A World Where Juan Uribe Is Desirable

Last year, in the electronic pages of FanGraphs+, I wrote this about Juan Uribe: “There’s your run-of-the-mill ‘being terrible at baseball,’ and then there’s the performance art piece put on by Juan Uribe in 2012.” I talked about how the only two players who had a worse wOBA (with at least 450 PA) over 2011-12 were Chone Figgins and Jeff Mathis. I laughed at how Dodgers manager Don Mattingly had buried him down the stretch in 2012, refusing to start him after August 14, though he remained active; I ended, snarkily, by saying “What can be said about Juan Uribe at this point that hasn’t been already been said about other great disasters in world history? At least the Titanic had a band providing entertainment until the very end.” 

Mean, perhaps, but then again, it’s difficult to express just how phenomenally atrocious Uribe had been in the first two years of his contract. When the 2013 season began, it seemed something of a minor miracle that Uribe had even survived the winter, a fact seemingly more due to the team’s inability to find an insurance policy for Luis Cruz or a suitable first base backup for Adrian Gonzalez than anything. If Scott Rolen had accepted the team’s offer to come play third base, Uribe maybe doesn’t make the roster. If Cruz hadn’t imploded so spectacularly, Uribe maybe doesn’t see July. Either way, if his career somehow even extended past 2013, it felt all but certain it would be on non-roster invites for the rest of his days.

Over the weekend, the Dodgers reached an agreement with Uribe to come back for two more seasons. They guaranteed him a reported $15 million, and they reportedly had to beat out at least the Marlins and Rays to do so. The world’s a twisted place. 

While the Rays were reportedly interested in Uribe as a utility infielder type, the Dodgers — and the Marlins, White Sox, and other clubs rumored to be in the mix — had few other options as far as full-time third base solutions went. (As I joked on Twitter the other day, Justin Sellers was booked for 740 plate appearances on our depth charts simply because we needed to input someone and the position was completely and utterly void.)

Looking at the third base free agent leaderboards, the only two players who even managed a single win above replacement in 2013 were Uribe and former teammate Nick Punto, who is more of a utility guy himself than an everyday player. If not Uribe, then the Dodgers would have been forced into exploring formerly famous people like Michael Young, or Eric Chavez, or Kevin Youkilis, all of whom were rumored to be under consideration (and who still might be options as bench players, possibly). Or possibly-not-available, yet surely expensive, trade targets like Chase Headley. Or giving up a draft pick to sign Stephen Drew and slide Hanley Ramirez over, or gambling on the injury-prone and aging Aramis Ramirez, or… well, you get it.

The Dodgers now need to pray that the Uribe of 2014 and ’15 is a whole lot more like last year’s version than the massive disappointment they had in 2011 and ’12, though it’s interesting to note that he wasn’t quite as different in his “rebound” year as you’d think.  After an early-season attempt at becoming more patient, Uribe became more or less the same hitter he always was:

Year
O-Swing%
Z-Swing%
Swing%
O-Contact%
Z-Contact%
Contact%
2010
36.0
77.0
54.8
59.4
86.4
76.8
2011
35.6
78.2
53.2
61.7
89.6
78.7
2012
35.3
71.8
50.7
62.1
87.1
77.1
2013
33.5
78.2
53.1
60.3
86.6
77.3

Just by looking at those peripherals, you wouldn’t think that 2010 (with San Francisco) and 2013 were valuable years, while 2011-12 were the baseball equivalents of dumpster fires. But his BABIP tells a different tale — from .324 in 2010, down to .249 and .245 in his first two years in Los Angeles, then back up to .334 in 2013. Often — perhaps too often — we see a player with an unexpected BABIP drop and chalk it up to “bad luck,” or “balls that just aren’t finding holes.” Sometimes that’s true, but it doesn’t really seem applicable in Uribe’s case.

At the danger of falling into “best shape of his life” territory here, Uribe showed up to camp in 2013 noticeably slimmer, apparently having been appropriately humiliated by his earlier failings — no doubt with the idea of a contract year ahead, but also past a previously limiting sports hernia — and able to actually get around on the ball. It’s not that he was more patient, or more willing to lay off bad pitches, not since his K% and BB% were so similar to what they were in his awful 2012. It’s that balls that had previously been weak grounders, at a career-high rate of 48% in 2012, were being hit with some authority, with a line-drive rate topping 20% for the first time in more than four years.

It’s unlikely to expect another season worth five WAR, if only because his usually solid defense was ranked as a somewhat-fluky looking star-level in 2013. But he doesn’t really need to be in order to justify this contract. If we go along with the rough estimate of a win costing between $6 million and $7 million these days, then the Dodgers have paid for roughly more than two wins over the next two seasons. Steamer and Oliver both project somewhat less effective offense along with solid defense, giving him between two and three wins in 2014 alone, but the “R” part of that equation is up for debate here, because the Dodgers arguably didn’t even have a replacement-level Plan B. If he can even manage that, then he’s justified the contract, and perhaps slides into more of a backup role in 2015 as the Dodgers look to improve or welcome top prospect Corey Seager to the bigs.

