March 4, 2012 at 6:00 pm by Franklin Rabon under Atlanta Braves, Player Analysis, Statistical Analysis
Over the last few years, me and Peter would occasionally make jokes about Prado giving pitchers a free strike one, as he just patiently watched a perfect meat ball get rolled down the middle of the zone. Then Prado would get lauded for his approach by casual fans. Somehow Prado’s counterintuitive approach made announcers gush, as he managed to work the count and be aggressive. So let’s look at Martin’s approach since 2009. (all of the graphs and stats in this post are compiled using all available data from 2009-2011, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Info)
First, let’s get a sense of where Martin likes the ball, or at least should like the ball, by looking at his slugging percentage by area:
As we can see, power wise, Prado is an extreme inside ball hitter. This shouldn’t surprise anybody, as Prado has among the quickest hands in the game and can turn on virtually any fastball. He has an uncanny ability to get the head of the bat on anything inside and hit it hard. On pitches inside, Martin Prado has an astounding 1.044 OPS since 2009. 31 of his 39 homeruns have come on pitches on the inner half of the plate during that time span. By contrast, Prado has just a 0.613 OPS on pitches on the outer half of the plate and only a .642 OPS on pitches over the middle third of the plate. Basically the difference between Martin on the inside of the plate and Martin everywhere else is something like the difference between Barry Bonds and David Eckstein. This tells us that Prado should be picking and choosing his pitches as much as possible and waiting for any inner half pitches he can get and crushing them. Is this what happens? Let’s see:
Wait, what? From this graph it appears that Prado swings at most everything at roughly the same rate as long as it’s in the strike zone. He’s not picking and choosing his pitches by location, like his extreme splits on inside/outside perhaps indicate he should. he’s just swinging at everything in the zone about half the time. It’s not the extreme free swinging graph we saw from Freddie Freeman the other day, it’s just sort of bizarre.
The weirdness of this approach is most evident when looking at how he does on the first pitch. Saying he’s selective on first pitches would indicate he had some sort of plan as to what pitches he was going after on first pitches. He simply doesn’t swing at them, as we can see:
Contrast that with the three graphs of his swing percentages on 1-0, 2-0 and 3-1 counts, where a batter probably should be very selective:
How backwards are these graphs to the left? Why in the world would a hitter swing more in 1-0, 2-0 and 3-1 counts than in 0-0 counts? Prado swung at 16.9% of 0-0 pitches in the strike zone, compared to the league average of ~43%. Even in Martin’s ‘happy zone’, the inner third of the plate in the strike zone, he only swung at 21.6% of pitches thrown in 0-0 counts. On 2-0 counts, Prado swung at 41.1% of pitches overall, including swinging at 34.5% on the outside of the plate in the strike zone. Think about that for a second. Martin Prado is almost twice as likely to swing at a ball on the outside, where he’s a poor hitter, in a 2-0 count than he his over the inside, where he’s extremely dangerous, on a 0-0 count. It’s mind boggling. But the most truly mind boggling stat of all? Prado swings at 16.9% of strikes on 0-0 counts, as we’ve noted. Yet he swings at 21.5% of balls outside the strike zone on 2-0. That may be one of the most bizarre trends that has endured over a three year period I’ve ever seen. In a count where a hitter should chose their spots, he swings more often at balls than he swings at pitches in the strike zone in 0-0 counts. I had to type that again just to deal with the reality of it.
Furthermore, even in 1-0 counts, where Prado is reasonably appropriately selective, he’s selective in a weird and counterproductive way. As we will go into greater detail with below, in a 1-0 count he should be looking for a pitch he can hit hard and drive. Instead it seems like in 1-0 counts he’s looking for pitches he can dink into right field.
