Poor Man’s Analysis: Uggla and Utley

We here at the Curious Mechanism are no analysts.  We’re dabblers, certainly, and we understand the analysis of others, even when the Baseball Prospectus crew starts tossing around acronymlike candy at a small town parade.  We’re also no critics, nor metacritics, as FireJoeMorgan, and others, have done that work admirably.

However, we recognize bullshit when we see it, and as passe as it may be to point out flaws and dummy-work at ESPN, it’s late on Friday night, Mrs Thursday and I just got back from a Phillies game which saw the hometown team clobber the Marlins to take over first place in the NL East, and, damnit, I need to defend my guy.

On ESPN’s Three Things (Insider, sorry) today, Inside Edge, which is some kind of scouting service, compares Dan Uggla favorably to the new Jeebus, Chase Utley.

To quote:

1. Uggla chasing Utley

The Marlins and Phillies open a key three-game series in Philadelphia tonight. Not only are the two teams a half-game apart and contending for first place in the NL East; their second basemen are waging a close statistical battle. Even casual baseball fans have been made aware of the season Chase Utley has been putting together in Philly. Marlins fans are quick to point out, though, that Dan Uggla‘s stats are nearly identical across the board, from homers, RBIs, and batting average to runs, slugging percentage, and OPS. However, a quick comparison of the data behind those stats shows that Uggla has been the more “hit or miss” of the two.

UGGLA VS. UTLEY
Strikeout % Miss % of swings In-play % of swings % of swings chased Well-hit avg.
Uggla 30.2 29.8 34.1 21.1 .281
Utley 15.7 14.0 44.6 21.4 .333

The table shows that Uggla holds his own against Utley in percentage of pitches chased out of the zone, which is a little surprising since his strikeout rate is so much higher. But Utley has clearly missed less, put more swings in play, and gotten the barrel of the bat on the ball more often. Still, it is worthwhile to applaud Uggla’s overall improvement. He has always demonstrated power, but has really increased his batting averages by getting good wood on fastballs:

UGGLA AGAINST FASTBALLS
Well-hit avg. BAVG SLG OPS
2007 .274 .269 .583 .955
2008 .333 .342 .730 1.153

Utley is no slouch against hard stuff himself, batting .324 with a .647 slugging percentage and 1.060 OPS, but Uggla betters him in all three measures. Since batters typically see more fastballs than other pitches, Uggla should have a good chance of going toe-to-toe statistically with Utley all season long.

This, from what I can tell, is crazy sloppy analysis.  They look at some numbers–that first chart there, and determine that Utley misses pitches half as often, strikes out half as often, puts the ball in play more often, and hits it hard way more often–and comes to the conclusion that Uggla should “[go] toe-to-toe” with Chase all year.

Now, Uggla is a fine player.  He slugs the hell out of the ball, especially for a second basemen, and he keeps his on-base high enough that he’s not exactly an Incredible Out-Machine.  Reports vary as to the quality of his defense, but I’d guess that he’s about average.  But, he’s no Utley.  Let’s compare a few more numbers, shall we?

Slash Stats

Utley: .310/.394/.638
Uggla: .307/.386/.667

Those numbers are through yesterday.  As we can see, they are pretty similar, with Utley having a slight edge in OBP, and Uggla with a modest one in slugging.  The edge, overall, so far, probably goes to Uggla, as he’s done his work in a tougher park for hitters than Utley has.

But the question here is to who is more likely to continue hitting this way, or, at least, who is likely to drop off more.

Here are Utley’s numbers for the past three years:

2005 – .291/.376/.540
2006 – .309/.379/.527
2007 – .332/.410/.566

So, at the moment, Utley is slugging above his head, but the rest of his numbers are in line with a reasonable expectation of performance.  Tangotiger’s Marcel the Monkey projected Utley to sport a .383 OBP and a .526 slugging.  So, again, he’s slugging higher than expected, but otherwise, he’s okay.

Meanwhile, however, here are Dan Uggla’s slash stats over the past two seasons, as he didn’t play 2005:

2006 – .282/.339/.482
2007 – .245/.326/.479

Marcel expected a .334 OBP and .469 SLG from Uggla.  Uggla is over any sort of reasonable expectation in any department.  So, either Uggla has gotten lucky, or he’s developed a new skill.  Let’s look at one of my favorite luck indicators: BABIP.

Now, your average major leaguer will sport a BABIP just over .300.  Uggla’s career average is .302.  Utley, however, registers a somewhat astonishing .323 BABIP for his career, over nearly 2700 plate appearances.  Let’s look at this season:

Utley BABIP: .293
Uggla BABIP:  .358

Now, .358 is a crazy high BABIP, but it’s not unheard of.  Last year, for instance, Ichiro and BJ Upton a plenty of other regular and semi-regular players posted higher numbers.  However, it’s well above Uggla’s established norm.  Ichiro and Upton also have something in common.  They both hit more  grounders than anything else, and they hit a lot of line drives.  Line drives become hits more often than any type of batted ball, followed by grounders, and then finally fly balls.  Generally, the more flyballs you hit, the more outs you’ll make, unless your hits are leaving the park.

This graph shows Uggla’s batted ball data for the past two years, as well as 2008.  The graph comes from the remarkable Fangraphs website, so thanks to those guys.

While Upton and Ichiro hit line drives about 20% of the time (and Utley even higher than that), Uggla’s down at a pedestrian 15%.  He also hits a lot of flyballs.  So far, this season, a great number of them have left the park, and a great number more have found creases in the outfield defense, and gone for hits.  Of course, the balls that leave the park aren’t counted in BABIP, so that means Uggla’s numbers, similar to his 2007 digits, are likely a product of luck so far.  A hot streak, certainly, as he’s been hitting homers left and right, but the official prediction of this blog is a serious cool-off sometime soon, while Utley continues to leave all the other major league second basemen in his considerable wake.

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