Honestly, what the hell? When did Martin Prado, our three-year bench player, a guy we used to backup Chipper, Kelly, and whatever other infield positions were in demand, become one of our top offensive players? Even more curious is that he has been one of the better second basemen in the whole league this year.
I hadn't planned on asking that question. I had other ideas for what I was going to do for this post, but Martin has forced this upon me. I always knew Prado was a decent hitter; above replacement in the least. I never believed I would have the pleasure of stating that our second basemen has been one of the best in the NL this year over his short tenure at the position? How good has he been? Let's take a look.
Considering only second basemen who have at least 200 plate appearances (Prado has 229 at this point), here are Martin's ranks for some batting categories this year:
AVG: 1st at .327.
OBP: 3rd at .390.
SLG: 3rd at .505.
OPS: 3rd at .895.
wOBA: 3rd at .386.
Doubles: 8th with 21 (while having almost half the plate appearances!).
BB/K: 6th at 1.00.
The guys leading him in OBP, SLG, and OPS are Ben Zobrist, almost just as much of a surprise as Prado, and Chase Utley, which is no surprise. That's pretty impressive for our in-house answer to Kelly Johnson. Because you might believe I'm cherry picking, how about the statistics he has been less than impressive?
ISO: 9th at .178.
HR/FB: 15th at 8.1%.
BB%: 13th at 9.4%.
Spd: Last at 1.9. Ouch.
OK, so the guy has been slower than Bengie Molina and might've replaced his legs with wooden pegs (who doesn't want to be more like a pirate?). For what its worth, his career number is 3.8, so we can forgive him a little, perhaps, due to small sample size. Also, he isn't quite the home run hitter as some of the big name second basemen, like Uggla and Utley, but he is making up for it with his doubles' power, as evident by his higher rank in ISO. As for his ability to walk, it should be taken into account that he rarely strikes out.
Now, the question is can he keep it up? Signs point to yes, says the magic 8-ball. Let's break it down, shall we?
The guy has some serious skills when it comes to bat control, as evident two years ago when this happened. He rarely swings at pitches out of the zone (20.6%) and when he does, he makes contact 81.0% of the time. You can see this revealing itself in his low strikeout numbers and high BABIP of .347. Speaking of BABIP, at .347, he hasn't been especially lucky this year, since his career rate is .346 and posted a BABIP of .360 last year. I think these results speak for themselves: his slight gains in reducing strikeouts while walking more is more likely evidence of him growing as a player, not just random noise.
A more important concern for Prado as a hitter lies with his power numbers. The doubles were there last year (18 in 254 plate appearances), albeit at a lesser rate, but he only had 2 home runs during that time. This year, Prado already has 5. Now, the difference is slight, but he has actually hit fewer fly balls in 2009, which means his power stroke might be starting to reveal itself. If it truly is and he can keep this rate up giving him around 15 home runs a year, then we could see Prado becoming a top tier second base bat, adding to his ability to hit for contact and good eye. However, he never really displayed this power before. While in triple-A during 2007, he only hit 4 home runs in a little over 100 games played. Digging deeper into his minor league numbers, you can't find much anywhere suggesting a potential for power. So, do I believe his power could be for reals? Probably not as good as he has been, but there might be a happy medium that he should settle.
The last obstacle holding Prado back as a good second baseman, and the one that I dread the most, is his defense. In years past, he has been straight up awful at second. The guy's UZR/150 go as follows: -61.6, -26.9, -19.7, and, this season, 0.3. He never logged that many innings at second, but by the looks of it, there is a trend of improvement. Further proving this has been his play at third during this season. In the past, he was always a below-average third basemen, but his UZR/150 has popped up to 22.0 in 2009. All of this should be taken lightly, to a degree, because we just haven't seen him field the position enough (i.e. small sample size). But the pattern is there; Prado appears to be stepping it up defensively, which could take him out of the "minus defense" category.
I know Prado has only started 16 games at second this season. He has had 15 starts at first and 14 at third. One might argue that he won't be the Braves' second basemen once Kelly comes back. By the way, Kelly still has a chance. His minor league rehab has been bad, but he has turned a new leaf and changed his intro song (after getting permission from Gordan Beckham). I digress. My belief is that while Prado might not continue at his current torrid pace, he has all of the skills right now to be, in the very least, an above-average second baseman. I thought we had that in Kelly Johnson when starting this year, but Martin Prado will do just as well.
On an unrelated note, there is talk of another Chop-n-Change meet up for the Braves game on August 14th. I know I'll be in town and there is no team I would like to watch the Braves beat more than the Phillies. Leave a comment on this post, if interested.
 This is a good statistic, but it doesn't necessitate a good hitter. The five second basemen better than him are, increasing in rank: Nick Punto, Alex Cora, Alberto Callaspo, Dustin Pedroia, and, with a commanding lead at 2.32, Luis Castillo.
 I find the 8-ball does a better job at making most of life's decisions. Why not use it here?