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August 11, 2011
Divide and Conquer, NL East
The Uggla/Ramirez Paradox
Last night, the Atlanta Braves beat the Florida Marlins 6-2, completing a three-game sweep of the Fish. With both teams in close proximity, the story of two players who once shared a bond in Florida as one of the best offensive double-play combinations in baseball came to mind. One player, former Marlin and current Braves second baseman Dan Uggla, is redeeming himself with a 31-game hitting streak that has brought his season line from “atrocious” to “below average.” The other, Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez, missed his sixth straight game with a shoulder injury and has yet to decide whether he is healthy enough to play or should go on the disabled list.
Recent performance plays a strong role in how a player is perceived. The recent 30-game surge by Uggla has brought his season line right in line with Ramirez's.
Differentiating between their seasons is essentially meaningless; their differences are separated by mere runs, most of them based on their defensive performance. Yet, Dan Uggla is apparently “finally ready to earn his paycheck” when just a few months back he was just awful. Meanwhile, Ramirez went from “becoming a better teammate” coming into this season to being so unbearable that a special assistant to the team president would rather trade him than watch his lazy play on the field, all in less than a few months’ time. Because of the way their seasons have progressed and the perception of their attitudes, one player appears to be mounting one of the comeback stories of the year while the other has one proverbial foot out the door in his organization.
Uggla's batting streak has vaulted him not only to a more respectable season line but has also gotten him some nice media attention over the past week. Indeed, when a player hits .345/.402/.689 for any stretch of time (in Uggla's case, 132 plate appearances), that player should be applauded, no matter how poorly he hit compared to Joe DiMaggio during his famed 56-game hitting streak. Yet there is no doubting that, as unlucky as Uggla was through July 4 (and he would admit it himself)—the last hitless day he has suffered this season—he has been almost equally as lucky during that hitting streak. Here are some peripherals that have gone along with Uggla's hitting streak:
Despite what the streak has done to revive Uggla's season, the resurgence has been a product of unsustainable power and balls finally dropping for Uggla after they were not doing so the whole season. After a run of awful luck, his outlook on balls in play has turned for the better, but the changes in his plate approach remain a concern. After averaging around 4.2 pitches per plate appearance since 2008, Uggla is back down to 3.82 pitches per plate appearance, mostly because of an increased swing rate (up to 47.4 percent from a career 43.7 percent) with almost identical career whiff rates. With the exception of the pre-streak lack of power, it seems like all of the concerns that were plaguing Uggla before the hit streak are still plaguing him now; his 44.8 percent swing rate during the streak is still higher than any mark in his career since 2007.
Meanwhile, Ramirez also had a quieter—but still significant—run for redemption of his own, coinciding with the re-hiring of Jack McKeon as interim manager in late June. Since the veteran skipper took over, Ramirez has hit .304/.385/.500 in 156 plate appearances, leading many to speculate that McKeon was the right influence to stimulate Ramirez's reawakening. Whatever the cause may be, the numbers do suggest Ramirez snapping back to his mean after first-half struggles very akin to Uggla's.
The fact that Ramirez has so closely matched his projection is only further supported by the similarity of his peripheral numbers.
Not only has Ramirez begun performing about as well as PECOTA and his career would have suggested, he has also done so in almost the exact same way, with very similar strikeout and walk rates. Like Uggla, his power is beginning to surge during his recent streak, but whereas Uggla's has spiked amidst the limelight of a higher-profile hit streak, Ramirez's has been rising slower and more on pace with his career numbers. Also like Uggla, the ball has been dropping safely quite a bit more in Ramirez's run but at a rate that is highly indicative of both his PECOTA projection and his career numbers. Essentially, after two months of a weak-swinging Ramirez, Marlins fans have once again received the Ramirez of old, even if it was not the same one from 2008 or 2009.
All said, both players are having excellent rebounds to poor campaign starts, but perception has tinged one rebound into a triumph over adversity, while the other has been viewed as nothing but smoke and mirrors hiding the true problems involved with the player. Part of that is the grandeur of a hitting streak; just being associated with a record as hallowed as DiMaggio's will rub off some luster. Even the lowly Emilio Bonifacio got a casual mention when he reached the halfway mark to DiMaggio's streak. The fact that Uggla's streak is ongoing and well-covered has won him some goodwill.
Part of the problem for Ramirez continues to be his attitude. Jeff Conine's comments on a local South Florida radio program once again shoved Ramirez's work ethic and supposed laziness into the spotlight, hiding what would otherwise be a nice run for a player in need of some good results and good PR. Uggla, on the other hand, has never been perceived as anything but hard-working. Indeed, in some ways he can be seen as an antithesis to Ramirez. After all, both players were involved in a well-publicized scuffle regarding the shortstop exiting a game early due to an injury. It was Uggla who questioned Ramirez's effort and desire to help the team, and perhaps some of the reputation that came with Uggla stepping up to the team superstar's face has helped shape this perception. Certainly, Ramirez has had his share of problems in the past, but the fact that those issues have crept up recently may have helped to downplay his recent success. A shoulder injury that has kept him out of six games has not helped either.
Ultimately, both players are on the rise, and that is all their respective teams can ask for at the moment. The Braves need Uggla to provide offense for a team without top contributor Brian McCann for the time being. The Marlins need Ramirez to return to his career totals, if for no other reason than to rebuild value for a trade if the team maintains its frugal ways heading into the new stadium. But in light of how well Uggla has been playing lately, it is interesting to see his former teammate making a comeback of his own, only to be buried in negativity.