Dan Uggla tries to temper expectations before his expected return from the disabled list and into the Braves lineup Wednesday. Temper them so that he, and others, won’t be disappointed if the Braves second baseman’s recent LASIK eye surgery doesn’t immediately transform him from a .186 hitter to Miguel Cabrera.
But Uggla, 33, doesn’t hesitate when you ask if he thinks he can still be the player he was with the Marlins a few years ago.
“Yeah, 100 percent,” he said Saturday in St. Louis, where he took early batting practice each day during the Braves’ series in advance of his planned rehab games at Triple-A Gwinnett Monday and Tuesday. “If I felt old, it would be different. But I feel great. I’m as athletic as I was 10 years ago. My body has held up. It’s just the vision thing, it was a little off this year.
“I have every confidence in the world in myself to be the same player that I’ve been my whole career, for a while longer.”
Just three years ago, Uggla hit .287 with 33 homers and a .369 OBP in his final season with the Marlins. In five years in Miami, he had a .263 average with 154 home runs, 465 RBIs, a .349 OBP and .488 slugging percentage. He averaged nearly 31 homers and 93 RBIs.
In his first three seasons with the Braves, he’s hit a combined .216 with 76 homers, 213 RBIs, a .323 OBP and .413 slugging percentage, including career-lows last season in average (.220), homers (19) and RBIs (78).
Having 20/30 or 20/35 vision, as he had before surgery nearly two weeks ago, might help explain his majors-worst .186 average, and why so often Uggla buckled his knees or turned his body to get out of the way of a breaking ball that ended up over the plate.
“Danny’s a tough guy — really tough,” Braves hitting coach Greg Walker said. “He’s a fighter; he ain’t scared of nothing. And you saw him a lot in the last two years on breaking balls kind of give. Even some balls away, when they came out of the pitcher’s hand, he kind of (buckled). And that’s just not who he is.
“So we’ll see. We’ll see when the games start, when he’s up to game speed. I’m anxious to get him back.”
When he went in for a post-op checkup, Uggla said his vision was 20/15. He noticed right away he could read from across the clubhouse the ticker “crawl” at the bottom of the TV screen, which he couldn’t before.
“I don’t know how he could even make contact,” first baseman Freddie Freeman said. “Because I can’t see without contacts. I don’t know how he was doing it. He’s got 21 homers and he couldn’t even see.”
The Braves have never needed his bat more, with Jason Heyward likely to miss at least the rest of the regular season with a broken jaw, and several other players banged up or trying to get back to form since injuries.
While Uggla knows that hitting big-league pitching at game speed with his new vision might take some getting used to, teammates are excited about his potential impact.
“It could be immediate,” Freeman said. “He can see now. This team’s had a few eye problems with guys the last few years; I struggled terribly last year with my eye problems. I know what he went through, and Mac (Brian McCann) knows. It’s just not fun. So hopefully he’s all healthy and he can get going again.”
To his credit, Uggla doesn’t use vision to excuse his diminished overall stats since coming to Atlanta. He says it was only this spring that he learned his vision was no longer 20/20 and that he needed corrective lenses or LASIK.
“I don’t think that was the case last year, but who knows?” Uggla said. “Because I was feeling pretty good the first couple of months of the season, and then, for whatever reason, I couldn’t square up pitches when I got them to hit. But that’s not the case this year. This year, my (bleeping) reaction time has been worse.”
If a hitter can’t recognize pitches in the first 20-25 feet when it leaves a pitcher’s hand, they’ve got little chance of hitting anything other than straight fastballs. And even those are difficult to hit if a player isn’t sure until a split-second later than with perfect vision. Hitters have two- to three-tenths of a second to recognize a pitch and react.
“If you can’t see the ball, you’re struggling already,” shortstop Andrelton Simmons said. “And they’re throwing a ball that’s moving. I’m glad his surgery went well. I hope he’s seeing well, and I’m looking forward to him being back. He knows how to drive runs in. It would be nice to have him seeing the ball well and doing what he knows how to do again.”
Because of an astigmatisim, Uggla wasn’t comfortable wearing contacts when he tried in the spring. He went nearly half a season without them, until his average stayed so low and his strikeouts kept climbing for so long, he began playing in contacts in June. Some nights he could see, other nights they irritated his eyes and his vision was cloudy.
Now, everyone will be watching to see if Uggla, in his early 30s, can revert to something closer to his Marlins form.
“It doesn’t mean that I’m not going to get buckled on curveballs every once in a while,” he said. “This is going to give me a better chance to get back to where I was before in my past years, where hopefully I will be able to recognize earlier than what I was this year.”