On May 25, 2004, Derek Jeter was hitting .189. He would finish the season at .292. He would hit .300 or better in each of the next five seasons. Today he’s 25 hits from No. 3,000.
On May 23, 2011, Dan Uggla is hitting .185. Braves fans have been in a dither over Uggla, who was imported from Florida and then re-upped for $62 million over five years, since April, but Aprils can deceive. Besides, Uggla never hits in April.
Now, however, we’re a week from Memorial Day, the first checkpoint of the baseball season, and Uggla was actually better in April, when he hit .194, than he has been in May. On Friday, Uggla was bumped up to second in the Braves’ batting order for the first time this season. (Manager Fredi Gonzalez justified by the change by quoting the loose definition of insanity: “Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”)
Uggla went 0-for-3 that night. On Saturday he batted sixth, also for the first time this season, and went 1-for-6. On Sunday he batted fifth and went 0-for-4.
He’s 2-for-28 since his game-winning home run off Roy Halladay on May 15. Esteemed colleague Dave O’Brien reported from Anaheim that Uggla “toss[ed] equipment after a couple of at-bats” Sunday and afterward sat alone at his locker for a half-hour.
A month ago, Uggla was a man off to a slow start. Today he’s 30 percent of his way into a season, and he has 15 RBIs, 11 of which have come from home runs. Of his seven homers, five have come with the bases empty. He’s 6-for-47 (.128) with runners in scoring position.
The Braves knew, or at least thought they knew, what they were getting in Uggla: A second baseman of uncertain glove but consistent power. He’d averaged 30 homers and 93 RBIs over the previous five seasons, and a man who hits that well for that long doesn’t just forget how to hit. (Does he?)
But now a man expected to do much is doing little, and the cruel truth is that there’s little the Braves can do. They could bench Uggla for two or three games, but with Jason Heyward on the disabled list and Nate McLouth hurting this team is running short on bodies. And it’s not clear that benching an established hitter, or even moving him in the batting order, does much good: Phillies manager Charlie Manuel tried both tacks with Jimmy Rollins in 2009, and the former MVP still wound up hitting .250.
Regarding Uggla, the good news is that a good hitter invariably starts to hit. (Rollins has never been quite himself again, but he has been injured.) And it isn’t as if Uggla is the only proven hitter underperforming: Albert Pujols, the best in the business, is batting .269 and has gone 103 at-bats without a homer.
In sum, it happens. Trouble is, it has happened to Uggla at a particularly bad time. With a new team and a new contract, this season was to be his moment of true arrival. (”Nobody had ever seen me play,” he told USA Today last week. “I was in Florida.”) Instead it has been a period of reinvention, and not in a good way. He has fielded better than he has hit, but the Braves aren’t paying him to be Jose Lind.
As Uggla told O’Brien: “You can only take the playing-good-defense thing so far before you’ve got to get some hits and score some runs and drive in some runs. It’s a trying time right now.”
It is, and Uggla is doing what men in slumps invariably do: He’s swinging too hard, trying to compensate for two bad months in one at-bat. Baseball doesn’t work that way. According to ESPN’s Inside Edge, anything off-speed will get him out. He’s hitting .306 on fastballs, .210 on curves, .204 on sliders, .183 on changeups. (He’s also hitting .118 against lefthanders, which makes no sense; he hit .306 against them last season.)
It’s a trying time, but times can and do change. Jeter’s great slump of 2004 was broken by a couple of bloop doubles. That’s the time-honored ticket. After a protracted period of lineouts and frustration, a guy hits a few where they ain’t and the world looks different. Surely it will happen that way for Dan Uggla. Surely, I say.
By Mark Bradley