The hero of Tuesday night's historic 13-12 win at Atlanta was unexpected in many ways. He's been hitting below the Mendoza line. He's been--probably fairly, but also maybe not-so-fairly--maligned by fans of several teams. He's Dan Uggla.
When Uggla went deep in the top of the 9th last night, the Braves paid in more ways than one: First, they were soon to become the answer to the trivia question, "against what team did the Nationals make their largest comeback in team history?" Second, they are literally compensating Uggla this year, to the tune of ~$13M. He's their highest paid player, in fact.
Here we look at exactly why the Braves and Jason Grilli made recompense for their ninth-inning decision making.
During Uggla's first at-bat against hurler Julio Teheran in the second inning, he saw four sliders. Uggla has seen over 3,200 sliders in his career. And he'd swung and missed at about 44% of those 3,200. That's a lot. Predictably, he isn't very good when he gets bat on the ball either, hitting just .172 for his career. So Teheran's choices were logical, and worked out well:
Uggla took an ugly hack to start things off, managed to lay off the third pitch, but popped out to Freddie Freeman on the next offering. Again, a pretty good setup by Teheran, allowing that he maybe got away with a hanging final pitch. You can do that against Dan Uggla, right?
Uggla next came to the plate in the fourth inning. The D.C. second baseman saw five pitches: two four seam fastballs, two sliders, and a curve ball. Teheran led off with a slider high and inside for a strike, left a fastball up for a ball, went back to the inside slider for ball two, then caught the inner corner with a curve to bring the count even. Game theory-wise, I don't blame Teheran for going hard stuff outside. He's changed the vertical plane since the 1-2 curve, but to Uggla's credit, he hung in on the 93.4MPH heater and singled to center:
If you're a Braves fan, it's whatever--your team is up 9-2. It's already about getting outs in the 4th inning.
By the time Uggla stepped to the plate in the sixth for his third at-bat, D.C. was still down four runs. Teheran again deployed the slider, earning a swing and foul. Uggla really couldn't do any damage on that pitch. Confident he could tempt Uggla on the other side of the plate, Atlanta's young righty went fastball outside, and got what he wanted--an out. Uggla, though, did well to go with the pitch and get hard contact to right.
That contact was a little foreshadowing, because his next at-bat, Uggla would bring the Nats within two runs on a pitch that, while not as far outside, was still one that had given Uggla fits over his career.
What do I mean by that? Luis Avilan, a southpaw, fed Uggla three changeups in the top of the seventh. The University of Memphis product has been pretty terrible against those pitches over his career, slashing .201/.314/.294 against lefties. But he's performed better when hurlers leave those offerings outside, and on a 2-0 count here, he brought Washington to within two. Avilan knows it:
Quick reset. The Braves have gotten Uggla out on a slider and fastball. He's also singled on a heater, and tripled on a changeup. Importantly, Uggla's generally making contact. Maybe his vision is on, or he's just got a real thing for sticking it to Atlanta fans that booed him the night before. Either way, the righty is a strong guy, and the less contact he gets in a close game, the less damage he can do.
Atlanta cranked up the Grilli around 10:30 PM (I think this is a saying of theirs). That's the aforementioned Jason Grilli, Atlanta's closer, and he throws primarily a fastball and a slider. His slide-piece gets a whiff 40% of the time, and Dan Uggla, as we know, likes whiffing on sliders. He's seen a few from Teheran, sure, but those were hours ago and against a different pitcher. And while the tying run is on first, a wild pitch isn't a complete disaster. You need the out; best case, a ground ball off a pitch down in the zone.
Logically, Grilli offered a slider for a called strike one. It was a bit up, but you've shown him the pitch and that you aren't afraid to use it. Grilli next pumped diesel up and in at 95MPH. Swing and a miss, and fans on both sides nod their head with different understandings of where they are and where they may go. Anyway, there was nothing Uggla could do with this fastball, and he probably shouldn't have swung anyway.
But perhaps it was because he swung that Grilli believed he could end it with some more gas. Make the former Brave look old, earn some more boos, and get Clint Robinson to seal the deal. No time to "get cute."
So like in his second at-bat, Uggla got a hard pitch over the plate from a righty in the mid-90s. He didn't see a slider, which in over a half-dozen prior times he'd only managed to touch just twice, and weakly at that.
Uggla, of course, obliterated the pitch:
And Twitter was its normal amusing self:
You know the rest. Drew Storen came on in the 9th to lock the game down, and the Nats earned their 8th win of the year.
Where are we, then?
If Uggla had sat on and pounded a Grilli slider--stop laughing, it could have happened--then we could say, "well that was the obvious pitch, Grilli played into his hand, should have brought more cheese." There's always that. And there's also the matter of Washington having some pretty serious issues early on, with injuries, poor performance at key positions, and defensive miscues. This is causing some fan consternation and unrest. Plus, the 9-2 deficit was not a good start to the night either (yours truly checked out from the 2nd until the 8th inning).
But as only Dan Uggla could impress on us, it paid to stay tuned in.
Thanks to Baseball Reference and Brooks Baseball for data.