[caption id="" align="alignright" width="266" caption="Uploaded on June 12, 2009 by Keith Allison"][/caption]You can all but print the lineups: Martin Prado's pretty much locked down the Braves' second base job. This leaves Kelly Johnson in the cold, and yesterday I asked what the Braves should do with him. Today, I want to ask a different question: is this the right decision?
It's beyond dispute that Martin Prado was by far the better player in 2009. Martin outhit Kelly by a substantial margin, and while they played similar defense at second base, and Kelly was the better baserunner, their respective bats decided their fates. Kelly and Martin are similar fielders, rated slightly subpar at their position by both UZR and Plus/Minus. (In 2009, Martin's +/- at 2B was -3, and Kelly's was -2; Martin's UZR/150 was -1.4, and Kelly's was -0.2.) Kelly is a far superior baserunner, according to Bill James's analysis: Kelly was +10 in 2009 (and +25 in 2008), while Martin was -5 in 2009 (and +4 in 2008).
Kelly Johnson's production from 2005-2008 (.273/.356/.440) was not that dissimilar to Prado's production from 2006-2009 (.307/.360/.451). Prado's OPS is slightly higher, thanks to a much higher batting average; Kelly has a better walk rate and isolated power. Virtually indistinguishable from Prado in the field, Kelly has been significantly better on the bases, with better power and more walks, but more strikeouts and fewer singles.
Martin Gandy reported that the Kelly Johnson's projection in the 2010 Bill James Handbook is virtually unchanged from his projection for 2009, which he wildly undershot. In other words, their projection system seemed to see his catastrophic season as an aberration, rather than a prediction of things to come. The Bill James Handbook is known for generally being the most optimistic of projections, but it's a serious data point and worth considering.
At this point in their major league careers -- 868 PA for Prado, 1902 PA for Johnson -- past performance is a far better predictor than minor league numbers. But Johnson was a far better hitter in the minors. Johnson had a career minor league OPS of .832, and he hit 75 homers in 2194 at-bats; Prado never had an OPS of .800 or slugged over .422 in the minors, hitting 15 home runs in 1920 minor league at bats and finishing with an OPS of .747. Of course, Prado blasted his past history by hit 11 home runs in just 450 AB this year, though three of them were "Just Enough," according to Hit Tracker.
It's possible, and perhaps likely, that the power that Prado has flashed in the past two years is real, an example of a young player gaining strength that he didn't have as a younger man oin the minors. But it's also possible that he's been a bit above his head. Both players have spent less than half of their professional careers in the majors, so their minor league numbers still deserve some scrutiny. While Kelly has been a slightly worse hitter in the majors than he was in the minors, Prado has been a far better hitter in the majors than the slap hitter he was in the minors. On the other hand, Prado's 20 months older, so he likely has more room to grow.
There's no question that Martin Prado's 2009 performance earned him the right to a starting position -- much as Matt Diaz did. But Kelly had nine years of good hitting in the Braves organization from 2000-2008, and viewed against his substantially established level of talent and production, his 2009 performance was massively aberrant -- much as Prado's performance the past two years has been aberrant compared to his performance in the majors and the minors from 2003-2007. We all know that Kelly stank and Martin excelled in 2009. But how likely are they to repeat their 2009 performances, rather than to regress to their mean level of production from the years before?
The Braves' question of what to do with Kelly Johnson presupposes that Martin Prado is a known quantity. However, in baseball, known quantities are a myth. Certainly, no one foresaw Kelly's massive slump -- and Kelly's slump wasn't unprecedented in recent years. When the Braves handed Matt Diaz a starting job on Opening Day 2008, he spent the next two months hitting like Kelly in 2009 and then went down for the rest of the year with a knee injury. Healthy again in 2009, Diaz again won a starting role by hitting as he had in 2006 and 2007. There are two possible interpretations: first, it's very possible that Johnson will return next year and hit as he has before. It's also at least somewhat possible that Prado will suffer an injury and stumble, as Diaz and Johnson did.
There's nearly no doubt that Prado will be our starting second baseman. Should he be?