Dan Uggla is in the first year of a five-year contract with the Braves, but will he ever be able to live up to his paycheck?
There is no getting around the fact that the Braves new second baseman Dan Uggla is having a rough 2011. He is hitting just .178/.243/.324 in 300 plate appearances. His True Average is .212, about 20 points below replacement level. His wRC+ is 54, where 100 is average. If you created a statistic whose sole purpose was to measure the Dan Ugglaness of a player, Uggla would still rank among the league's worst.
This isn't the first time he has struggled to start the year, as in 2009 his line was .208/.317/.438 on June 1, but it is the first time Uggla has scuffled at the plate to this degree to begin a season. While that 2009 line can be chalked up mostly to some poor luck on balls in play that were followed by an Uggla-like rebound for the rest of the year, his 2011 has gone a bit differently.
His walk rates have fallen to the levels of his rookie season, down from 11.6 percent last year (and a career-high 13.8 percent in 2009) to just 7.7 percent. He has also cut his strikeouts down, though, so it's not a matter of swinging and missing on bad pitches that should have been taken for balls. The 21 percent whiff rate is the second-lowest of his career, once again since his inaugural campaign.
The problem may be that he is being too aggressive at the plate, settling for more contact rather than quality contact. Uggla is seeing 3.79 pitches per plate appearance in 2011, after posting 4.20 and 4.16 marks the previous two seasons. This swing early approach has cut down on his strikeouts, but the results have not been positive anywhere else for him. His .196 batting average on balls in play lends credence to the idea that he isn't making solid contact, just more of it, and though line drive percentage is a touchy subject, he does have a career low there, with a career-high in grounder rate.
His total failure to produce anything resembling offense against left-handers hasn't helped, either, as Uggla's 359 OPS against them in 84 plate appearances shows. Yes, it's just 84 plate appearances, but you almost have to try to be that terrible (or even unlucky) in order to post a split-adjusted OPS of -2*. He has been below-average against right-handers as well, and has always had something of a reverse split, but this has officially hit that point where I'm not sure if it's funny or sad.
*Thanks for letting me know that sOPS+ even goes negative, Uggla.
Uggla wouldn't be the first second baseman to see his approach and numbers fall by the wayside in his early 30s. Uggla was one of the very best in his mid-to-late 20s, but so was Carlos Baerga, who amassed 19.2 offensive wins above replacement by age 28, before hitting at replacement level for the next seven years. Chuck Knoblauch hit .297/.386/.417 (111 OPS+) from 1991 through 2000 before he could just do no more offensively after turning 31, posting an OPS+ of 70 over his final two years. Edgardo Alfonzo went from hitting .297/.384/.481 with 17 oWAR during his peak years of 1999-2002 to just 2.0 oWAR in the four years that followed, a stretch that included stints with three different clubs.
Second base is a tough position to succeed at in the long-term. Players become second basemen because they don't fit in at shortstop defensively, and don't hit enough to play elsewhere. It's almost like a last resort position, meaning that when your skills start to erode at second, there is nowhere to go. Shortstops can become second basemen if their bats can play there, or if their gloves have held up enough to cover for their lack of offense. Second basemen can't go to shortstop as they age, especially as their bats start to falter.
Dave Cameron discussed in February that there are not many repeat seasons of dominance for second basemen - there are just six in history with multiple seven-plus win seasons in the last 50 years. You get your occasional dominating force -- your Joe Morgan or Craig Biggio -- but for the most part, second basemen burn out, they don't fade away.
Jeff Zimmerman looked at aging curves for different types of hitters, and came away with a "young-old" set that struck out often, walked often, but hit for power. These were young players with some old player skills. They tended to peak a year earlier, but their declines were precipitous. Many stuck around and remained productive late into their careers, but you can see how much more severe the drop in those player's skills were -- and how much earlier it came.
Uggla fits that group, as he is something of a Three True Outcomes player, and now, at age-31, he is past his peak. While he was a very good hitter, and a great one for a second baseman, Uggla was never elite, and it's possible that his best days are behind him. As a second baseman and a player with those "young-old" skills, it's certainly plausible -- in a profile of him from August 2007, a certain Baseball Nation contributor wrote:
No matter what happens, Uggla has already turned a poor minor league career into two productive years in the majors filled with bigger paychecks and deserved recognition. Whether that will last much beyond age 30 given his skill-set is another issue, but knowing the Marlins and their frugal ways, at least it won't be their issue to deal with.
That issue is now the Braves to deal with, as they inked him to a five-year extension prior to the season. As a poor defensive player, Uggla would offer nothing to the team from here on out. When asked about Uggla's 2011, Braves blogger and Beyond the Box Score author Peter Hjort said, "Apart from past performance I'm out of things to cling to." History tells us past performance may be all Uggla has to cling to as well.