Originally written on Baseball Professor  |  Last updated 11/15/14

I really wish the St. Louis Cardinals hadn’t won the World Series. Of all eight teams standing in October, vying for that odd-shaped trophy that looks more like a murder weapon than a symbol of the game’s ultimate glory, I can honestly say the Yankees are the only team I didn’t want to win more than the Cardinals. But something must be said for this organization’s heart. In 2006 they stumbled to an 83-79 record and somehow were the last team standing. This season they were 8 1/2 games back with 21 to play and once again did the improbable. Tony La Russa should send a nice Christmas gift to Braves’ manager Fredi Gonzalez for making his third and final championship possible. He should probably send Martin Prado something, too.

There were a lot of reasons why the Braves collapsed down the stretch, momentarily holding the dubious title of “Biggest September Chokers” before Boston seized the honor that same evening, but Prado’s .236/.257/.327 line in the season’s final month was a major factor. When it was all said and done, Prado was sitting at an uncool .260 average for the season, disappointing for a man who’d batted .307 in each of the last two years.

Question number 37 in our Top 100 Offseason Questions asked “Why did Martin Prado bat .260?” On the surface, it would appear luck was a major factor, but as is usually the case there’s more to Prado’s failures than luck alone. Prado cut his strikeout rate back from 11.7 percent and 13.2 percent in ’09 and ’10, respectively (when he batted .307), to just 8.8 percent this past season. I find if you inverse the equation and look at how often Prado put the ball in play as opposed to how many times he didn’t (K%), you’ll get a better understanding of how strikeout rate influences batting average. I’ve done that below:

If a player maintains a consistent BABIP and increases his In-Play%, then his batting average should rise accordingly. From 2009 to 2010, Prado saw his In-Play% dip slightly thanks to a small increase in strikeout rate, but his BABIP increased slightly as well, off-setting his drop in In-Play% and resulting in the exact same .307 average.

Batted Ball Data

However, in 2011, instead of maintaining his same batted ball rates (LD%, GB%, FB%) from the rest of his career, Prado saw his line-drive rate plummet. Since line drives become base hits about 72 percent of the time (versus about 25 percent for ground balls and 13 percent for fly balls), a significant drop in line-drive rate generally results in a significant drop in batting average. In 2011, Prado finished with a line-drive rate of just 14.6 percent. His 2009 and 2010 rates were 19.8 percent and 21.0 percent, respectively.

Using the In-Play% rates we generated moments ago, let’s see exactly how many line drives, ground balls and fly balls Prado hit over the last three seasons. (It’s important to note that exactly what constitutes a line drive, ground ball or fly ball varies from source to source. These rates were taken from Fangraphs.com.)

Had Prado maintained the same LD/GB/FB rates as the two years prior, he would have recorded approximately 33 more hits this past season and batted .319 (59 points higher). Thanks to the wealth of in-depth stats available, we can actually go back and look at Prado’s batting average on line drives, ground balls and fly balls individually. I’ve compiled that below.

For some reason Prado’s batting average on all three outcomes declined from 2010 to 2011, and for line drives and ground balls it’s a two-year decline. Of course, batting average on line drives, ground balls and fly balls isn’t uniform for every player across the league so saying the league average on line drives is .720 doesn’t necessarily mean Prado should bat at least .720 or he’s been unlucky. An interesting article at Beyond the Box Score identifies some possible statistical correlations they’ve found between certain stats and batting averages on these three types of hits.

I also find it unlikely that Prado will approach .300 on ground balls again, especially when you consider that Ichiro Suzuki, baseball’s preeminent slap-hitting, speed specialist has a career batting average of .306 on ground balls. Statistically speaking, Prado reminds me a lot of Howie Kendrick. Both players have the same career ISOs (.141), nearly the same batting averages (.293 for Prado, .292 for Kendrick) and both are right-handed (meaning they run the same distance to first and tend to hit ground balls to the same side). Kendrick is shorter and more compact, checking in at 5’10, 215 pounds to Prado’s 6’1, 190, but Kendrick has also displayed more speed in terms of stolen bases and even speed score (whether or not you choose to place stock in that stat is your choice). I say all of that to say this. Both players are similar in many ways except Kendrick is probably a little faster. Still, Kendrick’s career batting average on ground balls is just .243. Like I said, I doubt Prado will approach .300 again.

Plate Discipline

The next question we have to ask ourselves, though, is this: Why did Prado’s batting average on each type of hit drop across the board? The chart below shows Prado’s career plate discipline stats, taken directly from his Fangraphs player profile page. The data shows that Prado saw fewer strikes this past season (Zone%) yet he swung at more pitches (Swing%). Considering he struck out less than in either of the prior two seasons (thus putting more balls in play) one could surmise that perhaps Prado had more weak contact this past year than in either of the prior two years. That would certainly account for a drop in batting averages on line drives, ground balls and fly balls. When you look at 2009 as well, you’ll see pitchers have decreased the number of strikes they’ve thrown him for two straight seasons, which correlates once again to his batting averages on the three types of hits we described.

2012 Outlook

Remember, this is just a possible explanation for Prado’s decline and not a concrete answer, but given Prado’s talent (and moreso given his consistency in his other four major league seasons) I’m more than willing to bet that 2011 was a one-year anomaly. With pitchers adjusting to Prado and giving him fewer good pitches to hit, it will be difficult for him to maintain a .330-plus BABIP unless he can learn to be more selective. While a .300 batting average is certainly attainable, it’s probably best to temper expectations for the coming season to something in the range of .285-.295.

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