After a dismal season for the Atlanta Braves in 2013 marred by inconsistency, an inability to make contact and defensive miscues, Dan Uggla became one of the Braves' two whipping boys (along with BJ Upton) and was left off of the playoff roster. Despite this, Uggla has put together a statistically-promising spring and looks poised to regain his spot as Atlanta's starting second baseman. What does Uggla's fantastic spring portend for his production in 2014?
To be blunt, Dan Uggla's 2013 season was not what Frank Wren and the Atlanta Braves had in mind for his production after trading Omar Infante and Mike Dunn to the then-Florida Marlins in exchange for Uggla and then signing him to a 5-year, $62.5 million deal in turn back in December 2010. The Braves acquired the then-31-year-old second baseman in order to provide an offensive shot in the arm from the right side of the plate. Uggla's tenure in Miami was marked by consistent productivity at the plate, as he met or exceeded 27 home runs during all of his four seasons as a Marlin, and generally posted above-average on-base marks. His career wRC+ as a Marlin was 118, indicating offensive production approximately 20% better than league average. Uggla was coming off of an excellent age-30 season for the Marlins, in which he slugged 33 home runs, posted an OBP of .369, and a 135 wRC+.
Uggla's first two seasons in Atlanta, contrary to public perception, were not all that deviant from what the front office wanted to receive in terms of production from him. He got off to a horrific start for the 2011 Braves, but ended up hitting 36 home runs (the highest mark of his career) with a solid 111 wRC+. Uggla's power numbers went down in 2012 (he only hit 19 home runs), but his walk rate (and on-base percentage) skyrocketed. For the first time in his career, advanced defensive metrics favored Uggla's defense, and he ended up with a surprisingly high 3.3 fWAR figure.
There was hope coming into the 2013 season that Uggla would continue to do what he does, in posting an above-average OBP with solid power numbers, and he looked to be on the right track through the All-Star Break. However, things went terribly wrong. Uggla slogged through a putrid month of play after the All-Star Break, and then opted to undergo LASIK surgery in an attempt to aid him with his vision and pitch recognition.
As you can see in the tables below, this did nothing to aid his productivity. The Braves even took the seemingly unthinkable step by leaving Uggla off of the playoff roster in favor of waiver-wire acquisition Elliot Johnson. One can see just how badly Uggla performed after his surgery with a quick glance at the tables below. His power disappeared, he began making sparse contact, and when he did make contact, it was generally of the weak variety (he posted an almost unthinkable 40.0% IFFB rate in this timeframe). As someone who watched most of his at-bats down the stretch, he was an abject disaster at the plate. He seemed unable to recognize off-speed and breaking pitches, he had major issues with timing, and he was unable to make any sort of productive contact due to the aforementioned pitch recognition and timing issues. It was really just sad to watch, frankly. Of course, there is always the caveat of small sample size into play with his post-LASIK surgery statistics, but I don't think they paint a drastically unfair picture of what Uggla did considering what I saw from him at the plate during this time frame.
|post-LASIK 2013 Statistics||PA||H||HR||BA||OBP||SLG||ISO||K%||BB%|
|2014 ST Statistics||PA||H||HR||BA||OBP||SLG||ISO||K%||BB%|
Fortunately, Uggla's offensive performance during Grapefruit League play this season offers some optimism towards what he could produce in 2014. There was much speculation during the Braves' offseason and early in Spring Training that Uggla could be usurped by a prospect such as Tommy La Stella or a backup such as Tyler Pastornicky or Ramiro Peña as the Braves' starting second baseman. Some even suggested that Uggla be cut during the offseason, and it's probably safe to assume that the Braves shopped Uggla to teams such as the Blue Jays who were searching for a potential second baseman. However, it was made clear during the spring that the job was Uggla's to lose, and his performance during Spring Training this year has cemented his status as the starting second baseman for Atlanta.
