Uggla still searching for an answer

ST. LOUIS -- Dan Uggla is going through his typical pregame routine just as he always has. He’s playing cards with his teammates before batting practice. He’s laughing and smiling as the team stretches on the field. You would never know he's in the midst of one of the worst slumps you'll ever see a pro athlete go through.

Uggla is nine years into his major league career -- one that featured a streak of five straight 30-homer seasons and three All-Star appearances -- and since 2013, in 654 plate appearances, the Atlanta Braves second baseman is batting just .177 and lately has been losing playing time to Ramiro Pena. It's the kind of rut we've all been through in our non-big league lives, but he has to face it every night in front of tens of thousands of people.

He says there is no particular lesson he has learned through this prolonged struggle. The lesson, whatever that may end up being, may come on the other side of this valley. Like most of us, it’s easier to look back and see what we learned when the rough patch is over than in the middle of it.

"It is a privilege and an honor to be able to play this game, especially at this level. You know, to be able to have success like I’ve had," Uggla said before a recent game. "But at the same time it starts getting harder and you’ve got to make adjustments."

As he faces the pressures of not performing well, he knows what he wants fans to see in his life and what is most important to him.

"I’d like for them to see me as a player who plays hard every day and loves his teammates, and always puts them before me," Uggla said. "The numbers and how people perceive me, whether they want to look at my batting average or how many runs I’ve driven in, or my home runs, that’s up to them. But for me as a person, this game doesn’t define me as a person. I just feel honored and privileged to be a part of it for as long as I have been. If they know I played the game the right way and I was a good teammate that’s all I really care about."

Of course, this doesn’t mean he’s not trying to figure out what’s wrong at the plate. Always known as having a lot of power for a second baseman, Uggla said he became a power hitter by accident. Even as a kid he didn’t have to work on his swing and mechanics to get power.

"I didn’t hit my growth spurt until after all my friends did," Uggla, now at 5-foot-11 and 210 pounds, said. "Then I just started gradually getting stronger, and getting stronger, and eventually turned into a power hitter."

When someone is struggling at the plate as severely as Uggla is, plate discipline and mental approach are two important areas to look at. Then, while most guys in the majors make little tweaks to their mechanics, in cases like Uggla’s, bigger changes in mechanics may need to be looked at.

Despite his power, it's increasingly clear that pitchers are not afraid to challenge Uggla. Through Saturday, he had seen 52.6 percent of pitches in the strike zone, which ranks fifth among players with at least 100 plate appearances, yet he's making contact on such pitches 83.3 percent of the time, which ranks 130th.

"From the looks of my numbers it doesn’t really look like I’ve made many adjustments," Uggla said. "But as far as from last year to this year, I feel like I’ve made a lot of adjustments. I know the numbers haven’t shown it, but the way I feel between this year from last year is a world of difference.

"For whatever reason I haven’t squared a whole lot of balls up as of late, but that’s a combination of things. Getting my foot down too late, or maybe closing myself off too much and then the only thing that can happen after that is spinning out of it. So, my mindset wants to cover the outside pitch and drive it the other way, but in order to do that you’ve got to stand tall and keep your shoulders square and not dive in, at least for me anyways."

The good news for the Braves is that Uggla says his mental approach is as strong as ever.

"I’m going up there the same way I always think," Uggla said. "I’m thinking extension through the ball, and once I get in the box it’s me against [the pitcher] and that’s all you can do. You’ve got to try and clear your head once you get in the box."

The common thread among every great competitor is the unique ability to fight through pressure when it matters most. To survive for a long time in the majors, players must keep fine-tuning their approach, and when it comes to hitters, pitchers are going to keep playing into batters' weaknesses until they adjust. Uggla, despite his struggles, still has the confidence you'd expect from a player with his track record.

"I know what I’ve done in this game and I know I still have a lot left to offer," Uggla said. "But there’s still some adjustments to be made."