Analyzing Dan Uggla's Defense (Part 1: Traditional Stats)

Everyone has flaws--even the wise and wonderful readers of Talking Chop (shocking, I know). Whatever our flaws are, we are fortunate in that they are mostly restricted to this corner of the internet and not widely dissected by millions of fans, experts, and pseudo-experts across seven types of media.

Baseball players aren't so lucky (in this one regard... they are, generally speaking, quite fortunate human beings). I'm sure Dan Uggla has long since gotten sick of these discussions, since he has one particularly glaring flaw: his defense at second base.

Pretty much everyone (and every metric) agrees that Uggla's defense is somewhere between "below average" and "awful." That's a pretty wide gap, however, especially when extended over five seasons (which is both how long Uggla has played in the majors and how long he's under contract for).

In this series of posts, I'll look at several different ways of measuring defense to try to get closer to the full picture of Uggla's defense, both his strengths and yes, his weaknesses. I'll pay particular attention to a question that has been much discussed around these parts: Did Uggla's home ballpark the past 5 years, Dolphins Stadium (etc.), hurt his fielding in some way? (I'm skeptical.) I've also got lots of interesting graphs lined up, for those of you who like such things.

After the jump, I look at how Uggla rates using traditional fielding metrics like errors, assists, and fielding percentage. These do not give us a great picture of Uggla's overall defensive ability, but they do tell us some surprising things about his individual skills.

There's no getting around it: Dan Uggla has made a lot of errors. In fact, over the past five seasons, he's made 73, which is more than any other second baseman. Like with any "bad" counting stat, however, there's an upside. One of the biggest reasons Uggla has made so many errors is simply because he's been in the lineup day in and day out. Uggla is both very durable and a good enough hitter that his managers have been reluctant to take his bat out of the lineup. Those are good things.

For comparison, let's look at the top 5 in errors by a second baseman during Uggla's career. For each player, I list his errors per 150 games (or 1350 defensive innings):

  1. Dan Uggla: 14.6 errors/150 games  (73 errors, 6754 innings)
  2. Ian Kinsler: 17.8 errors/150 games (71 errors, 5396 innings)
  3. Rickie Weeks: 21.2 errors/150 games  (71 errors, 4527 innings)
  4. Chase Utley: 13.7 errors/150 games (64 errors, 6294 innings)
  5. Jose Lopez: 13.7 errors/150 games (51 errors, 5017 innings)

Making 15 errors per year isn't anything you'd brag about, but as you can see, it could be worse. If you believe in errors as a measure of a player's defense, then Uggla should rate only slightly below Utley or Lopez and well ahead of Kinsler or Weeks.

A slightly different measure is fielding percentage. Uggla's .980 mark rates 36th out of 45 second basemen in this metric (with at least 1350 defensive innings since 2006). The league average over this period has been .984, so Uggla has been a bit below average, but not drastically so. That works out to about 3 more errors per year.

The more interesting question, however, is: What causes all those errors? Does Uggla just have bad hands, leading to a lot of botched grounders? Is his throwing arm inaccurate? Has he been done in by poor first basemen or a substandard playing surface? Let's try to answer these questions.

From what I've heard, the scouting report on Uggla is that he is generally mediocre at all the aspects of fielding, but that his particular weakness is that he boots a lot of ground balls. The Fans Scouting Report, voted on by fans at TangoTiger.net (and available on FanGraphs) gives Uggla below average ratings across the board, with the worst rating in the "Hands" category. This fits with the general perception about Uggla, but what does the data say?

Below, I've broken down Uggla's errors and compared them to the number of errors the average MLB second baseman would make in the same number of chances. Notice anything?

Error_breakdown_vs_average_medium

Contrary to perception, Uggla's fielding error total is quite average. It could be that people look at Uggla's stocky, muscular build and just assume that he's a clumsy fielder. Based on error totals, anyway, that does not seem to be the case. In actuality, the entire error gap between Uggla and an average second baseman can be explained by a higher number of throwing errors. To reiterate, this is not a huge flaw--equal to about 3 extra throwing errors per year--but arm accuracy definitely does seem to be an issue for Uggla.

There's also the possibility that the first basemen he's played with have been particularly poor at "saving" Uggla's bad throws from becoming throwing errors; this would make sense, since Marlins first basemen rank tied for last in UZR/150 and dead last in DRS since 2006 (thank you, Mike Jacobs). It will be interesting to see if Uggla's throwing errors decline now that he'll be throwing mostly to Freddie Freeman, who has a very good defensive reputation.

