Beyond the hoopla involving various Braves and slugging exploits, it might be easy to forget that their highest-paid position player -- Dan Uggla -- is off to a bad start this season. Hitting just .184/.304/.367 in his age-33 season after the weekend’s action, and striking out 35 percent of the time, you might reasonably worry about the back half of the Braves’ five-year investment in him now that he’s in the hump year of his $62 million deal.
That’s if you’re in the habit of weeping over other people’s expenses, but that’s not what is really interesting about Uggla at the moment. Instead, it’s more interesting that at the same time that he has started to slip at the plate, he might have begun to accrue value on defense, a reversal of fortune that serves as a reminder that players don’t always do things you expect.
Anyone else remember how Jeff Kent started his career? He may go to the Hall of Fame as a second baseman, but at the beginning of his career as a Blue Jays farmhand, there was considerable speculation he’d need to move to third base. Not that coming up in the organization that already had eventual Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar at second base helped much. After mostly playing third for the Jays in ’92, not even getting swapped to the Mets in the David Cone trade secured Kent’s future at second base. He spent three years there before spending most of ’96 back at third, and it wasn’t until he wound up with the Giants in 1997 that he was finally at second base to stay. While Baseball Info Solutions suggests Kent cost his teams almost a full win on defense per 1,200 innings afield, he still had the best part of his career as an offensive star ahead of him despite his limitations in the field.
Thinking about Uggla’s career path can’t help but remind me of Kent. Not because I think Uggla is going to follow Kent and be a better player in his 30s than he was in his 20s -- anything but. Uggla’s declining numbers as a Brave, especially his slipping below a .400 SLG last year, indicate that isn’t likely. Instead, I’m reminded because Uggla, like Kent, was dogged from the outset of his career by speculation that he’d need to move off second base someday soon after getting initially pegged as a utility type by prospect mavens. Uggla’s three errors in the 2008 All-Star Game probably didn’t help matters, but the lack of any distinguishing gift afield certainly didn’t endear him to scouts.
Sabermetric tools haven’t been any kinder in their evaluations of his leather work. BIS’ Defensive Runs, Total Zone and Ultimate Zone Rating would generally rate his defense around a full 10 runs or a full win in the negative as a full-season regular -- just like Kent. Which means that, just like Kent, he's had to deliver at the plate to make him worth playing.
Which Uggla did. He ripped 154 home runs as a five-year regular for the Marlins, and another 36 in his first season in Atlanta. And even as he started losing value at the plate last season, he nevertheless led the NL in walks last year. You would think those sort of things would make him a sabermetric favorite, but not so much.
When the Braves traded for Uggla and gave him the extension that will keep him in Atlanta through 2015, it was easy to see how he might eventually slide over into Chipper Jones’ spot at third once the all-time great hung up his spikes. But after Jones stuck around longer than expected, there’s now little reason to question leaving Uggla at second. That’s because even as his numbers at the plate drop, his fielding performance as measured by advanced metrics switched from negative to positive. Even his UZR, better at evaluating some positions than others -- with second base being one of the spots it does best with -- crept into positive territory when grading Uggla’s defense, grading him 4.2 runs above average last year (and 3.8 per 150 games). Or, almost a win and a half better on defense over a full season. Maybe that’s a one-year blip, and maybe defensive data is reliably inconsistent enough to only suggest broadly how good a player is, not define it precisely.
But if overall the metrics are starting to grade Uggla more charitably, and you add that to a few seasons to come working with Andrelton Simmons up the middle, then you might be forgiven if you start thinking that, yeah, maybe Frank Wren & Co. made the right call in terms of getting Uggla with the intention of leaving him at the keystone. You might weep about the expense if you’re part of that crowd shrieking for optimal spending strategies, but that's true of most big-money deals. On a practical note, Uggla’s deal certainly didn’t handicap the Braves’ ability to add the Uptons this winter.
Certainly, some of the game’s defensive gambles at second base have flopped. I always think of Keith Miller and later Mark Teahen, and I’m sure there are Braves fans who remember Ron Gant’s brutal rookie season in the field at second. But sometimes the payoff in terms of what you get on offense and the hits you take on defense more than balances out, which is part of the reason Uggla became an asset making eight large annually in the first place. Because adding an extra bopper in the age of all-time-high strikeout rates and fewer balls in play than ever before gives you one more bat to help keep the ball out of the defense’s hands and put it over the fence. This goes some way toward explaining why the Cardinals are rolling the dice with Matt Carpenter as a second baseman this season. It’s why the Mets did likewise with Daniel Murphy last year, or the Pirates did so with Neil Walker in 2010.
While the world will always have room for those “true” second-base scrappers who seem to define the position in the mind’s eye of so many, these days everyone’s willing to get a little winning Uggla if there are a few extra runs -- and wins -- to net by taking an unglovely risk up the middle.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.