Heading into the 2012 season, Martin Prado was a prime bounce-back candidate. After three straight good offensive seasons, Prado was below average in 2011, even more concerning moving to a non-premium position of left field. Fortunately, he returned to his old ways, hitting .301/.359/.438 and playing a great left field, plus three infield positions, accumulating 5-6 WAR over the season.
Contact has always his biggest strength, as he only struck out 10% of his PAs. That was the one area of his offensive game in 2011 that stayed on par, as he K’ed an career-low 8.8% of the time. A slightly lower swing rate produced a sizable jump in walks to a league-average 8.4%. With the league-average BB/K ratio around 0.4, there aren’t many hitters able to provide the plate discipline to double that rate.
The biggest reason for the rebound was the return of line drives. After only hitting 14.6% liners in ’11, Prado posted a near 23% LD rate this past season, a figure near his previous average. This led to a .322 BABIP, up over 50 points from 2011. He did struggle a bit in the second half, which was mostly a BABIP fluctuation with no signs of a reason. His power was also down a bit, as he hit ten homers, the fewest of the last four seasons despite having a career-high in PAs.
In other splits, Prado was just an all-around better hitter against lefties. He had a higher BABIP and more power at home, but was more patient on the road. July was his rough month, sporting his worst walk, ISO, and BABIP rates of any month. Prado was able to use his patient approach at the plate due to his .286/.317/.440 slashline with two strikes, almost 250 OPS points above the league average.
Stolen bases also entered Prado’s game this year, as he more-than-doubled his career total with 17 steals in 21 attempts. He also had a tremendous 58% extra-base-taken percentage, while Elvis Andrus and Dexter Fowler were the only other major leaguers to exceed that rate with at least 20 extra bases taken. This doesn’t mean Prado is a speed-burner, but he’s learning how to be aggressive and provide value with more than the bat.
As much as the offensive production was great to see, the defensive ability and versatility was just as helpful. Spending about 1000 innings in left field, he rated as a +10 fielder, showing good range and a great arm rating. He was also slightly above average in his near 200 innings at third base. He played some second base when Dan Uggla needed a few games off to clear the head, and for the first time in his professional career, Prado had some consistent work at shortstop, rating fairly well in the near 100 innings. One would assume he would begin next season at third base, but it depends on who the Braves bring in to replace Chipper Jones.
Speaking of next season, Prado will be in his walk year. After his $4.75M salary this past season, I wouldn’t be surprised if his arbitration value is around $6.5M for next year. Turning 29 in a couple weeks, he seems to be the prime candidate as the third baseman of the future, which makes an extension likely. It would probably end up just a bit short of the same figures as Uggla’s deal (5/$62M), which I think would be fair to both sides. Howie Kendrick has not shown the consistency of Prado, and he managed 4/$33.5M with a similar style of play.
I found a couple historical comparisons for Prado that represent both sides of the future spectrum. Looking at above-average hitters who specialized in contact and moved around on defense through age 28, I found Paul Molitor and Gregg Jefferies. Molitor ran more than Prado, but his offensive line through 28 was similar, though it’s hard to imagine Prado sporting eight straight seasons of an 125 or higher OPS+ after turning 30. Jefferies was not good defensively, but he had tremendous plate discipline. Unlike Molitor, Jefferies fell off the map after turning 30, so Prado will likely be the middle ground.
After a tough 2011 season, Prado showed he was fully recovered and was one of the most important pieces to the 94-win team. His defensive versatility lets the team have a broader scope on players to bring in. No matter what player is brought in to replace Chipper, Prado should get an extension, showing any impressionable player how important a team-first attitude is to the organization. Not only that, but the inclusion of SS play and stolen bases show his ability to continuously improve, a good sign for the future.