Benching Uggla a mistake by Braves
On Sunday, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez benched second baseman Dan Uggla in favor of Martin Prado, whom he anointed as the new regular. “It’s a situation where we feel like we need to do something for the team and the name on the front of the uniform,” explained the manager. “It’s not easy. Two months ago, you don’t even think about it.” Indeed, the move comes less than two months after Uggla started the All-Star Game for the National League, and at a time when he showed signs of snapping out of a prolonged slump. It’s not at all clear that the Braves’ solution makes the team better.
It doesn’t sound as though Gonzalez intends simply to sit Uggla for a couple of days to clear his head. Said the second baseman, “He didn’t really explain anything to me. He just said we need to make a change and I do not know how much playing time you are going to get [the rest of the season].” Said Gonzalez, “[H]e’s either going to have a big at-bat when he pinch-hits, or we’re going to put him in a game and he’s going to have a big game that gets us to the postseason.”
Uggla, who came to the Braves via a November 2010 trade with the Marlins, has never been able to match his Florida performance in Atlanta. Where he hit a robust .263/.349/.488 and averaged 31 homers a year for the Marlins from 2006-2010, his batting line slipped to .233/.311/.453 last year thanks to a slow start, though he did finish with a career high 36 homers. A strong start to this season — .267/.379/.455 through the end of May — offered hope that he had returned to form, but since the calendar turned to June, he had hit a woeful .165/.311/.314 in 309 plate appearances, and while he leads the league with 80 walks, his 150 strikeouts rank second. Even so, it isn’t as though he just hit rock bottom last week, or even last month:
Uggla had hit in five straight games prior to his benching, with a pair of homers to boot. His August/September numbers are right around his overall .208/.340/.373 line, which isn’t great, but even with the low batting average, his True Average — a measure of his runs created per plate appearance, adjusted for park and league scoring rates and expressed on a batting average scale, with .260 being league average — is .264. That’s enough to rank 10th among the 26 second basemen with at least 300 plate appearances, one point ahead of the Rangers’ Ian Kinsler, three points ahead of the Nationals’ Danny Espinosa, 12 points ahead of the Giants’ Marco Scutaro, 26 points ahead of the White Sox’ Gordon Beckham, and even further ahead of the second basemen for the A’s, Cardinals and Orioles. In other words, better than the second basemen on the majority of contending teams.
Uggla’s .264 mark is also eight points higher than the .256 True Average for all major league second basemen. That means that even with his low batting average, he has been a boon to the Braves’ offense over the balance of the season. And while he has continually been maligned for his defense, Baseball Prospectus’ Fielding Runs Above Average pegs him around seven runs above average this year, with Total Zone, Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved all placing him in the black as well. His 2.0 Wins Above Replacement Player ranks fourth among the team’s hitters, ahead of Prado (1.8), Freddie Freeman (1.4) and Brian McCann (0.8), though via Baseball-Reference.com’s Wins Above Replacement, his 1.7 mark ranks seventh.
What’s gone wrong for Uggla? In addition to striking out more often (28.1 percent of all plate appearances, up from 22.7 percent prior to this season), he’s hitting more popups than ever — 12.9 percent of all batted balls, the majors’ fifth-higest rate. That’s up from 9.8 percent last year, and 9.5 percent during his time with the Marlins. Since popups rarely turn into hits, his batting average on balls in play has crashed, but even so, his walk rate and isolated power remain better than average:
As for Prado, his replacement at second base, the 28-year-old was the Braves’ regular at that position in 2009 and 2010 prior to Uggla’s arrival, though he saw considerable time at first and third base during that span as well. He shifted to leftfield last year, but battled injuries from which he has since rebounded to hit .298/.356/.441; he has also maintained his versatility by covering third during some of Chipper Jones’ extended absences. His .281 True Average will be a plus at the keystone, though over the course of his career, his defense there has been slightly subpar.
It appears that Gonzalez will platoon righty-swinging Reed Johnson and lefty-swinging Jose Constanza in leftfield. The 35-year-old Johnson, who was acquired from the Cubs on July 30, has a well-deserved reputation as a lefty-masher, hitting .328/.369/.484 in 128 PA against southpaws this year, and .313/.369/.465 in 1,375 PA against them for his career. However, it’s the 28-year-old Constanza who figures to get more of the at-bats in a straight platoon, and it’s not clear he deserves them. A pint-sized player listed at 5-foot-9 and 150 pounds, Constanza’s virtue is his blazing speed, not his power or his patience. He has hit just .250/.386/.350 in 109 PA against righties during his young major league career. Ironically, he has hit better against lefties (.354/.380/.354), but in a 51 PA sample size, it’s difficult to take that seriously. Including all of their plate appearances against pitchers of both hands, both Constanza and Johnson own career True Averages right around the league average, .261 for the former, .262 for the latter. Perhaps the former’s speed will be a bit of an extra asset defensively, but the recent history of centerfield types who wind up in leftfield suggests the lightness of his offensive contribution will outweigh that.
The Braves are just 17-15 since the beginning of August, but at 76-59, they lead the NL wild-card race, with a three-game cushion over the second-place Cardinals, and a 3 1/2-game edge on the Dodgers. The Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds report places their chances at reaching the postseason at 93.9 percent, though that largely means a berth in the one-game wild-card play-in; now 6 1/2 games behind the Nationals, their chances at taking the NL East are down to 4.2 percent, and even the decision to sit Stephen Strasburg won’t increase those odds by much.
There’s little room for complacency in a pennant race, and it’s tough to fault the Braves for attempting to improve even as they close in on a playoff berth, particularly as one slipped through their fingers on the final day of last season. That said, a close look at the numbers suggests the decision to bench Uggla is a misguided one that appears centered around his low batting average and high strikeout rate while ignoring his other contributions — power, patience and adequate defense.