Braves may have found root of Uggla’s struggles

Dan Uggla and his dismal .194 batting average may be headed to an eye doctor soon to fix an lingering vision issue that the Braves would like to believe has been one of the primary reasons he's struggled so badly this season.

Dan Uggla and his dismal .194 batting average may be headed to an eye doctor soon to fix an lingering vision issue that the Braves would like to believe has been one of the primary reasons he's struggled so badly this season.

ATLANTA — Dan Uggla was not in the Braves’ starting lineup Thursday night. The fact that he makes $13 million per season and his batting average is just north of flat-lined (.194) likely means this didn’t cause too much consternation in the fan base, unless maybe there was a strikeout pool going.

But it turns out that there is be something far more wrong with Uggla than just, well, whatever is going on inside of his head: his eyesight.

Braves assistant hitting coach Scott Fletcher told the Journal-Constitution that Uggla has been having vision problems, requiring him to see an eye doctor, and left out open the possibility that he might need Lasik surgery.

Uggla confirmed as much after the game, saying he actually was diagnosed with a stigmatism in spring training but chose not to do anything about it until Thursday — probably later than he should have, given his .194 batting average and 92 strikeouts.

He was fitted for new contact lenses and hopes that solves the problem, otherwise may resort to Lasik.

“They told me I had a slight stigmatism in spring training but I was like, ‘Ah, whatever,’” Uggla said. “I guess now looking back I kind of noticed it last year. It was harder to focus, even on the field. This year I was just trying to battle through it, thinking, ‘Oh, it’s gonna come [around] like it always does,’ not thinking, ‘Maybe I’m not seeing the ball.’ But after bailing out on so many curveballs and taking so many front-door sliders and hanging sliders, I thought, ‘Let me go get this checked out because something’s not right.’ On video, the balls I’m ducking out of the way on aren’t really that close.”

Blurred vision hasn’t been Uggla’s only problem in Atlanta. More often than not, he has been a mess. He was a career .263 hitter with Florida but in his two-plus seasons with the Braves he has put up declining averages of .233, .220 and .194.

Fletcher first referenced Uggla’s vision problems before the game when asked if he had any theories about what could have caused the player’s descent.

“Well, now you have the situation with his eyes,” he said. “His vision -- it’s something that’s been bothering him for a while, and only now is it something he’s really taking care of. ... He went to the eye doctor today, and he might end up having to do (laser). ... I think they’re just trying to see if he’s a candidate right now. There’s certain balls and stuff he said he wasn’t seeing well. At times he’s flinching on balls that are good pitches, and it’s like, ‘Why am I not seeing that ball better?’ So we’ll see how it goes with that.”

Uggla wears glasses away from the field, but he doesn’t wear contacts in games. He said after the game that he tried them during spring training, “for a couple of days. But they weren’t comfortable, everything was blurry and I guess it wasn’t the right fit. We really did a lot of tests today and figured everything out.”

Earlier Thursday, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said Uggla was out of the lineup merely for rest and that he was excused from batting practice for a personal matter. He said Uggla would be back in the lineup when the team opens a weekend series Friday in Milwaukee, and Uggla said he doesn’t believe he needs extra time to get used to the contacts.

When asked what prompted him to finally get his eyes checked again, he said, “It’s been building. I haven’t been able to pull the trigger on a lot of pitches that I made my money on and done a lot of damage on. For me to not even be able to pull the trigger for this amount of time and also be ducking out of the way of so many other pitches that are called strikes, it’s like my eyes aren’t telling me the right thing.”

Uggla’s team-high 92 strikeouts rank third in the major leagues and project to 204 strikeouts over the season. That would shatter his own club record (168 last season) and rank fifth in major league history.

Uggla is not alone. The Braves have devolved into Team Whiff: 664 strikeouts through 74 games (second only to Houston) and are on pace for 1,454 (which would break last year’s club record of 1,289).

But Uggla has been the most significant long-term issue for a team seeking more stability in the lineup and better situational hitting. He was acquired from Florida for a popular player, Omar Infante, who was coming off an All-Star season. He signed a five-year, $62 million contract. He has provided some power and run production, but certainly not enough to make up for his other offensive deficiencies and justify his salary.

With runners in scoring position, Uggla’s three-season batting averages are .231, .262 and .130. Also, Uggla is hitting only .159 with men on base this season, meaning seldom has he even advanced runners. Gonzalez mostly bats him sixth or seventh in the order, and his .194 average pales compared with Ramiro Pena (.278). Pena and Tyler Pastornicky, who started at second Thursday night and went 3-for-5 with a run scored, also are better equipped to bat first or second and fill a Braves void.

If all things were equal, Uggla probably would’ve been gone long ago. But they’re not.

Uggla makes a significant amount of money. That makes him difficult to trade -- maybe general manager Frank Wren should consult with the Hawks’ Danny Ferry on this one (see: Joe Johnson) -- and it’s likely too big of a contract for the franchise to just eat. There’s approximately $32 million left on the deal.

Gonzalez said he hasn’t thought about benching Uggla for a long stretch. When asked if he felt pressure to play Uggla because of his salary, Gonzalez responded, “No. I don’t even know what he’s making. For me it doesn’t matter. Money, salary, ethnicity, color of skin, whatever. If he can help us win a baseball game, those are the guys you go with.”

Even with an anemic batting average, Gonzalez says Uggla brings the Braves, “Toughness. The way he plays the game. Blue collar. All of that stuff you can’t quantify.”

The problem, of course, being the stuff that one can quantify.

The Braves have worked with Uggla on “getting himself ready on time” in the batter’s box, Fletcher said. “Getting into the hitting area on time, just getting his rhythm stuff in, so that when the ball gets there, he’s there on time. He’s got a toe tap, and sometimes he gets that in late.”

Seeing clearly probably also would help.