the bat, and frankly, at that point, sign me up for the remainder of that contract until Jose Peraza can be brought up to the bigs to create the best defensive middle infield in the game with a ton of speed (I hope, I hope).

  • fireboss

    I don’t think it’s Dan’s eyes at all. They were a contributing factor of course but everything points to declining bat speed. He’s walking at a higher rate so recognizes the zone okay but his fly balls are caught instead of over the outfielder’s head and his IFFB rate is up again indicating a timing issue. As I said when they forced him to get first contacts then Lasik last year, his eyes have been examined and examined and examined but all they found was a slight decrease in acuity. The contacts or the Lasik should have corrected that. Last year (prior to the season or just after its start) MLBNetwork analyzed Uggla’s swing in Miami and in Atlanta and found no differences. In fact they pointed out that it had remained strong even though 2012 wasn’t a great year.
    We have a guy who plays this year at age 34 and who always depended on big muscle to provide power. You don’t increase arm speed with the kind of weights Uggla had to use to get biceps the size of Popeye’s and as you age the ability to compensate goes too. I think the only way Dan gets close to his old self is with a lighter bat and lots of works with bands instead of dead weights.

    I suppose lightening his chest could have helped as well but as I recall he was always able to find ways to do that in the past.

    • Benjamin Chase

      Proper weight lifting would increase his ability to be explosive and get to the ball. Bands vs. weights wouldn’t be the issue at all if he’s still going to use the bands to enhance his chest and arms only. Real power in a swing is generated in the core and hips. To put it lightly, bands are ill-equipped to enhance strength in those areas. Flexibility, sure, lean down muscle in that area, sure, but add to strength capacity, not so much.

      • fireboss

        I suspect Dan’s core is pretty strong and I don’t want the bands to make his already strong arms bigger. If he actually connects squarely it travels far enough I’d like to see his upper body leaner. It won’t happen because Dan is Dan but too much bulk isn’t a good thing for a baseball player.

    • http://tomahawktake.com/ carpengui

      (Obviously), my take is that his bat speed reduction is coming from indecision/hesitation – indecision created by the eye thing combined with a loss of confidence. I frankly don’t know that we can determine which opinion is right… but the results have been the same either way.
      Your diagnosis will probably help him recover either way, for he has to *know* he can bust into the swing into the ball again.

      More AB, more ABs, more ABs… and even on the back fields, as Ben suggests.

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  • Lee Trocinski

    First, the Zone numbers used has changed a lot since ’06. The league-wide zone% was 52.6% in ’06 and was 44.7% last year. O-Swing% also made a big jump between ’09 and ’10, nearly 4 percentage points. When factoring that in, I’d say his “eye” has improved. I’m also not concerned about his O-Contact% either. While missing a pitch has a near-zero chance to reach base, contacting balls out of the zone isn’t much better. It’s the Z-Contact that is the worry. If you can’t hit strikes, you don’t last much longer, and I’m not sure if he can reverse this.

  • Lee Trocinski

    Also, great job on the videos, picking similar pitches for each. In the ’07 swing, he stays inside the ball very well, which leads to the ideal barrel path and contact. Last year’s swing sees him try to get out around the ball, leading to a much longer barrel path. That’s why he top-spun it down the line. You can really see the difference in his back elbow at the point of contact. Then again, he may have just been out in front, though you shouldn’t really be out in front of a fastball.

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