The most surprising statistic of 2013

This actually happened. - Drew Hallowell

Or maybe I'm just late to the party. Either way, it's pretty amazing.

You are about to be presented with the most surprising statistic in baseball. Perhaps this is old news. Perhaps this is brought up every week on the blogs that cover this player's team. But it's news to me, and deserves its own article.

It doesn't take a lot to find surprising statistics. There's so much baseball-related data out there, it's hard to keep up. In a five-minute tour of FanGraphs, I found all sorts of stuff I wasn't expecting:

  • Jose Fernandez is fifth in the majors in pitches in the strike zone, behind people you'd expect, like Bartolo Colon, Cliff Lee, David Price, and Bronson Arroyo.
  • Manny Machado and Andrelton Simmons lead the world in UZR, which you might expect. Shane Victorino is third.
  • The Cardinals are the worst defensive team in the league according to UZR, and they're pulling away from most of the National League
  • Prince Fielder is tied with Juan Perez, Gerald Laird, and Rajai Davis in WAR
  • The Marlins do not have a good offense

Every day is a wondrous tour at the statistics factory if you want it to be. Your golden ticket is the Internet. This stuff is amazing.

But those are button mushrooms up there. You can find those at the corner store if you want. They're nourishing, kinda tasty. But they aren't going to make you wander through the forest thinking you're trying to find a Blue Cheer concert. For that, we need to turn to Dan Uggla.

Uggla is the Braves' second baseman, and he's already one of the more fascinating players in baseball. He was 26 when he debuted, and had never played above Double-A. Think about that for a second, that combination of age and experience. He posted a .653 OPS in his first experience at Double-A, when he was 25. And he was immediately successful as a Rule 5 pick. There are unlikely career paths, and then there's Dan Uggla.

He's made three All-Star teams, and he's already ninth on the all-time home-run list for second basemen, just eight behind Bret Boone. It's been a good, unexpected career for Uggla. But he's fallen on tough times. He's become the Rob Deer of second basemen. Both at the plate and in the field, unfortunately. He's still good enough to start, but that .193/.309/.404 line is hard to look at. It's probably hard for Braves fans to watch. It's all or nothing for Uggla, who swings and swings hard. When things aren't going his way, he swings harder.

By now, you've figured out that this is going to be a surprising statistic about Dan Uggla. What could it be? Is it his batting average on balls in play? That's .236, which is ridiculously low, even for a player with a career .288 BABIP. Generally, when a player is hitting .192, he's unlucky by definition. That's not the surprising stat.

Uggla is striking out in almost 32 percent of his plate appearances. That's a lot. But it's just fifth-worst in baseball, with Chris Carter, Mike Napoli, Pedro Alvarez, and Mark Reynolds ahead of him. And a couple of those guys are having pretty okay years. That's not the surprising stat.

Okay, the big reveal. Here is the most surprising stat in baseball:

Marco Scutaro leads baseball in swinging at the fewest pitches out of the strike zone. He offers at pitches out of the zone 18 percent of the time. In second place is Dan Uggla, who offers at pitches out of the zone just under 20 percent of the time.

It's not Joey Votto, who has the closest thing to Barry Bonds's discerning eye this generation will probably see. It's not Dustin Pedroia, who is both patient and spritely. It's Uggla. If you had to make a list of the top-10 hackers in baseball before reading this, Uggla might have made the list. Except he doesn't hack. He stays within the zone better than almost anyone in baseball.

I've always guessed that the good hitters approached hitting in terms of quadrants. On the first pitch, pick up and in, up and out, low and in, or low and out. If the count moves to 1-0, do the same thing. If it moves to 0-1, pick up or down, in or out. If it moves to 0-2, pick up or down. That sort of thing. That's a pretty simplistic way of looking at it, but even though it's coming from someone who was benched in high school, it still makes sense to me.

Whatever Uggla's doing in that respect, though, it's working. He's staying in the zone. Pitchers are trying to get him to chase, but he isn't biting. He's fishing less than Shin-Soo Choo, Buster Posey, and Votto.

He's also striking out in almost a third of his appearances. Remember how I brought up Scutaro earlier? Well, he also leads the league in another statistic.

Contact made with pitches out of the strike zone
Marco Scutaro: 89%
Dan Uggla: 37%

And just for the sake of the completionists out there, here's the corollary:

Contact with pitches in the strike zone
Scutaro: 97%
Uggla: 75%

The league average for the out-of-the-zone category is 64 percent. It's 87 percent for the in-the-zone category. If I had to guess, it's that -- wait for it --- Uggla swings really hard. Really, really hard. And while he misses a lot of those pitches, he doesn't chase too many of them.

Uggla probably sees more obvious waste pitches than any hitter in the league, so this statistic is skewed a bit. But the larger point still stands: Dan Uggla isn't quite the hacker you think he is. He's still a hacker, mind you. But not exactly what you were expecting. And he's responsible for the most surprising statistic of 2013.

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