Juan Uribe, Superstar

September 10, 2013 at 9:19 am | Posted in Juan Uribe | Leave a comment

Juan Uribe owned the night in the 8-1 Dodger win over Arizona, slamming three homers among four hits, making a few dazzling defensive plays — enough so that Ben Badler of Baseball America tweeted that either Uribe or Colorado’s Nolan Arenado would get his vote as the best defensive third baseman in the National League — and completing his character arc from “evil super-villain” to “cuddly Uribear of the people”.

After two years of being utterly useless, to the point that Don Mattingly simply refused to play him down the stretch last year, he’s suddenly worth 3.8 WAR, giving him a top-ten spot among all third basemen despite barely more than half the plate appearances of some of the leaders. (That’s if you believe a fielding ranking which is wildly above anything he’s had before, which I’m not sure I do. Still, he’s clearly been valuable.)

This isn’t the first time we’ve talked about Uribe’s surprising rebound this year, but what’s different now is that he’s doing it in a different manner than he was before. Earlier in the season, we noted that he’d simply stopped swinging at so much garbage — something which I believe the Dodger coaches specifically told him to do — and a tweet I’d made about what a walk machine he’d become turned into a Dave Cameron FanGraphs post.

But that’s not really the case any longer. Uribe’s BB% of 7.3% is exactly what it was last year; his K% of 19.0% is only slightly better than the 20.3% and 20.7% he had in his first two years as a Dodger, and we can see that he’s become more aggressive at the plate as the season has progressed:

uribe_swing_tendency_2013-09-10

Philosophically, he’s not really that different from the player he’d been in the past, small early-season sample sizes aside. But where he is different is in what happens when he makes contact with the ball. (His contact rate of 78% is right in line with his career averages and his last two years, so it’s not happening any more frequently.) His line drive rate is up 5% over last year, his BABIP is up nearly 100 points, and his ISO (Isolated Power — basically extra-base hits) is up from .089 and .093 to .147. That’s still below his career average, though obviously a huge increase over last year.

Uribe is still the same hitter he’s been, he’s just having better things happen when he hits the ball, but I don’t mean that in a “luck” sort of way. You can’t tell me that if you watched any of his 2011 or 2012 seasons that he was a victim of bad luck, and while his .324 BABIP this year does indicate somewhat that luck has been on his side, it’s certainly not the only reason for his success. Uribe is seeing better results from the same swings because he’s in a much better condition to do so, and yes, I am saying that he was fat and out of shape his first two years. (Sort of makes you wonder what might have happened if Andruw Jones had received a second season. Not really, though.)

Remember, this is the same guy who was doing this early in 2012:

…and now he’s become a useful piece of what might be a championship team, and long known as a great clubhouse presence. We’ve seen stories a few times this year about how embarrassed he was by his performance and how he dedicated himself last winter to coming to camp — warning, “best shape of his life!” alert — in a better physical condition to play, and if for no other reason than that Luis Cruz was a bust and that guys like Scott Rolen or Kevin Youkilis never came to town, he got another chance, and he’s making the most of it.

Uribe’s not a different hitter, he’s just a more prepared one, and while some chalk that up to the fact that this is his contract year and he’s looking to score in free agency, I think the concern is really whether he’d have been in the game at all in 2014. Now, we’re actually going to have to have a serious conversation this winter about whether the Dodgers should bring him back, and that’s not a place I’d ever thought we’d be.

Glad to have you around, Juan, and no, I still can’t believe I just typed that.

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