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Dan Uggla: A Cautionary Tale in Major League Baseball Free Agency

With the MLB free agent signing and trading period starting up, it would be wise to look back at the past to expect what’s to come in the future. We take a look back at one middle infielder that slugged his way into what’s proven to be an undeserved mega-deal.

Dan Uggla
Dan Uggla

Sep 2, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Braves second baseman Dan Uggla (26) against the New York Mets during the 8th inning at Turner Field. The Braves won 13-5. Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports

With Major League Baseball getting ready to kick off their free agent signing and offseason trading period, it would be wise to look back at the past to expect what’s to come in the future. We take a look back at one middle infielder that slugged his way into what’s proven to be an undeserved mega-deal.

Way back in November of 2010, Dan Uggla boldly rejected a long-term extension with the Miami Marlins. Instead of continuing negotiations with their established slugger, the Marlins shipped Uggla to the Atlanta Braves. By January of 2011, the Braves and Uggla agreed to make him the highest-paid second baseman in the history of the game (in terms of annual salary). How did that acquisition work out for the Braves? The all-or-nothing Uggla has been more miss than hit during his time in Atlanta.

Let’s take a look back at Uggla’s production in the years leading up to his free agent year of 2011:

Dan Uggla: Production in Last Three Seasons as a Marlin

Year

Age

BB%

K%

OBP

SLG

ISO

UBR

wSB

wOBA

2008

28

12.4%

27.6%

0.360

0.514

0.254

0.6

-1.5

0.375

2009

29

13.8%

22.5%

0.354

0.459

0.216

-0.5

-0.5

0.355

2010

30

11.6%

22.1%

0.369

0.508

0.221

-1.2

-0.2

0.382

In 2010, Uggla took less walks, but posted three-year highs in On-Base Percentage (OBP) and Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA, per fangraphs.com, takes into account the fact that “not all hits are created equal”). Also, Uggla posted a three-year low in terms of Strikeout Percentage. There are two schools of thought here:

  • Uggla played like a guy that was in the last year of a contract, or
  • Uggla was showing improvement in all facets of his game

Not shown is the fact that Uggla is a fly ball hitter and does not hit many line drives, averaging a Line Drive Percentage of 16.8 percent between 2008-2010. Also not shown is the fact that Uggla’s 2010 Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP) was (and still is) a career high .330 which would help explain the good numbers he posted that season.  After signing that hefty contract in Atlanta, this is what his numbers looked like after the 2011 season:

Dan Uggla: Production in First Year with Atlanta

Year

Age

BB%

K%

OBP

SLG

ISO

UBR

wSB

wOBA

2011

31

9.2%

23.2%

0.311

0.453

0.220

2.5

-1.5

0.334

Almost an across-the-board drop in all categories for Uggla in 2011. One noticeable part of his game that did go up was the Strikeout Rate. Not shown is a four-year high in Groundball Rate and his Line Drive Percentage was the lowest it had been in that same time span. Plus more pop ups in 2011 meant more easy outs for opposing defenses. And his Plate Discipline metrics actually showed Uggla become more of a free swinger as well:

Dan Uggla: Plate Discipline

Year

Age

Swing%

Contact%

SwStr%

2008

28

42.9%

70.7%

12.1%

2009

29

40.4%

75.2%

9.7%

2010

30

41.9%

73.5%

10.7%

2011

31

46.3%

73.4%

12.0%

Not shown is his O-Swing Percentage (“The percentage of pitches a batter swings at outside the strike zone,” per fangraphs.com) in 2011, which to this day is still a career high for Uggla (27.3%). Despite the drop in Strikeout Rate in 2010, Uggla’s approach at the plate and lack of contact skills was very apparent in his last three seasons as a Marlin.

Uggla is not known for his glove work at second base, but it is worth noting that his 2011 Ultimate Zone Rating (a metric used to measure the value of fielding and defense) of -12.1 is still a career low.

So on the surface, Uggla’s impressive output (32 home runs, 96 RBI average between 2008-2010) and production (increase in OBP and wOBA after the 2010 campaign, for example) was enough to convince the Atlanta Braves to overlook the risks and negatives that come with signing a player with a poor approach at the plate and on the wrong side of 30 years of age.

It is with this backdrop that we attempt to gauge the treacherous waters that is the MLB free agent market. There have been plenty of recent free agents flops over the last couple of years (they mostly reside in Anaheim now). They bring plenty of fanfare when their signings are announced, but the results have not lived up to the hype; or the high dollar amount that they originally signed for.

All stats courtesy of fangraphs.com.

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