As Prado has gained in reputation, pitchers have really honed in on Martin’s habit of taking the first pitch no matter what and are increasingly using this habit to get a free strike. More often than not Prado only really makes use of 2 of his 3 strikes, basically giving one away. After getting Prado in a 0-1 hole, an intelligent pitcher can use Prado’s aggressiveness in later counts against him and then get him to chase poor pitches off the plate on the outside.
Something you will hear quite often is that “Martin’s game is going the opposite way, tagging those pitches on the outer half to right field, he gets himself in trouble when he gets pull happy and yanks too much to left field.” That was a direct quote from Braves announcer Jim Powell during today’s thrashing against the Tigers. While this may be the conventional wisdom, it simply couldn’t be more wrong. When Martin Prado pulls pitches on the inner half of the plate, his batting average is .498 with a .996 slugging percentage. This leads to a stupefying .616 wOBA when he pulls pitches on the inner half of the plate. Contrast that with his line of .324 BA, with a .429 slugging percentage and a .324 wOBA when he hits pitches on the outer half to the opposite field. Obviously both of those lines are pretty good, because a player is going to do well when they pull inside pitches or hit outside pitches the opposite way, but one is stupefyingly good and one is average. Martin’s game should be looking for pitches to pull in favorable counts, and then when he’s behind in the count going the opposite way with pitches on the outer half.
The graph to the left is a graph of expected wOBA Delta by location on swings. Which sounds complicated, but really isn’t. The graph takes wOBA, perhaps one of the better single composite measures of a player’s offensive ability, then graphs it out by location. The expected delta part means that this particular graph then measures it against what should be expected given the current count. So, for instance, if a player’s wOBA on 3-1 counts is .367, and a player gets a double it compares the weighted value of this double and subtracts .367, which is what would be expected for any pitch given that count. Furthermore, for this graph I only used times when Martin swung, to get an idea of where he hits best.
So, to make all that a little more easily understandable, that graph simply shows the locations that a hitter does relatively best when he swings, ie his personal hot zones. And as we can see, Martin is very clear as to what his hot zone is when he swings. The red parts indicate areas where him swinging produces better results than would be expected for an average pitch, while the blue areas indicate locations where him swinging produces worse results than would be expected. So, no Jim Powell, Martin’s game should not be hitting outside pitches the opposite way. In an ideal world, in hitters counts, a players swing rate graph should closely match his expected wOBA delta on swings graph.
Now, I don’t want to get too down on Prado’s plate approach, as it may simply be the case that he has a hard time differentiating strikes from balls, inside from out, and there’s not much he can do about it. I doubt that is the case, but it’s at least a plausible explanation. However, if it’s possible for him to do so, Prado could definitely see a large spike in his productivity if he was more intelligently selective. He gets himself into far too may 0-1 counts by taking pitches he could rake and then he swings at far too many poor pitches in hitters counts where he should be selective and wait for a pitch. Even putting aside the holes he gets himself in, Prado should be looking for inside pitches to drive in favorable and early counts much more. When he’s ahead in the count he should lay off outside pitches, and then only leverage his ability to slap the ball into right field when he gets behind in the count, not when he’s ahead in the count.
Prado has obviously been a great player during his tenure for the Braves. I’m simply saying that given his talent level, he could actually be an even better hitter.
edit: Here is a great video showing why Martin is so deadly on inside pitches. Look at how fast he clears the head of the bat. He doesn’t even really start his swing until the ball is around 15 feet away, but still gets the head of the bat all the way around on a fastball and pulls it.
edit2: There has been some wondering if Martin just doesn’t get a whole lot of inside pitches to hit, and thus that shapes his outlook, ie because pitchers throw him pitch after pitch outside, he starts looking that way, and is thus surprised when he does get one in his wheelhouse inside and is frozen. Reasonable quandary, but numbers just don’t bear it out. Here is a graph of where he gets pitched:
As we can see, pitchers shy away from the inside part of the plate a tiny bit, but that’s a pretty normal amount for any hitter, and it indicates that Prado is being thrown a pretty fair amount of pitches inside.