It seems like every player on the Atlanta Braves has struggled at some point this season, but the struggles of Dan Uggla have an extra special struggle character to them. Uggla's futility at the plate can at times seem to completely consume him -- instead of looking like the Rule 5 player who succeeded, he looks like the Rule 5 player who got returned to his original team and never sniffed the Majors again.
Last month, in 78 at-bats, Dan Uggla had 9 hits. That's all. A .115 batting average, and only three extra-base hits for a .179 slugging percentage. He became the opposite of Dan Uggla. He wasn't quite as bad in June, but he was still pretty bad, hitting just .160.
But Dan may be turning things around. He's already matched his July hit total of 9 in just one-third the number of at-bats in August. He could be starting to surge like he did late last year.
One thing that has rarely deserted him during this year's slump is his ability to take a walk. In fact, he leads the league in walks this year with 67, which is 5 more than he had all of last year. Even while he was struggling in June and July he was still able to get on base via the walk -- he got on base 31 times with a walk those two months, but only 24 times with a hit.
So what could have made Uggla hit worse this year than any other season in his seven year big league career? While he's walking more than he ever has in his career, he's also swinging at more first pitch strikes than he ever has. Combine that with the lowest contact percentage of his career, and the highest swinging strike percentage of his career, and Uggla has had a hard time putting the ball in play this season.
When he does put the ball in play he's been hitting it in the air for an out more than any other season in his career. He's hitting almost two fly balls for every ground ball. And of those fly balls, more are fly balls on the infield than in any other season. If you've been thinking that Uggla has been a pop-out machine this year, then you're eyes aren't lying to you.
Even with all those fly balls, the home run power has deserted Uggla. For a guy who hit a home run every 18.6 at-bats coming into this season, Uggla has nearly doubled his number of at-bat between home runs this season to 31. So what's wrong with Dan Uggla? And, more importantly, how can he turn it around?
I believe that Uggla's struggles this season are rooted in his struggles last season. His struggles last year were amplified by the fact that when he wasn't hitting, he wasn't getting on base with walks either. That not only led to a really bad batting average, but also led to his worst year getting on base in his career. His reaction to that may have been an overreaction, feeling that he needed to take more walks. That excess emphasis on getting on base has affected all other aspects of his game, like his ability to hit for average and especially his ability to hit for power.
Simply put, in his effort to get on base with a walk he's watching too many strikes go by that he would have swung at in previous seasons. This type of approach could, in some at-bats, lead to more desperation swings, which is why we see a lower contact percentage as he expands his zone.
The key to Uggla turning his season around may actually be for him to walk less and swing more. He needs to return to that free-swinging aggressive slugger. He's always been a guy with a high batting average on balls in play, but to get back to being that guy he's got to put more balls in play, and of those balls, make fewer of them pop-ups. The pop-up aspect of Uggla's swing has been mentioned on the air multiple times. In what could be a reaction to lower home run totals, Uggla added more uppercut to his swing. That didn't result in more home runs, just more pop-ups.
That's the part he seems to have sorted out in the past couple of weeks, if not just the past week -- leveling out his swing. Uggla's swing is so strong he doesn't need to exaggerate his uppercut to hit the ball out of the park, but he does need to swing at more good pitches and make more contact. By focusing less on walking and more on swinging I believe Uggla can get back his power stroke and return to more of his career norms. Adding his offense back to the lineup would be a huge boost for a Braves team that still struggles sometimes to score runs.