The Braves have built themselves an MLB-high 14-game lead in the NL East standings, and with an eye toward the playoffs, they're looking to help one of their underachieving players improve his performance. On Tuesday, they announced that second baseman Dan Uggla will go on the disabled list so that he can undergo LASIK surgery to correct his astigmatism.
Once upon a time, Uggla was one of the game's top second basemen, at least on the offensive side. Plucked away from the Diamondbacks in the 2005 Rule 5 draft, he hit a combined .263/.349/.488 while averaging 31 homers a year from 2006-2010 for the Marlins, earning All-Star honors twice and ranking second only to Chase Utley in terms of offensive value among second basemen. Since being traded to Atlanta in November 2010, he has struggled to live up to that standard, hitting a combined .216/.323/.413 and enduring some stretches far more dreadful than that.
Currently, the 33-year-old righty is hitting just .186/.307/.389, and while his 21 homers are second only to Robinson Cano among second-sackers, his 89 OPS+ ranks 13th among the 17 who are qualified for a batting title. Factor in his typically subpar defense (-14 Defensive Runs Saved) and he's been 0.4 wins below replacement level. Since the All-Star break, he's hitting just .133/.277/.265 in 101 plate appearances.
Uggla admitted that he experienced vision problems late last season that mostly affected him at the plate. Though he set a career high with 94 walks, he struck out 168 times, three shy of his high, and set career lows in batting average (.220), slugging percentage (.384) and isolated power (.164). The Braves wanted him to undergo LASIK surgery -- a procedure in which a laser is used to reshape the cornea to improve visual acuity as a permanent alternative to corrective lenses -- in spring training, but Uggla opted to try contact lenses instead. He found those uncomfortable at that point but managed to find a more comfortable fit in June, at which time he conceded that his vision was holding him back. Aas he told MLB.com:
"I haven't been able to pull the trigger on a lot of the pitches I've made my money on and done a lot of damage on. For me to not be able to even pull the trigger on any of those pitches for this amount of time and to also be ducking out of the way of so many pitches that are strikes, my eyes aren't telling me the right thing. So I've got to do something."
More than a month later, Uggla's batting average remains well below the Mendoza Line, and his strikeout rate is at a career-worst 31.7 percent; he leads the league with 146 whiffs and is on pace to finish with 199. Among NL hitters, only Pedro Alvarez is striking out more frequently (31.9 percent) and he's got an OPS about 80 points higher. Uggla's .228 batting average on balls in play is also a league worst, which may just be bad luck, but more likely reflects a combination of bad habits and poor pitch identification.
As you might expect in a sport where vision is so important that the majority of players have vision that approaches the theoretical maximum -- a finding of Sports Illustrated senior writer David Epstein in his recent book, The Sports Gene -- LASIK has gained some traction in the baseball world. It's been around baseball since at least the late 1990s, when Wade Boggs and Fred McGriff both gave it a shot near the ends of their careers. More recently, players such as Jhonny Peralta and Denard Span have had it done. In 2010, Lookout Landing's Jeff Sullivan identified 26 hitters who had the surgery and did a quick study to examine their before and after performances. Using wRC+ -- an index stat (like OPS+) that compares a player's production to the league average -- he found that gains averaged either five percent or 12 percent relative to the league, depending upon his methodology. Sullivan identified only one player who had significant complications after undergoing LASIK, Uggla's teammate Brian McCann, who ultimately went back to glasses and who remains an offensive force. At the big league level, it's rare if not unprecedented for a player to go on the disabled list after undergoing LASIK, as they usually have the procedure done during the offseason. Such is the nature of the Braves' large lead in the NL East that they can afford to give Uggla a break, and hopefully get more mileage out of him down the stretch and in the final two years of his contract; he's signed through 2015 at $13 million a year. In the meantime, they'll give 23-year-old Tyler Pastronicky, who has hit .249/.291/.326 in 94 games in 2012-2013, the bulk of the duty filling in for Uggla.