There’s always the possibility that he completely implodes again, as he has in two of the last three years, but given the limited financial outlay and black hole of alternatives, the Dodgers did what they needed to do… even if  less than a year ago, the simple suggestion of it would have seemed unfathomable.




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Mike Petriello lives in New York and writes about the Dodgers daily at Dodgers Digest, as well as contributing to ESPN Insider. He wrote two chapters in the 2014 Hardball Times Annual as well as building The Hardball Times and TechGraphs, and was an editorial producer at Sports on Earth. Find him at @mike_petriello.


14 Responses to “A World Where Juan Uribe Is Desirable”

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  1. Tim says:

    So does the positional adjustment for third base need to be changed? It looks to me less like just a thin free agent class and more like the performance at the position is degrading.

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    • rustyspatula says:

      My understanding is that positional adjustments are calculated entirely on the basis of defensive value (i.e. degree-of-difficulty), and so would not be changed based on offensive performance. In other words, if you have a player whose skillset is equally-well-suited for two positions, Pos + UZR at one position should equal Pos + UZR at the other.

      Of course, the ‘same skillset’ constraint is a theoretical one, since the requirements of every position are a little different, but the clearest example is CF vs Corner OF — if Shin-Soo Choo is -15 UZR/150 in CF, and CF receives +10 runs / 150 games compared to RF, we would expect him to be a -5 defender in RF.

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      • Bip says:
        FanGraphs Supporting Member

        if you have a player whose skillset is equally-well-suited for two positions, Pos + UZR at one position should equal Pos + UZR at the other.

        What do you mean by “well-suited”? If a player is both an average SS and an average 1B, then is player equally well suited to both positions? Because that player contributes far more defensive value playing SS.

        My understanding of positional adjustments is probably more along the lines of what Tim thinks it is. You adjust for positional “scarcity”. What that means is that it is harder to find players capable of playing difficult positions like SS and C, and easier to find players who can play 1B and corner OF, relatively speaking. A consequence of this fact is that the “rarer” positions will have lower offense on average, and consequentially lower replacement-level offense. Therefore a MLB-average-hitting SS will actually be exceeding replacement-level offense for SS by a wider margin than an average hitting 1B, making the SS offense more valuable.

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    • Positional adjustments are quite flawed, so yes; but the same could be said for 1B and Catcher as well.

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      • Bip says:
        FanGraphs Supporting Member

        Flawed in what way? Meaning that the relative scarcity of 1B and C has changed since they were calculated?

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        • Ruki Motomiya says:

          Meaning it is more valuable to play Miguel Cabrera at third base than first base due to positional adjustment, despite the fact that a third base Miguel Cabrera is more likely to actually hurt your team defensively.

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        • Bip says:
          FanGraphs Supporting Member

          The other thing you’re not considering, however, is the relative value of the replacement-level players at each position. Let’s say Cabrera is a -5 UZR/150 defender and first and a -10 UZR/150 defender at third.

          Also, remember these numbers are calculated in a vacuum. The Tiger’s actual infield situation doesn’t matter. We want to see Cabrera’s value to a generic team.

          If you move Cabrera from third to first, then you gain 5 runs on defense by having him replace a 0 UZR 1B and subbing him with a 0 UZR 3B. However, the replacement-level 1B will hit better than the replacement-level 3B, so the 5 runs gain on defense will be offset by some runs lost on offense.

          Positional adjustments only imply that a player is more valuable at a particular position if that player can actually play that position. Otherwise, the benefit a team gets from moving a player to a tougher position is lost when that player plays poorly at that position.

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  2. Lakeside says:

    Wow, I can say I learned something today : Juan Uribe was worth 5+ war in 132 games in 2013. Honestly I would never have thought that and the rest of the article you got the impression we were comparing his play to the titanic. :)

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  3. AB says:

    If at the beginning of 2013, someone told you the Dodgers would get a combined total of 19.3 WAR from Uribe, Ramirez, Puig, and Ryu as well as a Cy Young season from Kershaw, how many wins would you have estimated they would earn? 100? 105? I have no idea what to make of this team going forward, other than the fact that they have crap loads of money.

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  4. Pirates Hurdles says:

    Just looking at Uribe’s career wRC+ is fascinating. How does one guy have random above average hitting years, two at average, and 8 in the abysmal range distributed so unevenly across a 13 year career? It’s inexplicable. His range of outcomes are wRC+ of 50 to 115 and any would be reasonable projections for 2014.

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  5. Hurtlockertwo says:

    I guess four over replacement seasons out of 13 is still batting over .300.

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  6. ken says:

    IN A WORLD…..!!!!!

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  7. tz says:

    Damn, $7.5 million a year for Juan Uribe?

    That’s Brandon League money!

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