Counting Rocks: A Trade That Wasn't

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - FILE: Mark Ellis #14 of the Oakland A's bats against the San Francisco Giants at AT&T Park on May 22, 2011 in San Francisco, California. According to reports on June 30, 2011, Ellis has been traded to the Colorado Rockies. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)


Since the Rockies are toward the end of a four game set against the Braves, it seems like an appropriate time to bring up an old topic: Dan Uggla.  Despite doubling and hitting a home run on Tuesday night, Uggla has been terrible all season.  That's not a surprise; it's been well documented (see, for example, here, here, here, and here).

Now that the Rockies have acquired the suddenly Ruthian Mark Ellis, it's worth looking back at the highly speculated, but never consummated trade for Uggla.  However, a caveat: though I'm a believer in the value of objective statistics, I also believe that results will vary depending on circumstance.  A different hitting coach, more agreeable manager, different teammates, different perspective from the batter's box, distance from a beach, a bad night out at an overrated downtown restaurant... all of these things can affect the human side of players who lack the mechanical nature needed to reinforce good habits and expel bad ones. 

Regardless of how Ellis performs the rest of the way, I can say that looking back at my vociferous advocacy for an Uggla trade last winter is a source of great embarrassment.  Despite all of the above caveats, it's hard to see how Uggla performs better as a Rockie than a Brave.

Of course, there are excuses for Uggla besides missing the beach.  He has a .190 BABIP, a 140 point drop from last year and 100 points off his current career average.  He's hit an inordinate number of weak fly balls or pop ups: 13.7% (and getting worse by the month) versus 6.8% in 2010 and 8.8% for his career. 

He's a right handed pull hitter who is slugging just .633 to left field (.892 SLG to LF for his career).  It's possible that this can be attributed to the less hospitable dimensions of Turner Field: 335 ft to left, 380 to left center.  Sun Life Stadium's dimensions: 330 to left, 361 to left center.  That probably doesn't help, and might require a swing adjustment that Uggla has tried and failed to make.*

*ESPN's park factors for the two stadiums during Uggla's time in the majors aren't consistent enough to provide anything more insightful than the hard dimensions of the parks. 

That's about where the excuses end.  His batted ball rates are a little off from last year; most notably, his 3.3% increase in ground balls is probably leading to a ton of those extra outs.  More noticeably, he's turned into a free swinger.  He's swung at 5.2% more pitches over this year than last, and has been more willing to go outside the zone than ever: 5.5% more swings outside than his previous career high. 

This is quite evident in his declining walk rate: 8.2% in 2011, over 3 points lower than last year and 5.6 points lower than his career high.  All the while, his contact rate is the same as last year, meaning that he's swinging at and (likely) making weak contact with more bad pitches than ever.  This probably has a lot to do with that engorged infield fly ball rate.

Even with defense that has seen marginal improvement according to UZR (marginal decline according to TZ), Uggla has put up a -0.5 fWAR.  That wouldn't play much better in Coors or any other stadium. 

Uggla's struggles, his contract extension, Herrera's early success, and the first 5 games of the Mark Ellis era all underscore the importance of the non-move.  Through July 5, Uggla's slash stands at .178/.250/.344 (352 PAs).  Rockies 2B: .256/.310/.362 (389 PAs). Jonathan Herrera has taken the most PAs as a Rockies 2B, and while his .620 OPS would only rank 23rd in the league, the position's overall line ranks 15th in MLB thanks to Jose Lopez hitting much better in limited time as a 2B (.716 OPS, 36 PAs) and Ellis' hot start (1.476 OPS, 22 PAs). The position breaks down like this, sorted by OPS:

Player

G

PA

BA

OBP

SLG

OPS

BAbip

Mark Ellis

5

23

0.500

0.522

0.955

1.476

0.529

Jose Lopez

11

36

0.294

0.333

0.382

0.716

0.290

Chris Nelson

17

71

0.221

0.239

0.397

0.636

0.228

Jonathan Herrera

50

218

0.242

0.314

0.305

0.620

0.272

Eric Young

4

19

0.278

0.263

0.278

0.541

0.385

Alfredo Amezaga

5

20

0.176

0.300

0.176

0.476

0.273

Jose Morales

2

2

0.000

0.000

0.000

0.000

0.000

Team Total

86

389

0.256

0.310

0.362

0.672

0.283

 

Overall, not bad compared to the rest of MLB, and much better than last year's production from the position. (.633 OPS), but still noticeably below the level of production in 2007 (.690), 2008 (.709), and  2009 (.722).  And, when using league/park adjusted metrics, it's a barren wasteland compared to Ellis. 

From 2007-10, Rockies' 2B accumulated 6.1 fWAR.  During that stretch, they never topped 77 wRC+ (07: 68, 08: 66, 09: 77, 10: 74).  Over the same period, during which he experienced some lean years by his standards, Ellis totaled 11.8 fWAR.  His lowest wRC+ (87) was ten points higher than the Rockies' best.

There are no illusions that Ellis will continue this play the rest of the way.  For starters, he has a .529 BABIP.  His 28.6% HR/FB rate is sure to negatively regress.  Yet, Ellis' 104 wRC+ in 2010 destroys the Rockies' cumulative production at the position at any point over the last four years.  You have to go back to Jamey Carroll in 2006 to find a competent level of weighted/adjusted offensive production (92 wRC+).

Add in that the defensive metrics see Ellis as a good to great defender at second -  career: +8.1 UZR/150, +9 TZ/yr - and he's a good bet to beat the recent past at the position.  He's also a pretty good bet to beat Herrera's or Nelson's potential production.  As exciting as Herrera's hot stretch was last summer, it still only amounted to a .739 OPS (6/19/10 through the end of the season) and a wRC+ in the mid-90s.  With solid defense, and compared to Barmes, it holds up well.  He even continued it through April of this season.

But, consider that outside of that stretch (which amounts to about half a season and 55% of his career at bats - 269 ABs of .761 OPS) , he's never shown the ability to hit like that in the majors.  His AAA line is well south of Chris Nelson.  Somehow, even with that run from June 19, 2010 through April 2011, his career OPS is just .652.  Also consider that UZR and TZ agree that he's played poor defense at 2B in 2011, and it's pretty unlikely that he matches Ellis (assuming Ellis plays at his average overall production from the last four years) over the rest of the season. 

Nelson is a bit different of a story.  It's not even worth getting into his 80 career at bats with the Rockies.  The only thing worth saying about his time in the majors is that UZR (-60/150) and TZ (-65/year) hate his defense.  His .875 OPS in AAA is impressive, but considering the run scoring environment in the PCL it's not as good as it looks.  The MLE calculator at Driveline Baseball equates his career AAA line to a .265/.306/.401 major league slash.  That's nice, but, considering the poor reviews his defense has gotten, he is probably not the long term answer.  It's probably not even the short term answer. 

In short, which is probably like Polonius saying "brevity is the soul of wit" at this point, the non-trade for Uggla is made even better by the low-cost acquisition of a soon-to-be Type B free agent who is better than the in-house options.

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