Tonight, Dan Uggla has a chance to become just the third man in the last five seasons to have a 30-game hitting streak. That's a shocking turnaround for a player who was hitting .173 when his streak began back on July 5, and provides a valuable lesson on the nature of batting average on balls in play.
Prior to this season, Uggla was one of the most dependable players in baseball and one of the game's most productive second basemen. In each of the five seasons after the Marlins swiped him from the Diamondbacks system in the 2005 Rule 5 draft, Uggla hit between 27 and 33 home runs with an OPS+ between 108 and 131. He was sub-par in the field, and never an MVP-level contributor at the plate, but his offensive consistency was what the Braves were banking on when they acquired him from the Marlins last November. Florida traded Uggla, who was entering his final team-controlled season, in something of a salary-dump for infielder Omar Infante and lefty reliever Mike Dunn. Uggla then signed a five-year, $62 million extension with Atlanta.
But the only consistency about Uggla's early-season performance was how bad it was. He hit .194/.250/.380 in April. Then .160/.241/.260 in May. Then .179/.250/.379 in June. After the Braves' win over the Rockies on July 4, Uggla's season line was .173/.241/.327, a horrifying, dispiriting disaster for both the player and his team. However, if you dug a little deeper, you could see that Uggla was the same hitter through the first three months of this season that he had always been. Consider his performance in what are known as the three-true outcomes -- home runs, strikeouts, and walks -- all of which derive purely from the hitter-pitcher confrontation without the vagaries of defense getting involved:
ISO is Isolated Power (Slugging Percentage minus Batting Average); UIBB is unintentional walks; ISD is Isolated Discipline (On-Base Percentage minus Batting Average)
Uggla hit for a bit less power in the first three months of 2011 than in his last five seasons, but the difference wasn't drastic; he was still on pace for about 23 home runs over the full season. His strikeout rate was an almost exact match with his previous career rate, and while he did walk less, that's a common side effect of a prolonged slump, as hitters often try to hack their way out. Overall, the hitter from this season was recognizable as the same one from recent years, something that can't be said when comparing that .173/.241/.327 season line to Uggla's .263/.349/.488 career rates coming into this season.
Then there's batting average on balls in play (BABIP), meaning fair balls that aren't home runs, balls that bring the defense into the game. As a Marlin, Uggla's BABIP was .302, right around the league average. Through July 4 of this season, his BABIP was .187. That alone accounted for almost the entire difference between Uggla's performance as a Marlin and his performance in his first three months with the Braves, and the reason for that difference can be almost entirely written off as bad luck. Dreadful, tiki-necklace-curse-level bad luck, perhaps, but still just bad luck. Put in baseball terms, the hits just didn't fall in for three months.
For proof, look no further than his current hitting streak. Let's run those three true outcome numbers again, adding his performance from the last 30 games:
The middle row, representing his three true outcome rates during his slump, bears greater resemblance to the "real" Uggla (the top row) than the bottom row, which contains his rates during his streak, the very obvious exception being the huge change in BABIP, which, again, was largely beyond his control. During his streak, not only has his luck on balls in play swung completely in the other direction, but he has gone deep twice as often as his career rate coming into the season. It's pretty clear that he won't be able to sustain either rate much longer, but that should come as no surprise.
Hitting streaks are statistical oddities in and of themselves, and if the odds weren't already against them things get increasingly difficult around 30 games, which seems to be the point when hitting streaks start to become national stories, with the 24-hour sports networks cutting live to each of the hitter's at-bats. Already the headlines of Braves game stories are beginning to mention Uggla's streak before the game's outcome. I
Indeed, of the 12 hitting streaks to reach 30 games since 1990, seven stalled out at exactly 30 games, and only three got past 32 games. As for Uggla's chances of catching or surpassing Joe DiMaggio's seemingly unbreakable record of 56 straight games with a hit, consider the fact that Uggla, who has prompted this analysis by hitting in 29 straight, would have to hit in another 27 straight just to tie DiMaggio, and that the only man in the 70 years since DiMaggio's streak in 1941 to hit in even 40 straight was Pete Rose back in 1978, when he set the National League record by hitting in 44 straight games.
In terms of more reasonable goals, getting to 34 games would put Uggla in the top 20 all-time, getting to 37 would put him in the top 10, and getting to 39 would tie him with Paul Molitor's 1987 streak for the longest since Rose. If he did get that far, then perhaps he could think about challenging Rose's NL record, but even if he catches Rose, which would require him to hit safely in his next 15 games, he'd still be a dozen shy of DiMaggio, and by then the media coverage would be downright oppressive. Baseball is a game that teaches us to never say never (or, more appropriately, "it ain't over 'til it's over"), but when it comes to catching DiMaggio, never sounds about right.
As for Uggla's next few games, the Braves have two games left in their current series against the Marlins in Miami. Uggla is 2-for-8 in his career against Tuesday night's starter Clay Hensley, and 1-for-3 against Anibal Sanchez, who starts Wednesday night. That limited exposure is a side-effect of having been teammates with Sanchez throughout their careers prior to this year, and with Hensley last year. After an off-day on Thursday, the Braves then return home to face the Cubs and Carlos Zambrano, a pitcher Uggla has struggled mightily against in his career with just one lone single and five strikeouts in nine at-bats. Next up would be Randy Wells (1-for-3) and Matt Garza (3-for-9). If Uggla can keep his streak going through those five games, all started by right-handed pitchers against whom he is a collective 8-for-32 (.250), he'll be at 34 games and in the top 20 all-time, though it's hard to be optimistic that he'll get even that far.
As for what the Braves can expect from Uggla post-streak, as awful as it was, there was little in his pre-streak performance to suggest that he won't revert to being the player he was for the Marlins over the last five years. Already 31 and signed through his age-35 season, he may not age particularly well in the coming seasons, but there's every reason to believe that his performance over the first three months was as much of a fluke as his current hitting streak, and that after both melt away, he'll continue to be the same Dan Uggla he's always been, which is a nice player to have and a key cog in what very likely will be yet another Braves postseason lineup.