August 27, 2007
Dan Uggla has managed to follow up his surprising rookie campaign with a similarly successful 2007, contrary to what many analysts expected. Uggla did not escape a predictable dip in batting average and on-base percentage given his batted-ball data and relatively high BABIP, but he still has managed to remain at around the same level of production despite this thanks to a boost in his power.
Is this the start of a trend for Uggla, or is it a single-season blip delaying the inevitable drop in value?
Daniel Cooley Uggla attended the University of Memphis before he was drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2001. Uggla was selected in the 11th round and signed soon after; he was sent to debut professionally for the Yakima Bears in the Northwest League after a huge junior season for Memphis:
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2000 Memphis(NCAA) 166 .253/.345/.373 29% .120 8 10.2% 12.2% 2001 Memphis(NCAA) 214 .379/.498/.790 61% .411 31 15.8% 14.7% 2001 Yakima(A-) 278 .277/.341/.406 34% .129 21 6.4% 16.7%
Despite an Isolated Power higher than most player's on-base percentages, Uggla was the 338th selection in the draft. His debut in pro ball at Yakima was pretty normal, with low power output and a decent walk rate. He did lead all Northwest League second basemen in double plays with 41. Given his pedestrian showing and the depth of the D'Backs farm system, Uggla was nowhere to be found in any Baseball America prospect books during his entire time in their system. They weren't the only guilty party, as Baseball Prospectus 2004 was the first appearance in the series for Uggla, and he was briefly covered and dismissed there.
This isn't to say Uggla was overlooked while putting together prospect lists and PECOTA forecasts, it's just that Uggla was terrible at both Single-A South Bend and High-A Lancaster during 2002. Consider that Lancaster is a place where pitchers go to suffer and hitters inflate their stats, and Uggla's production is even poorer than at first glance:
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2002 South Bend(A) 171 .199/.291/.275 24% .076 6 11.6% 17.1% 2002 Lancaster(A+) 214 .228/.311/.337 29% .109 9 10.0% 24.2%
Uggla's numbers didn't improve after a promotion because Lancaster is such an offense-friendly environment, although that does help somewhat. His .237 BABIP kept his production down immensely at South Bend; a more league average figure would have put him about 70-80 points higher in his Triple Crown rate stats. He had the higher BABIP (.300) at Lancaster, but he was overmatched: look at the spike in his strikeout rate and the overall poor production.
The Diamondbacks were not shy about bumping Uggla up at first, despite his struggles adjusting to professional baseball, but they did not immediately promote him once he successfully completed a full-year stint at Lancaster his second time around.
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2003 Lancaster(A+) 534 .290/.355/.504 39% .214 38 7.6% 17.3%
Something clicked for Uggla in 2003 as he faced the pitchers he struggled against the season before. The power production a .214 ISO from an infielder-Uggla switched to primarily third base with some second mixed in-is impressive, and he was able to keep his strikeout rate under control by chopping it back down to the 17 percent range.
My favorite part about this season has to be the number of times he was hit by a pitch; Uggla was hit by a pitch 44 times in his minor league career-11 times in 2003 alone-and has already amassed 19 HBPs in less than two full seasons in the majors. Combine that with the fact that he used to steal bases on occasion and you have yourself a guy who tries to make the most of his playing time to compensate for the issues he does have. Doing all of that looks like it could have saved Uggla a spot in the organization, considering how poor his performance was prior to 2003.
Of course, there are a few problems with this campaign. First of all, as mentioned before, Uggla was playing in Lancaster, and that place does its best to make all hitters numbers look shiny. Second, Uggla was 23 years old and repeating High-A, which doesn't invalidate his numbers, but does suggestion caution.
Baseball Prospectus 2004 made note of this and a bit more:
Infielders with 60 or more extra-base hits have a way of drawing your attention, but Uggla was old for the level and repeating it, and he was in one of the Cal League's best hitter's parks. If you want a comp, think Tim Unroe or Matt Mieske. That's Uggla's upside.
The D'Backs weren't sure if he was for real or not, so they let him stick at Lancaster for awhile before promoting him to Double-A El Paso in 2004:
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2004 Lancaster(A+) 140 .336/.422/.600 47% .264 16 10.5% 13.0% 2004 El Paso(AA) 294 .259/.302/.354 24% .095 14 4.7% 17.4%
After a .363 BABIP kept Uggla's numbers well up at Lancaster-his third time there-he was sent to El Paso where he quickly turned into a non-factor at the plate. His strikeouts jumped up again, his walk rate fell to a career low, and his power all but disappeared after two neat stops at Lancaster. Uggla had taken his time adjusting to each level, and Double-A was no different. His 2005 campaign looks much better than his 2004 one, but it also had to contend with his being too old for the level yet again. Unlike Lancaster though, Tennessee was a fairly neutral offensive park:
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2005 Tennessee(AA) 498 .297/.378/.502 39% .205 36 9.1% 18.1%
His walk rate rebounded, as did his average and power. His .340 BABIP was at the root of this, but even if you adjust for that and lop 40-50 points off of his Triple Crown rate stats, you have a decent season, much better than anything he had done in the minors.
Uggla was at a point where he was too old to be sticking around the minors any longer if he was going to have any sort of meaningful major league career. The Diamondbacks left him unprotected on their 40-man roster, and the Florida Marlins-who would eventually invite Pokey Reese to camp to play second base, a sign of serious desperation-would select him in the Rule 5 draft.