Next, let's look at Uggla's home/road splits. One of the hypotheses we're testing in these posts is whether Uggla's home field has caused his fielding to look worse than it is. If Uggla's error total is much higher at home than on the road, it would be consistent with that theory. Below, I've graphed all of the Reaches on Errors (ROEs) that batters had due to Uggla errors (it was hard to get a home/road breakdown for all errors, but this is basically the same idea):

Roe_breakdown_home-road_medium

Uggla had slightly more of all types of errors at home, but the really noticeable difference is in fielding errors. He had twice as many fielding ROEs at home than he did on the road. This certainly supports the theory that the poorly maintained playing surface at Dolphins Stadium has contributed to Uggla's fielding woes. Of course, this could also easily be just a fluke. Even if his former home field caused him to make a few more errors, that explains only a small portion of his poor defensive numbers and reputation.

Combining the two charts, we can infer that it is possible that Uggla actually has very sure hands in most ballparks (his road ROE rate is well below average). We can also tell that Uggla's throwing problems are likely not due to any home/road differences. If these inferences are accurate (and I'm not sure they are), we would expect Uggla's fielding error totals to go down now that he's in Atlanta, but that his throwing errors would continue to be alarmingly frequent.

Alright, let's move on to some other traditional fielding stats: putouts and assists. These are the closest thing to a measure of range in traditional statistics. So, even though they are a very approximate measure (and no doubt highly influenced by factors beyond Uggla's control), it is useful to look at how Uggla compares to other second basemen in these areas.

First up is putouts.  Overall, Dan Uggla has had 1511 putouts in his career (3rd-most in MLB behind only Utley and Brandon Phillips). Don't get excited by that figure, though. In the same number of innings that Uggla has played in the field, the average second baseman would have recorded nearly the same number: 1504. The playing time sword cuts both ways.

There are three types of putouts: catches (of batted balls in the air), tags, and forceouts. Let's break down Uggla's putouts into these three groups to see if he has any particular strengths:

Putout_breakdown_vs_average_medium

As you can see, Uggla is slightly above average at catching fly balls and tagging runners, but slightly below average at recording forceouts. And I do mean "slightly": that works out to about 6 more catches, 2 more tags, and 7 fewer forces per year. Each of those is about a 5% difference from the league average, so I doubt you'd even notice from watching him play that Uggla was a bit better or worse in these areas.

Next, let's look at assists very quickly. Uggla has recorded 2056 assists in his career, which is second to only Robinson Cano in that time frame. Of course, the league-average second baseman would have recorded 2161 assists in the same playing time (Uggla has been very durable). That's a difference of about 21 fewer assists per year, or again about 5% below average. This would seem to indicate that Uggla has slightly less range than most second basemen, though again, assists are not the most reliable statistic.

Finally, let's look at Uggla's ability to turn double plays. He's been involved with 484 double plays, which again is second in MLB behind Cano. The league-average 2B, however, would have had 514 double plays given the same number of innings. So Uggla is involved in about 6 fewer double plays per year compared to the average 2B. Again, this is not a huge difference--about 6% less than average--but it might be meaningful.

Here's a breakdown of Uggla's double plays. As you can see, he is a bit below average in each category:

Dp_breakdown_vs_average_medium

Per year, Uggla starts about 2.5 fewer double plays and turns about 2.5 fewer.

Alright, so let's put this all together. Based on the simple statistics that we have, Uggla seems to be average or a bit above average in the following areas:

  • Catching pop flies
  • Avoiding fielding errors (especially on the road)
  • Tagging runners out

He also seems to be below average in these areas:

  • Making throwing errors (though this could be partly his first basemen's fault)
  • Recording assists and forceouts
  • Starting and turning double plays

I wouldn't put too much emphasis on any of these conclusions because I don't have that much confidence in the predictive value of these statistics. However, I do find it interesting that so far, the evidence points toward the possibility that factors like his home ballpark and his poor first basemen may have influenced the subpar statistics and negative perceptions regarding Uggla's defense.

Actually, the most important thing I learned from writing this post is that Uggla is the degree of his durability. Did you know that he's been the Marlins second baseman for 94% of their innings since 2006? That kind of day-in-day-out consistency is a huge plus.

In the next post, we'll look at some of the non-traditional (or "advanced") fielding stats, like Total Zone, Defensive Runs Saved, and Ultimate Zone Rating. Those should give us a better idea of Uggla's overall defensive skills.

Most fielding stats in this article can be found at the marvelous baseball-reference.com. Here's a link to Uggla's defensive statistics page on B-Ref. I also consulted FanGraphs for the Fans Scouting Report, DRS, and UZR numbers. Here's Uggla's FG page if you want to do research of your own.

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