As Evan mentioned at the end of his article, Omar Infante has a chance to win the batting title this season if he manages to accrue 4.4 PA per game the rest of the way. He's currently at 4.7, which means that if he can stay healthy, he should run away with the award. After all, his .349 average easily paces the NL field; the ineligible* Buster Posey is hitting .339 and Joey Votto leads qualified hitters with a .323 mark. Barring some terrible slump - or some truly remarkable performance by Votto - the batting title should be Infante's to take. Which would be yet another reason to call this a banner year for the 28-year old utility man; I don't think more than the smallest handful of even the most optimistic of Braves fans would honestly have expected an All-Star appearance and batting title contention out of Infante. What's been his secret this season?
*I like Buster Posey and I'd feel bad if all I said about him was "ineligible." So: the ineligible, but also very talented, Buster Posey...
Let's start by looking at some of his career numbers at the plate:
.275/.319/.399, 42/61 SB, 6.0% walk rate, 17.4% K rate, .315 BABIP, 0.88 GB/FB, 21.5% line drive rate, 5.2% HR/FB
Basically, we're looking at a fairly marginal hitter (career 92 wRC+, or about 8% below average) whose bat plays because of his handy work in the field; he's an average fielder at every infield position, which makes him a reasonably valuable dude. He doesn't have great wheels, doesn't walk much, doesn't have much power, and strikes out a little more than you'd like to see from a hitter of that caliber. Basically, up until this season, he's been the antithesis of an All-Star. But look upon his work this season, ye Charlie Manuel, and despair:
.349/.379/.455, 5% walk rate, 14.3% strikeout rate, .391 BABIP, 1.39 GB/FB, 18.7% LD, 6.5% HR/FB
Of course, the most notable thing here is that .391 BABIP that is certainly inflating his stats. After all, he's walking less often than he has in his career, is hitting more groundballs, and smacking fewer line drives. That is not comme on dit a recipe for success, and indeed, regressing his BABIP to the mean looks like it could very easily drag his season line down to the mediocre depths we've seen from Infante in the past. But I for one am not satisfied with the idea that one of the Braves' best hitters this season is purely a creation of good fortune on balls in play and I suspect that you aren't, either. So what can we look at to see why Infante has stepped his game up? How about this:
27.2% O-Swing, 59.0% Z-Swing, 43.2% swing frequency, 68.8% O-Contact, 93.3% Z-Contact, 85.7% Contact, 5.8% Whiff
If you're not familiar with those, that's (in order) the percent of time he swings at pitches outside of the zone, in the zone, how often he swings, how often he makes contact on pitches out of the zone, pitches in the zone, overall contact rate, and how often he swings and misses. Mouthful! But all of that means nothing out of context, so lemme fill you in a bit here: he's swinging at way more pitches out of the zone (22% career average), fewer pitches in the zone (62.4%), and fewer pitches overall (44.2%). Which come on, Omar, I'm trying to make you look good here. So far, we're dealing with a breakout season that has come despite doing just about everything wrong, viz hitting fewer balls in the air, fewer line drives, walking less often, and showing markedly worse plate discipline. Weird, right?
But here's one good thing: when he's swinging at all those bad pitches, he's making contact at a much higher rate than usual (56.6%) and rarely misses a pitch when he does offer at one in the zone (five percentage points above league average). The dude can handle the bat, as further evidenced by that tiny whiff rate. But 'handling the bat' is not the hallmark of a 129 wRC+ hitter, it's what they say about the guy who comes up with a runner on first and tries to slap a single to the right side on a hit-and-run. And those guys aren't usually fourth on their team in wOBA.
Unfortunately, as I suspect we fans intuitively knew, it's unlikely that Infante will continue to playing at that level. His rest-of-season projection from ZiPS has him at .310/.355/.394, for a roughly league-average .331 wOBA. That's precipitated, of course, by a projected .356 BABIP going forward; as PAs pile up, it becomes increasingly difficult to sustain a...well, an unsustainable BABIP. And Infante has somewhere between 144-180 ABs left in the season (36*4, 36*5), so don't be surprised if we see him slipping back to what we expected going into the season - a decent singles hitter. But, hey, no one likes to end on a bad note, so take heart: (A) as long as he gets the ABs, he'll almost certainly still win the batting title, and (B) Derrek Lee's BABIP is 30 points below his career average and he's projected to post a .345 wOBA the rest of the way. See? Peach tea and sunshine abound!