Uggla back with new swing, and new optimism
Spring suggests positive outlook for slugger after disappointing '13
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- As Dan Uggla entered what would prove to be the most agonizing and painful season of his career last year, he defiantly attempted to convince himself that the mechanical flaws that had doomed him during the Grapefruit League season would not be a problem once the regular season began.
Six months later, as he dealt with the embarrassment of being left off Atlanta's National League Division Series roster, Uggla had no choice but to realize that his playing career could soon be over if he did not spend the winter months retooling his swing from scratch.
"I could always hit," Uggla said. "The only thing I had to worry about was keeping my shoulder closed and landing square. That is the only thing I ever had to worry about. I never had to worry about hitting a fastball or a slider. I could do it. Once that stopped happening, I was like, 'Well, I don't know what's going on.'
"Everybody was like, 'Keep your shoulder square and stop falling off the ball.' I was like, 'How do you do that? How do you land with your hips square?' I had to go back to the basics and re-teach myself how to hit because I was so messed up."
Given that Uggla has batted .185 in the past 236 games he has played dating back to June 5, 2012, there was reason to remain skeptical when Uggla arrived for Spring Training this year and said he had made the necessary adjustments.
But while hitting .286 (8-for-28) with four home runs in his previous 11 exhibition games, Uggla has started to at least show signs that he is still capable of regaining the form that allowed him, while batting .253, to become the only second baseman to hit at least 30 homers in five consecutive seasons (2007-11).
"He did everything he had to do this winter," Braves hitting coach Greg Walker said. "When he came in here, you could see the difference. Everything was flowing, and he looked like Dan Uggla again. We got excited early on, and then you said, 'Is it going to hold up when games begin?' and it did. He's just looking more and more dangerous. He looks like Dan Uggla."
More importantly, Uggla said he felt much different from the way he did at this point last year, when he did not allow himself to be concerned with the mechanical flaws that continued to haunt him as he hit .179 with 22 home runs and a .671 OPS during the regular season.
"I feel a lot different than basically any other Spring Training that I've had," Uggla said. "Knowing what I know now, last year was awful all the way around. I just felt [bad] during Spring Training and throughout the regular season. I ran into a few homers, and I don't even know how I did that. Now, it's like I feel better than I ever have. It's a good feeling."
Uggla now says he can significantly reduce the number of missed swings that led him to set the Braves' franchise season strikeout record each of his first three seasons with Atlanta. He has struck out at least 149 times each of the past seven seasons and matched his career high (171) despite playing just 136 games last year.
"I've been living in the 160-170 range the last however many years," Uggla said. "I still know who I am. I still know I'm going to strike out. But I'd like to cut that number down to around 120. That's one of my goals, to be able to do that. With where I'm at right now, I think that is very possible."
While this might prove to be an unrealistic goal, the Braves can at least take solace in the fact that Uggla enters 2014 with optimism after dealing with last year's frustrations, and after spending the winter with the realization that he would have been traded had another club been willing to assume a respectable portion of the more than $26 million he is owed over the next two years.
"I can't tell you how excited I am for him, because when you coach the guy, you fall in love with him -- his work ethic and what he brings to the park every day," Walker said. "We suffered along with him because we love him so much. To see him do good, I told him this morning I'm so happy for him, and I'm obviously also happy for our team. But it's more happy for him, because we really believe he's going to do well."
While the regular season will serve as the true test, Uggla has spent the past couple of weeks providing some indication that he is capable of avoiding the long stretches of futility that he has experienced the past three seasons.
After homering on consecutive days earlier this month, Uggla struck out five times while going hitless in his next nine at-bats. He ended this stretch on Monday when he homered in his first at-bat against the Astros and then provided even more reason for encouragement when he laced an opposite-field triple to the gap in right-center two innings later.
"He's been good for the last week to 10 days," Walker said. "There was a day or two in there when his timing wasn't right. But the next day, he's right back. That's a great sign for me. He's giving himself a chance to be Dan Uggla again."