After helping the San Francisco Giants win the 2010 World Series, Juan Uribe signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers for three years and $21 million. The deal was panned from the outset, with critics complaining that it was too long and for too much money. There’s even an article from December 2010 in which ESPN's Jon Weisman explains why Jamey Carroll was better than Uribe.
And for much of his contract, all of that was true. Each of the last two years, Uribe has been terrible. In 2010, he posted a .204/.264/.293 line; in 2011, it was .191/.258/.284. But so far this year, he’s been much better, to the tune of .260/.354/.390.
So what’s changed? Two things: His power has returned, and his walk rate is way up.
The return of his power isn’t that surprising; he was always known as a power-hitting shortstop. During his peak with the White Sox and Giants (ages 24-30), he had only one season in which he hit fewer than 16 home runs. For those seven years, he averaged 22 home runs per 162 games and had a .185 ISO. For his entire career—even factoring in the last two terrible years—his ISO (SLG-AVG, a measure of how many of a player’s hits go for extra bases) is still .167.
This year, his ISO is .130, which is still below his career level and by a significant amount (more than two standard errors). Because he has such a lengthy track record of power, the fact that it has returned after 474 poor plate appearances (in 2011 and 2012)—while not a given because of his age—is not shocking.
Whether or not it will continue is another question. In general, power surges come from increases in home run-to-fly ball rate as an inordinate number of fly balls leave the park. Uribe’s HR/FB rate, though, is 8.8 percent, nearly a full percentage point below his career level of 9.7 percent, and he has only three home runs thus far this year.
He’s also hitting fewer fly balls in general, so it’s not even that the lower HR/FB is masking an increase in volume. He’s hitting more ground balls than he ever has in his career, and ground balls have a better chance of finding holes and going for base hits than fly balls do.
If we assume that Uribe’s success is driven from his newfound ability to hit the ball on the ground, then the fact that he has put more than 80 balls in play this year (the sample size Carleton pointed to at which ground ball rate stabilizes) indicates that this new 45% GB rate is indicative of Uribe’s true talent.
However, if we believe that for whatever reason Uribe’s power has simply returned this year, then there we cannot draw any conclusions. The number Carleton pinpoints for the stabilization of ISO is 160 at-bats—a number that Uribe has not yet reached this season.
The other big change in Uribe is his walk rate, and this provides a more definitive look at his success. Uribe is walking in 13.1 percent of his plate appearances in 2013, which is more than double his career rate of 5.8 percent.
Carleton’s study found that walk rate stabilizes at 120 plate appearances, a number that Uribe has already reached this season. This comes with a caveat, though, as Carleton points out in his very next article: This “stabilization point” indicates only that the rates will reflect the current talent level of the player. It does not claim that the player’s talent level will remain the same for any specified length of time.
Therefore, while we can say that over those 120 plate appearances the 13.1 percent walk rate really does reflect Uribe’s skills, it does not guarantee future performance because—to quote Carleton again—“by denominating time per year, we ignore the fact that a baseball player lives a day-to-day life.”
The question I’m attempting to answer here is whether or not Uribe will be able to keep up this walk rate through the rest of the season. The numbers certainly point towards the answer being yes, but perhaps Uribe has found something that works, and he will lose whatever “it” is after taking four days off for the All-Star break.
Or maybe new Dodgers hitting coach Mark McGwire has found a way to get through to Uribe in a way that previous hitting coach Dave Hansen was unable to, and this is a totally legitimate skill change. I don’t know.
What I do know is that Uribe’s sample size this season is large enough to truly indicate a skill change.
I find it difficult to predict what he will do going forward, because the idea that a 33-year-old free-swinger has suddenly become a walk machine—his 13.1 BB% ranks 19th among all hitters with at least 140 plate appearances—seems far-fetched. However, there is at least a good chance that Uribe has discovered a new way to be productive.
With a struggling offense, the Dodgers lineup needs all the help it can get. Uribe has been a useful member, and Dodger fans certainly hope he will be able to continue the strong performance.