As Jeff Wiser showed us yesterday, Martin Prado is among the D-backs position players who have not performed as well as expected so far this season. Jeff pointed out that Prado has started slow before, and so there may be no reason to sound the alarm. He’s certainly more valuable a player than he’s seemed so far in 2014 — and that’s partly because Prado is always more valuable than he seems.
Prado’s Aprils haven’t been much to brag about in the last few years. His career triple slash is .291/.340/.426, but in March/April, he’s slashed .217/.266/.348 in 2013, .271/.351/.435 in 2012, and .252/.308/.433 in 2011. Last season and 2011 stand out as poor starts, but 2012 wasn’t particularly great, either. Here’s how Prado’s starts have stacked up against his overall seasons, by wRC+, which accounts for all non-baserunning offensive contributions:
Given the context of Prado’s other full seasons, it doesn’t seem like there’s a strong trend of slow starts. It could be somewhat random; unlike batting average, wRC+ takes into account events that don’t involve the ball being in play, like walks and HBP (let’s call HRs “in play”). And Martin Prado really doesn’t take walks, as Jeff pointed out yesterday. As a contact hitter, Prado’s offensive statistics may just be more prone to fluctuation.
Martin Prado: Not Your Average Batting Average Hitter
Like other contact guys, Prado doesn’t miss — although his rates are particularly good. When he swings at pitches in the zone, he makes contact 95.1% of the time (career). In each of the last five seasons (including 2014), Prado’s Z-Contact% is over 95%. Among 140 qualified hitters last season, Prado ranked 5th in Z-Contact%. He also tends not to miss outside the zone; although 2013 wasn’t a particularly good year for Prado at the plate, he also ranked highly in O-Contact% — 7th overall with a 83.9% rate.
But Prado is a rare breed of contact hitter: he doesn’t swing. Last season, his 39.9% swing rate ranked 10th. But unlike on the contact percentage lists, in which Prado was surrounded by other contact hitters in the rankings, the nine guys with lower swing rates last season were different types of hitters, like Jose Bautista, and players known for consistently high batting averages, like Joe Mauer.
Remember last season, when Prado finally caught fire and won NL Player of the Month honors in August? After some digging, the only thing different in Prado’s behavior at the plate seemed to be that Prado went from a low swing % to an obscenely low swing % (heat maps!). In short, Prado was just more selective.
Considering Prado doesn’t really walk and is great at contact, his fluctuations may simply come down to batting average in balls in play (BABIP), something over which most hitters have almost no control (see this Jeff Wiser piece at Beyond the Box Score for more on BABIP). The same chart up above, but with BABIP included:
There seems to be a connection, even if BABIP doesn’t tell the whole story. Note that Prado’s career BABIP is .310. Last season, league average was .297. This doesn’t appear to be a weak part of Prado’s game, but we will get to look at this more closely once FanGraphs, as expected, publishes expected BABIP numbers that take into account how hard balls were hit. That might not lend additional insight, though; it just might be that in Prado’s game, significant fluctuations in performance are par for the course.
Prado’s Value: More than Meets the Eye
Looking at Prado’s wRC+ marks per season, it looks like he’s been fairly consistent. He had a down year at the plate in 2011, and his 2013 wasn’t quite up to snuff. But Prado is not Aaron Hill, who seems to have had two separate identities.
Despite relatively small fluctuations in his contributions at the plate, Prado has been all over the map in terms of Wins Above Replacement. From 2009 through 2013, his WAR totals are: 2.8, 3.9, 1.3, 5.6, and 2.3. That’s pretty wild, considering he didn’t miss significant time in any of those seasons.
Part of the explanation is the positional adjustments that FanGraphs uses to compute WAR. Yesterday, I posted an article at Beyond the Box Score about the extra value that starting-caliber players can have through positional flexibility, with particular attention to Prado and Ben Zobrist. Over 600 PA, the FanGraphs positional adjustments (in terms of runs) are -7.5 for LF, +2.5 for 3B, and +2.5 for 2B. Prado’s defense in left field (13.6 UZR/150) is better than his defense at third base (4.1 UZR/150) to overcome the positional adjustment — essentially, Prado is just as valuable a left fielder as he is a third baseman. But Prado’s defense at second base isn’t as good (-7.6 UZR/150), such that he’s not worth as much at second base.
Given the same hitting statistics, Prado’s WAR at 2B would be about one full win lower than his WAR at 3B. It may be, then, that the period of time Prado spent at second with Aaron Hill on the disabled list helped drag down his WAR total a bit. That’s not a huge effect, but it’s something.
The fact that Prado can be plugged in at second base doesn’t hurt the Diamondbacks — it can only help, in that if Hill went down and the backup options were much better at third base than at second, the D-backs at least have the option of fielding a better team. But the fact that Prado is essentially as valuable a left fielder as he is a third baseman definitely can help the team.
As I wrote last week, the D-backs are in a great position to benefit from a platoon of Cody Ross and Eric Chavez. That’s only possible because of Prado’s flexibility. In addition, the D-backs can derive extra benefit from Prado in that, say, Eric Chavez can be a backup left fielder. Should Mark Trumbo suffer a more permanent injury, if the D-backs hit the free agent market, they’d be able to pick from available third basemen in addition to left fielders, theoretically having twice as many options. And there can also be a ton of value added through in-game switches (especially in NL games) and limiting plate appearances for true backups, as I explain more fully in the Beyond the Box Score piece.
Martin Prado isn’t the most valuable position player on the D-backs. Pre-season projections had him worth two wins or so with WAR totals around 2.0. But the extra benefits of positional flexibility aren’t captured in WAR, and so the truth is that he’s more valuable than that to the D-backs. Locking up positions with players that aren’t above average players is not a good way to build a team. But Prado’s contract is a better bet than it would otherwise have been because he can be moved around as needed.
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