Baseball Prospectus 2006 was not excited about Uggla, and neither was PECOTA:
While on the surface he might look like a hustling, dirtier version of Tony Graffanino, there are a few cautions. He spent three years in Lancaster's bandbox, and only "broke out" after an extended stay at Double-A. He'll also be 26 by Opening Day. His history of "eventually getting it" made him one of Florida's Rule 5 picks. With the Marlins he has a chance to start at second. The bar is low, but considering he'll move from low minors hitter's parks in offensive leagues to a major-league pitcher's park, the results should be predictably Uggla.
PECOTA forecasted a .237/.296/.371 line for Uggla in Florida. He had everything stacked against him, and was riding on the slimmest of hopes that he would turn out passable in the majors. He managed to break spring training as the team's second baseman when Pokey Reese flaked out on them before Opening Day.
That year, of course, Uggla made the All-Star team his rookie season, while also setting a rookie homer record for second base and finishing behind teammate Hanley Ramirez for the Rookie of the Year Award. He did this while hitting for average and power in a park designed to aid pitchers:
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2006 Florida(MLB) 611 .282/.339/.480 35% .198 33 7.3% 20.1%
Despite the age issues at Double-A, Uggla's stats translated over to the majors pretty well, as he maintained most of his power and patience while keeping his average afloat.
Baseball Prospectus 2007 acknowledged missing on Uggla, but added a caveat for the future:
Oops. Everything we assumed about Uggla coming in to 2006 turned out to be wrong. Everything. That he was old for his leagues up to that point didn't stop him, That he relied on batting average didn't stop him. That he was moving to a pitcher's park after years in a hitter's system didn't stop him. He was a terrific and unexpected story for most of 2006, quickly becoming a fan favorite and inspiring countless folks to research the Rule 5 Draft. In typical 'what have you done for me lately' fashion, we now turn our attention to whether he can do it again. PECOTA thinks not; the four top comps you see above were wildly inconsistent and frequently disappointing.
PECOTA forecasted a .269/.328/.445 weighted mean for Uggla, and he currently sits at .246/.320/.473. His Triple Crown rate stats have all slipped some, but his Isolated Power and walk rate have increased, with just the average dragging everything down:
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2007 Florida(MLB) 516 .246/.320/.473 53% .227 43 8.8% 26.2%
Uggla has lost his ability to hit singles it seems, though he still gets plenty of extra-base hits. If all goes well for him in September he could finish with roughly 80 extra-base hits as a second baseman, despite hitting under .250. This is why batting average isn't everything. Of course, we have to wonder how Uggla has managed to drop all that batting average from 2006 and still maintain his ability to produce at the plate. Let's take a look at his batted-ball data for the past few years:
Year P/PA FB% LINEDR% GB% IF/F% HR/F% BABIP eBABIP Diff. 2005 N/A 39.5% 15.4% 45.1% 19.7% 13.4% .340 .274 -.066 2006 3.7 42.2% 16.8% 41.0% 6.8% 13.1% .315 .288 -.027 2007 3.9 51.4% 15.8% 32.8% 10.1% 12.1% .289 .278 -.011
Uggla hit fewer popups in 2006, which helped to keep his batting average up. His BABIP was above where it should have been by about 30 points of batting average that he's lost this season. The interesting trend in his batted-ball data is the continued drop in his groundball rate. It has cost Uggla some singles-he had 112 last year, and just 60 with a month to play this season-but he already has seven more extra-base hits than he did all of last season.
The surge in his flyball rate is both a positive and a negative. If the increase holds, Uggla will more than likely find himself with the kind of season he is having this year from here on out, at least until his bat slows down and aging sets in: low batting average, high power, and an on-base percentage dependent on batting average fluctuations. In years where a few flyballs don't find outfielder's gloves, his batting average can settle in around .260-.270, and when those balls land in leather, he'll hit .240-.250 like this year.
The lack of a lofty line drive rate-or even a league average line drive around 20 percent-hurts Uggla's potential production. Uggla also struggles against right-handers when they throw breaking stuff, although lefties and fastballs are a non-issue. If he remains an extreme flyball hitter with few grounders and few liners, he'll have to hope he can keep hitting tape measure arcs in order to clear the stands or send outfielders to the warning track chasing after doubles.
Uggla's tendencies leave him less hampered by his home park. Although Dolphins Stadium inhibits homers at a severe rate, Uggla has hit for power at home and on the road pretty equally, with 23 homers in Miami and 28 elsewhere, with a few more extra-base hits overall on the road. He has 7 "No Doubt" homers this year, which Hit Tracker classifies as shots that "cleared the fence by at least 20 vertical feet AND landed at least 50 feet past the fence. These are the really deep blasts." 10 of his homers have traveled over 400 feet, and he is averaging almost 396 feet per homer on the season following 401 feet per homer last year. In short, Uggla can crush the ball.
Dan Uggla was a surprise to basically everyone who heard he was the Marlins starting second baseman at the outset of 2006. He has managed to outperform expectations two years running, and given his ability to hit for power, may continue to do so for a few more years. No matter what happens, Uggla has already turned a poor minor league career into two productive years in the majors filled with bigger paychecks and deserved recognition. Whether that will last much beyond age 30 given his skill-set is another issue, but knowing the Marlins and their frugal ways, at least it won't be their issue to deal with.