Dan Uggla isn’t the most popular Atlanta Braves player. He certainly isn’t hated by any means but most Braves fans do seem to find him difficult to appreciate. Braves fans are annoyed by his big contract, his terrible defense, and his low batting average. While I am not here to say Dan Uggla is the wildly underrated Prince That Was Promised and that we should all learn to adore him, I will say this: Dan Uggla is useful.
This may seem like faint praise but it is also probably far more positive than you would hear from a large segment of the Atlanta fanbase. First, let me acknowledge the obvious that Uggla is indeed terrible defensively. There is no real way to argue this and I won’t bother to because it doesn’t detract from my point. This year for example, Dan Uggla has been worth -10 defensive runs saved and that’s an awful number no way to spin it otherwise.
Really though his terrible defense isn’t the main reason Uggla is disliked. Fans will tolerate poor defense from a player who is contributing elsewhere as the ongoing Chris Johnson experience at third base proves. What will make fans angry is the second highest paid player on the team having a terrible batting average. This is the particular point I want to address since to me this is a misguided reason for bashing the guy.
Uggla was the highest paid player on the team until he was surpassed by BJ Upton’s free agent deal this past winter. Both players make far more money than Freddie Freeman or Jason Heyward while being less valuable players. Many fans already have a certain level of resentment for highly paid athletes and nothing focuses that anger more than one of those millionaires not performing at a level that justifies the millions they are paid.
Here is the thing that people don’t really appreciate about Dan Uggla, he really isn’t that overpaid relative to the market rate for the value he adds. Yes, Uggla makes more than Freeman but that isn’t because Uggla is better than Freeman, it is because Uggla was a year away from free agency when the Braves gave him his contract. Freeman is under the Braves control for three more years after this one. If Freeman were a free agent this year he would certainly command a higher salary than Uggla.
Too often fans see an athlete’s salary as a reflection of what they deserve and not what the salary actually is. A player’s salary isn’t a perfect reflection of how good a player he is, it is a reflection of what the market rate for his skills were. The Braves gave Uggla 13 million dollars a year one year away from free agency because if they didn’t another team would have probably given him more once he became a free agent. The Braves had just traded for Uggla and saw his power hitting skills as the major missing element from their 2010 team. Therefore they locked him up for five years to a deal that was pretty fair to both parties. The Braves paid for Uggla a year ahead of time to save themselves from a bidding war and the possibility of losing an asset they felt fit their team’s needs. Uggla took a slightly below market level deal as insurance against the possibility of a serious injury in 2011 derailing his big payday. Everyone wins right?
Not in the eyes of many Braves fans who feel like Uggla’s performance in Atlanta hasn’t justified the salary he is paid. While Uggla hasn’t been as good in Atlanta as he was in his Florida prime I don’t think his production has been significantly below what he is being paid for. The general rule of thumb is that 1 win above replacement is worth 5 million dollars on the open market. Uggla gets paid 13 million a year so to be worth his contract he has to produce 2.6 wins above replacement a year. Over his first two years as a Brave Uggla was worth an average of 2.8 fWAR. This is basically perfectly in line with the market value for his production. I am not going to argue Uggla isn’t overpaid relative to his production especially since he is 32 and his skills should continue to decline as he gets to the end of his deal. His final year in Atlanta may be quite ugly. But to this point Uggla has essentially given the Braves exactly what he is being paid for.
The thing to understand is nearly all free agent signings are going to seem overpaid especially relative to what team controlled players are producing. The Braves, in terms of total payroll, are right in the middle of the league. They cannot win bidding wars with the Yankees, Red Sox, and Dodgers of the world for top free agent talent. The Braves can only win by gaining production from their team controlled assets, extending the most productive of their home grown talent to team friendly deals, and by signing productive if flawed players on the free agent market. Fans always want their team to spend big in free agency but when the team does so the kind of player you usually get is Dan Uggla, BJ Upton, or Derek Lowe. In other words useful players who aren’t the best players on the team. It is likely that every “big” free agent signing of the Braves will always disappoint their fans because fans often have unrealistic expectations for free agents.
You know what hugely productive superstars who become available on the free agent market are called? Los Angeles Angels. But even The Angels sign players like Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, who are former MVP’s turned free agent disappointment. Pujols has actually been worth fewer wins in LA than Uggla has been worth in Atlanta.
Uggla has been mostly worth what he has been paid by Atlanta. The worry is how badly he will regress in years four or five of his deal but that hasn’t really happened yet. This year Uggla is hitting .202/.322/.421 with a 106 wRC+. Not spectacular numbers but his wRC+ shows he has been an above average hitter. Fans who judge players primarily by their batting average think Uggla is a terrible hitter, but Uggla walks at an elite rate and leads the team in home runs this year. OBP and slugging percentage are more useful metrics than batting average for evaluating how good a hitter is and these numbers show Uggla has been good.
Consider that Andrelton Simmons leads off for the Braves and his batting average is .245. That is much higher than Uggla’s .202 avg but Uggla has been worth 106 wRC+ while Simmons has only put up a 72 wRC+. That huge difference shows how much batting average can lie about how good a hitter a player is. Uggla may have a low batting average and strikeout a lot but he is not a bad hitter. Uggla is also one of the better baserunners on the Braves, certainly far better than Simmons.
Dan Uggla is an above average hitter and a pretty good baserunner. Above average. Useful. That is what Dan Uggla is. Useful may sound like faint praise but in the modern world of baseball economics useful costs about 13 million a year on the open market. I think Uggla should be appreciated for what he is and not used as a whipping boy for all the things he will never be.