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

All Eyes on Uggla for 2014

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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.

 

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