Dan Uggla and a study on performance


Last time, I took a look at Dan Uggla and his ever-improving plate approach. I compared his approach as similar to that of Adam Dunn’s, he of the 40 home runs each of the last six season. Dunn is one of the better offensive performers in the National League, and if Uggla can become something close to Dunn in terms of offense, perhaps the club overlook his defensive shortcomings, especially given the fact he plays a more premium defensive position.

That being said, Uggla isn’t looking anything like Dunn right now, at least peripherally. Dunn is putting up another excellent season at the plate, with a .263/.399/.530 slash line, good for a 143 OPS+ and a .392 wOBA. He’s posting near-career high numbers this year and should make the All-Star team for the Nationals despite his propensity for strikeouts and horrific defense. Uggla on the other hand has struggled to a .216/.329/.432. What gives?

Well, the hip thing these days is to check BABIP, Batting Average on Balls in Play. BABIP is a statistic which is extremely difficult to control as a hitter, as it measures the number of times you are “hitting it where they ain’t” and is very dependent on the opposing defense. As a result, BABIP has been used as a way to determine whether a player has been “lucky” to have balls fall into outfield holes or through the infield or “unlucky” to have hit pitches on a rope right to defenders. Year-to-year, a league average BABIP is going to be around .300, but this constitutes players of all types and calibers. One can get a general estimate of a player’s expected BABIP by using that player’s career average BABIP or the extremely crude LD% + .120 (check out this article by Derek Carty from a few months back on better estimators for a player’s BABIP).

For ease of reference, let’s look at Uggla’s current BABIP compared to expected totals using the LD% estimation, his career BABIP, the Marcel preseason projection, and Dave Studeman’s revised model stated in the article. Looking at the numbers, this is what we get.

Dan Uggla, BABIP:

Actual BABIP: .228
Career BABIP: .297
LD% BABIP: .289
Marcel BABIP: .307
Studeman BABIP: .277

All of these values are pretty significantly different from each other, and Carty’s article discusses the relation between various estimators and found better methods of measurement which utilize to which I could not find or access. That being said, all of these estimators have Uggla severely underperforming his expected BABIP. This would lead you to believe it’s all been bad luck, and subjectively it has seemed that way; I have witnessed many a Dan Uggla fly ball, line drive, or fliner roped right to a corner outfielder for a loud out this year.

Still, one has to question why his BABIP could even get so low. After all, Uggla’s BABIP ranks 16th to last among major leaguers with at least 100 plate appearances. Some of those names below him are legitimately bad players (Alexi Casilla, Bobby Crosby anyone?), but the list also includes solid to great players such Alex Rodriguez, Carlos Quentin, and Jay Bruce. Bruce in particular seems to have a profile similar to Uggla’s that can shed some light on why their BABIP’s are so astoundingly low. Both players are hitting fly balls at a significantly higher rate than average; Bruce is hitting fly balls on 48.1% of his balls in play, while Uggla has hit fly balls on 51.4% of his balls in play.

Dave Cameron wrote a post recently on Curtis Granderson’s power, noting the Granderson had a similar increase in FB%. Here’s the relevant excerpt:

"It hasn’t necessarily made [Granderson] a better hitter overall, though. After posting a .374 wOBA last year, he’s at .366 in 2009. The fly balls come with a trade-off – more outs. His batting average on balls in play has dropped from .317 last year (and .330 for his career) down to .271, and it’s not just bad luck – extreme flyball hitters simply don’t post high BABIPs, because fly balls turn into outs a lot more often than ground balls do.The average BABIP for the ten guys with a FB% over 50% is .263. Among that group, Granderson’s .271 BABIP actually ranks fourth, well ahead of guys like Dan Uggla, Jason Giambi, and Chris Young."

This increase in fly ball rates always leads to a corresponding decrease in balls hit safely in play, explaining the dramatic batting average dive that Uggla has taken. However, this BABIP effect has not hurt his power numbers dramatically, as his ISO has dropped from .254 last year to .216 this season, likely due to a decreased number of doubles hit. So even as Uggla’s walk rate increases and his power remains solidly in place, his value has decreased due to this new fly-ball propensity and a bit of bad luck.

Except that this isn’t new for Uggla. These are his FB% each of his first four years.

2006: 42.2%
2007: 50.5%
2008: 48.1%
2009: 51.4%

He has been posting similar fly-ball profiles the last three seasons. Uggla’s maintained a fairly consistent LD%, meaning these FB% typically are fluctuating only with his ground ball rates. Here are his rates for the last three years.

2007: 33.8%
2008; 36.2%
2009: 31.7%

It’s no surprise that his “good” and “bad” seasons have appeared accordingly to his GB/FB rates. His breakout year last year combined increasing patience and a drastically improved plate approach with what may be the right ratio of ground balls to fly balls for Uggla. His 2007 and 2009 so far have been littered with fly balls that have landed in the gloves of outfielders, even as his walk rates improved and his LD% remained steady.

There’s reason to believe regression to the mean will occur. In 2007, Uggla posted a .286 BABIP in route to a .245/.337/.432, and there’s no reason that Uggla won’t be able to put up numbers close to that this year. ZiPS updated season-end projections have Uggla at a .252/.337/.460 line that I feel probably underrates his improved walk rate. I’m looking forward to a line closer to .250/.350/.475, perhaps a bit optimistic but certainly attainable. The key here is that with Uggla’s fly-ball hitting, he’ll never post a high average and you can expect to see a decrease in doubles that will hurt his slugging percentage if he can’t improve on his home run power. That being said, he can still maintain great value as a power hitter for the next few years.