Very recently, Dan Uggla was one of the better players in baseball. Two years ago, his 135 wRC+ put him in the same company as Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, Adam Dunn, and Joe Mauer. He hit for average, he hit for power, he drew walks, and he faked it at second base well enough to provide a lot of value, averaging +4 WAR per season during his first five years in the big leagues.
Last year, Uggla looked lost for the first three months of the season, as he wasn’t drawing walks and his BABIPs were below .200 in each month from April through June. However, for as bad as his first half was, his second half was equally amazing, as his power spiked, his BABIP returned to normal, and he closed the year looking like the Dan Uggla of old. The overall line was down a bit from his years in Miami, but given how well he closed the season, it didn’t seem like an early decline was in his future.
However, there was some evidence of worrying trends, even while Uggla was killing the ball last summer, and this year, the continuation of those trends has cost him his job as the Braves starting second baseman.
Here are Uggla’s strikeout rates by month in 2011.
Uggla’s second half power surge hid the fact that he was striking out more often than he ever had been before. Uggla’s never been a high contact guy, and trading strikeouts for additional power can be a good trade-off, but Uggla had never needed to swing and miss this often in order to hit for power before. It was his combination of good power with respectable strikeout rates that had made him a quality hitter, but last year, Uggla could seemingly only succeed at one while failing at the other.
2012 has been the same story, only magnified to a new extreme. In April, he showed better contact skills but had only seven extra base hits, so his productivity relied on a .328 BABIP that wasn’t likely to continue. In May, he got his power back, but once again, his strikeout rates went through the roof. Once again, here are Uggla’s strikeout rates by month:
Or, if you’d prefer a visual representation, here’s a graph of Uggla’s strikeout rates by month since the start of the 2011 season.
Given the amount of variation that there is in any one month sample of data, a line that approximates linear growth is pretty amazing. And that line is not good news for either Uggla or the Braves.
With a strikeout rate of 28.1% — Uggla’s season total this year — he would need to either hit for a lot more power or show an offsetting change in his batted ball profile to make up for the loss of singles that come with swinging and missing that often. Instead, Uggla’s power has continued to regress, as he’s posting a career low .165 ISO, and his batted ball profile is also taking a turn for the worse.
Uggla’s BABIP woes the last two years likely include some bad luck, but they’re also influenced by his new-found affection for the infield fly. Pop-ups are essentially automatic outs, and the more you hit, the lower your BABIP will be, with the quality of the defense or a team’s positioning having nothing to do with the outcome. During his time with the Marlins, Uggla’s IFFB% was 8.3%, slightly below the league average. Last year, that spiked to 11.9%, and this year, his 18.7% IFFB% is tied for the second highest in baseball. That’s 26 infield flies this year, already twice the total he had in 2010, and there’s still a month left in the season.
Already a pretty extreme fly ball hitter, Uggla is going to be prone to lower than average BABIPs, but adding so many infield flies to his skillset essentially guarantees it. Over the last five years, there are 26 hitters who have posted a FB% over 45% and an IFFB% over 10%. These hitters have combined for over 51,000 plate appearances, so we’re not dealing with a small sample of data. Their weighted average BABIP? .273.
It’s not impossible to be a good hitter with this skillset. Jose Bautista is an extreme fly ball hitter who hits a lot of pop-ups, but his breakout came when he cut way down on his strikeouts, and he now strikes out about half as often as Uggla. Same with Ian Kinsler, who is one of the best contact hitters in baseball, even though not all of that contact is overly productive. In reality, there just aren’t many examples of productive hitters who both strike out a lot and hit a ton of infield flies. Perhaps the best player with this sustained skillset is Carlos Pena, and he just lost his job in Tampa Bay too.
Lots of strikeouts and lots of infield flies is just a lousy combination for a hitter, and likely speaks to an uppercut swing that is designed to get power out of a body that is losing the ability to hit home runs without trying for them. Uggla’s calling card has always been his power, but now, he’s having to make significant sacrifices to the rest of his game in order to try to keep driving the ball like he used to.
Adam Dunn’s miserable 2011 is a cautionary tale against writing anyone off after one lousy year, and in Uggla’s case, it’s more like a few lousy months, as he was productive in April and May, albeit productive in a way that wasn’t likely to continue. However, we can’t simply chalk Uggla’s struggles up to a normal slump. Yes, his BABIP is low, but he’s earned that low BABIP with his batted ball profile, and his drastic uptick in strikeouts point to a serious problem that needs fixing rather than simply noise in the data that just needs more time to even itself out.
With Martin Prado’s positional flexibility, the Braves don’t have to keep running Uggla out there everyday, and given how lost he is at the plate right now, giving him a break to try and fix whatever’s wrong is probably in everyone’s best interests. If it’s fixable, they’ll still have time to work him back into the line-up before the playoffs start. This doesn’t look the kind of thing that can be changed with just a minor adjustment, though. It’s certainly possible that the changes in Uggla’s strikeout rates and infield fly rates are symptoms of a serious loss of skills that may never return.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.