[Alt: “Uggla’s Stick,” “Dan’s Uggla Stick”]
When the Atlanta Braves moved Marvin Prado to left field in order to make room at second base for Dan Uggla, whom they signed to a five-year, $62 million extension, this is obviously not what they had in mind. Prado (27) is currently hitting .252/.292/.370 (77wRC+) on the season, and Uggla (31) is chugging along at a robust .209/.266/.391 (73 wRC+). Prado’s problems are easy enough to explain by way of the pool of toxic waste in Turner’s left-center field — the same one that mangled the careers of Nate McLouth and Melky Cabrera. But what’s going on with Uggla? Is this simply a small-sample slump, or should the team be worried?
Uggla had the best offensive season of his career in 2010, hitting .287/.369/.508 for 136 wRC+ (+32 batting runs above average). While his peripherals were good, they actually weren’t the best of his career, as he had better walk rates in 2008 and 2009, and better isolated power in 2007 and 2008. His 2010 BABIP, however, was the highest of his career at .330. Given his age, that high BABIP, and simply regression to the mean, it was to be expected that he would come down a fair bit in 2011, and ZiPS’ pre-season projection for Uggla was .259/.346/.469 (118 wRC+), which is pretty close to his current career line (with a bit less power). That would still be good for a second baseman, but, of course, he hasn’t been close to that projected line.
Uggla’s power really hasn’t been the problem so far this season. His current .183 ISO would be the lowest of his career, but it is still above average. While Atlanta’s home stadium is slightly harder for right-handed power hitters than Florida’s, the difference isn’t big enough to make that much of a difference. His rate of home runs on fly balls is down to 12 percent, but he hit for good power in 2006 and 2007 at only 13 percent, so that isn’t the issue. Uggla is actually hitting about the same percentage of fly balls in 2011 as he did in 2010, and while his rate of infield fly balls is up to 9.8 percent, that isn’t particularly high, and he’s hit for power with that sort of rate before (2007 and 2009).
As one might expect, the problem isn’t with balls leaving the park or not, but that the balls that are staying in the park aren’t going for hits. While it would have been unrealistic to expect Uggla to repeat his .330 BABIP from 2010 (ZiPS projected .297), his current .213 BABIP is dreadful. Here, the numbers indicate that Uggla may be having some bad luck. While his line-drive rate is down to 14.9 percent this season from the 16 and 17 percent of earlier years, that shouldn’t lead to that drastic of a drop on balls in play, even with the small increases in ground balls and infield flies. So far this season Uggla has a .184 wOBA on grounders, a .287 on fly balls, and a .773 on line drives. For his career, Uggla has had a .259 wOBA on ground balls, a .436 on fly balls, and a .730 on liners. While batted-ball classification is tricky, and Uggla is getting older, it does seem likely that he is having some bad luck on balls hit to the outfield and those that are kept on the ground. Even if he’s lost a bit of power and isn’t a speed demon, some upwards regression seems likely.
One area that might be of concern (ignored small sample caveat here) is that Uggla may have taken a different approach (as seen in his plate discipline) which is related to his current problems. While Uggla has managed the best strikeout rate of his career so far (18.3 percent), his 8.3 percent walk rate is the lowest since his rookie season. Looking at his more granular plate discipline numbers, the drop in walks isn’t surprising: Uggla is making slightly more contact (although not enough to adequately explain the big drop in strikeouts thus far), but he’s swinging at more pitches inside and out of the strike zone, which naturally leads to a drop in walks. If the pitches Uggla is swinging at are harder to drive, that might explain his lower BABIP and power numbers.
I’m just looking at the numbers, of course. People who have watched Uggla every day might see something in his swing that has changed. Nor am I a psychologist, so I’m not going to speculate that “he’s pressing to fulfill the big contract!” I do think that the increased swing rate is something to watch, but if I had to hazard a guess, I would say that so far Uggla simply has been in an extended slump rather than having permanently fallen off of a cliff. While he isn’t likely to replicate 2010’s, there are still enough signs of life in his bat in terms of contact rate and power to return to something like 2009’s offensive performance for the rest of the season (although his final line would be worse, of course, as April did happen).