The stats above demonstrate the increased level of production that Uggla's put forth this spring. In a similarly-sized sample to his post-LASIK statistics, he has increased his power output, cut down on his strikeouts, and made better contact than he did down the stretch last season. Now, granted, we are looking at two minute sample sizes and the quality of pitching that Uggla saw during a Major League season is higher than the mix of legitimate big league arms and Minor League fodder that he saw during the spring, but I'm not just going to toss aside these improvements as a mere function of a small, random sample. Let's take a look at why this spring has given me some hope that Uggla could be a decent source of production for the Braves this season.
I'll breach the subject of Uggla's recovery from LASIK surgery before I approach anything else with the disclaimer than I am no ophthalmologist, optometrist, or expert on eye surgery. However, by quickly doing some internet research, one sees that there can be certain vision complications associated with the recovery from LASIK surgery. The FDA's website has a primer on LASIK surgery, and notes that it may take patients up to 3-6 months for their vision to completely stabilize following the procedure. As you'll recall, Uggla only missed fewer than two weeks recovering from his procedure, so it's possible that his vision hadn't properly adjusted. One would think that the Braves' medical staff would have questioned Uggla and performed tests to indicate whether or not his vision was acceptable to perform, however, I suppose it isn't out of the realm of possibility that Uggla could have sugarcoated how he felt following the surgery. Fluctuations in vision are also commonly experienced, so perhaps his vision was off-and-on between the range of acceptability to poor. Part of the reason that Uggla's spring gives me hope is that he seems to be reacting to pitches better and has a better gauge of the strike zone, which is demonstrated in his reducing K% and the improved quality of his contact. Therefore, I suspect that Uggla's vision is better than it was in the immediate month-and-a-half following this LASIK procedure now, and that could aid him with pitch recognition and plate vision, helping his productivity.
Furthermore, I'm optimistic because of the power that Uggla has showcased during his Grapefruit League performance. Uggla's power has been the hallmark of his offensive profile throughout the duration of his career, and that isn't going to change. Uggla was quoted in USA Today as saying that "It's not a new swing, I just got back to where I was before." Uggla's swing is one that generates loft on his batted balls when he's going well, as he utilizes an upper-cut swing in combination with his physical strength to drive balls out of the yard. The following video, in which Uggla smashes a dead-pull home run over the left-field fence off of Phillies pitcher Mario Hollands, showcases Uggla's still-existent power stroke.
You can see how Uggla adjusts to a fastball that would have likely been called a ball, higher than the reaches of the upper limit of the strike zone near the height of his chest, and uses his considerable torque and power to put backspin on a ball that, conservatively, traveled around 400 feet and made its way over the fence. This exemplifies what I think of when I think of Uggla's tenure with Florida, as he was seemingly always peppering balls over the fence when pitchers attempted to challenge him with fastballs up in the zone. Uggla clearly still has the physical power and ability to produce impressive power numbers, and I think that his improved ability to adjust and react to pitches that he demonstrated in the spring, that seems to corresponds with his improved vision, offers hope that Uggla can return to the days of being a 25-30 home run player with a poor batting average, but an acceptable-to-good on base percentage.
I'm not a person who's too keen to put considerable stock into Spring Training statistics, as they're simply an insufficient gauge of a player's true talent due to the lack of data that goes into them. There are certainly players who tear up Spring Training and then have poor regular season campaigns (the story of Mike Moustakas' hot spring and disappointing regular season last year comes to mind), so I'm not willing to predict a career renaissance from Dan Uggla. However, the signs that I've seen thus far have been nothing but positive and I'm optimistic that Uggla could potentially be better than what I and many others expected heading into the season.
I'll be the first to admit that I was skeptical about Uggla heading into the spring, and that I advocated for Tommy La Stella to win the job. To a certain extent, I am still skeptical about Uggla simply due to his advancing age, overall declining contact rate, and his defensive shortcomings, but power and OBP production would certainly quiet my skepticism. Uggla's surprising spring production has me thinking that we could be in for an unexpectedly productive season from him in 2014, which would go a long way towards the Braves' ultimate goals of a division title and a World Series trophy. I highly doubt that Uggla has any chance to be much better than a league-average regular when things are all said and done, simply due to the fact that he's a defensive liability and on the wrong side of the aging curve, but considering the horrid 2nd half that Uggla had in 2013 and the low expectations for him heading into 2014, I think most of us would happily take that from Dan.