Juan Uribe, you may have noticed, is awful. He can’t hit lefties (.521 OPS) or righties (.585 OPS). He can’t hit when the pressure is on (.593 in high leverage situations), when it’s off (.614 in low leverage), or when the pressure is just about right, Goldilocks (.495 in medium leverage). He can’t hit during the day (.614), and he can’t hit at night (.555). He can’t hit at Dodger Stadium (.674 OPS), and he really can’t hit anywhere else (.438). He hit a little in April (.723), but not at all in May (.496) or June (.488). He can’t hit as a second baseman (.609) or a third baseman (.548). He can’t hit with the bases empty (.622), and he can’t hit with men on (.509). He can’t hit when he comes up with zero outs (.541), one out (.577), or two outs (.595). He can’t hit pitchers known for their flyball tendencies (.533), but nor can he hit those who keep the ball on the ground (.511).
Juan Uribe simply can’t hit anything right now.
With the exception of some decent defense, there is almost nothing that Uribe is doing at the moment that is of major league quality. If he had enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title, his .258 wOBA would be the third-worst in baseball, ahead of only Alexis Rios and the much-reviled Yuniesky Betancourt.
That Uribe isn’t a very good baseball player should come as no surprise; after all, this is the same guy who spent his age 25-28 seasons (theoretically, at or near a player’s prime) putting up a .241/.284/.409 mark for the White Sox. Unsurprisingly, they then cut him loose and the Giants picked him up for only a non-roster invite on a minor league deal. He had a surprisingly nice 2009 in San Francisco, which earned him a one-year deal for 2010, in which he regressed in nearly every offensive area with the exception of homers and completely meaningless RBI. That, somehow, earned him a three-year, $21m contract with the Dodgers, a pact we’re likely to be regretting through 2013.
But the point of today’s post isn’t to bash Ned Colletti about the contract. Just about everyone knew it was a horrible deal to give three guaranteed years to a player with a long track record of mediocrity or worse. (Everyone, it seemed, except for the Dodgers and the Giants, who reportedly had offered a deal close to or equal to the LA offer). We knew it was a bad idea at the time. We know it’s a bad idea now. That hasn’t changed.
Yet what we couldn’t have expected was just how bad Uribe would be in 2011, because if you remember, I actually advocated signing him in my 2011 plan. At the time, I said I’d be willing to offer him one year with a player option on a second to come play second base on this year’s club, figuring that even though his low OBP wouldn’t be ideal, his power and defense would be a good short-term improvement on Ryan Theriot. In retrospect, I clearly underestimated the market, though I will add that I wrote that before the 2010 San Francisco playoff run, in which he hit two home runs on the big stage despite not doing much else.
So the question then becomes, why is he so awful this year? We’ve heard all the usual bits about a player pressing in a new home and trying to live up to the expectations of a large contract, and perhaps there’s some truth to that. He’s had to fight through some nagging injuries, and there might have been some impact there, though it’s hard to pin his entire disappointing season on that alone.
Let’s compare some of his numbers to his two years in San Francisco. My first thought, just based on watching him flail, was that he was swinging at far too many first pitches, yet surprisingly that ratio (31%) is down from 39% and 33% in his two years as a Giant. It may still be too high, but it’s not the sole culprit here. (It does play a factor, though; more on that in a second.) He’s striking out (20.1%) a bit more than he did in his quality 2009 (19.0%), though he is actually drawing a few more walks this year (6.1%) than that year (5.8%). His BABIP (.246) is far down from that year’s .325, though since his number in 2010 was .256 and since 2009 was the only year in the past seven in which that number climbed over .287, it seems that his 2009 success was more fluky good than 2011 is fluky bad.
No, what appears to be happening is that opposing pitchers are adjusting, and Uribe is failing to adjust with them. Uribe is swinging at about the same percentage of pitches he always has, with this year’s 53.4% swing rate falling comfortably within the 50-55% range he’s had nearly every year of his career. And his 78.5% contact rate is actually very slightly better than his career average of 77.9% and is higher than in either of his two decent years in the Bay Area.
So Uribe hasn’t really started to swing at more balls than usual, appearances aside, and he’s not missing more balls than usual. Unfortunately for him, pitchers have simply stopped throwing him strikes this year, perhaps knowing that he’s not going to be able to lay off. With one exception, Uribe has always seen first-pitch strikes in the 60-61% range, every year of his career. This year? That number has gone from 60.9% in each of the last two years to 53.2%, nearly 8% less. Pitchers are starting him off with strikes far less than they ever have before, but as I noted above, he’s been unable to adjust since he’s only swinging at 2% fewer first pitches.
It’s not just first pitches, either. Only 41.7% of all pitches he sees are in the strike zone, which not only a career low but is a shocking drop when you consider that the number was between 48.4% and 56.6% each year from 2003-2009. Despite seeing far fewer pitches in the zone, his swing rate has remained steady – i.e., more of his swings are at balls outside the zone. Since he’s not missing more, his contact rate on balls thrown outside the zone has risen to a career-high 61.0%.
Unless you’re Vladimir Guerrero, that’s a problem, because if you’re swinging at and connecting on balls outside the strike zone, chances are you’re not swinging at the right pitches. Uribe is indeed fouling off pitches at the highest rate of his career, which is what happens when you’re chasing crappy pitches.
It stands to reason that by laying off more of the balls outside the zone, only good things can happen. He’d get more walks, obviously. He’d stop helping the pitcher by making weak outs on the pitches he wants Uribe to hit. Keep it up long enough, and he’d get better pitches to hit.
Even if he doesn’t, taking balls rather than fouling away a strike will put Uribe in the one situation where he can hit: when he’s ahead in the count, Juan Uribe has a line of .317/.430/.476. We’ve long wanted to be rid of watching Uribe up at the plate hacking away; now there’s real reason to do so.
I’ve added entry #53 to the McCourt sin list. Well, it’s actually #11, since the list is roughly chronological and it happened so long ago, but still. The way things are going today with all of the bankruptcy court garbage going back and forth, it won’t be too long before we have even more to add.