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Not a lot of people know this, but every baseball diamond is carefully balanced on a fulcrum and tilts in the direction of chaos. A ball is misplayed, a runner trips over a base, a swarm of wasps is unleashed from within a rolled-up tarp. A cat or squirrel runs onto the field in a precocious moment of levity that only later do we realize is the start of an ancient curse (this happens quite often in baseball). Whatever occurs in the game slants the playing field in a new direction, which is why baseball, a very normal, very boring activity, is always quietly teetering on the verge of going quite wild.
Your toughest opponent isn’t an eerily calm Mike Trout or a possibly rabid Max Scherzer; it’s the sheer volume of variables that can scatter even the most strategic and well-laid plans. You can stare at a spreadsheet until your brain melts before yelling “Aha!” with an index finger in the air, believing you’ve uncovered the formula to prevent strained hamstrings, but there’s no accounting for the back-up catcher tapping into some as-yet untapped power, or one of the teams recreating the musical “Stomp” only for it to be revealed that this is actually a highly technical form of cheating.
To possess the agility to evade poor luck and the skill to barrel through outside factors to achieve a moment of perfect balance in this silly game is the rarest of accomplishments. But on September 13, 2007, Martín Prado would do so.
I don’t know enough about how science works to say whether what happened during his at-bat was in line with or against physics. But what we do know is that what happened never happened again, and after a casual amount of research, we can say that it probably never happened before, either. And in baseball, that alone makes it an exceptional anomaly. This is a sport that loves to repeat itself, and having existed for so long, everything we see appears to be a repetition to the last time it happened.
Not this one.
To see a bat do that is clearly an abomination to the natural order of things, and, though he assembled a career spanning 14 seasons, with a slash line of .287/.335/.412, 103 wRC+, and 20.3 WAR, it may be one of his defining moments. Word is that Prado is nearing retirement, and so we can look at his career as a whole and wonder: did he ever achieve a level of balance in this unbalanced game nearing that of his bat on this fateful day?
To be a player like Prado, who was consistently good and then consistently not good, who was versatile on the field and inspirational off of it, and who can act as a counterweight to an imbalanced sport even if he’s only an All-Star one time in a decade and a half, is an accomplishment. Prado will be remembered as an everything-but-a-center-fielder, who once led the league in giving himself up so a teammate could score (nine sac flies in 2012) and then another time led the league in bringing teammates down with him (24 GIDP in 2016). He will not be remembered as a legend or an icon or as having Baseball Reference page festooned with colorful accolades. He played in exactly one postseason game, the 2012 NL Wild Card game, in which he had exactly one hit, a single to left, that no one will remember because the Braves lost and everybody threw garbage on the field.
Prado played a long career, achieving spikes of success along the way. His solid foundation meant that when he did eat his Wheaties (or in his case, got pulled into the p90X cult one off-season and lost 14 pounds), his numbers would go from acceptable to dominant. This occurred in 2010, when he came to camp feeling a bit more wily and produced an All-Star season at the plate (118 wRC+, 3.8 WAR) in his first chance at regular playing time. His defense wasn’t as sparkling (2 DRS, -2.0 UZR), but it didn’t need to be when his bat balanced it out.
Prado shot up in 2012 as well and had an even better season than in 2010 (117 wRC+, 4.5 WAR), stealing 17 bases for some reason. This was the only time in his career he would have double-digit numbers in this category. Hell, it was the only time he’d have more than five. I can’t find an explanation for this. Perhaps that’s to Prado’s credit, though; he was not a player known for his speed, but it didn’t rattle people that he had suddenly stolen a significantly higher amount of bases. They just mentioned it along with the rest of his stats when he was traded to Arizona, as though yeah, sure, we buy this. An uptick in any offensive category may not be routine for him, but it’s certainly not implausible. Let’s just assume one of those wasps from the tarp got in his shoe that year and move on.
Moments, months, or nonconsecutive seasons of dominance were within Prado’s scope. But what players outside of the Trouts or the Scherzers shoot for most of the time isn’t dominance, per se, but more what eludes so much of the sport: Finding a way to provide some kind of consistency, some kind of impact, some kind of balance over the course of a 14-year career.
The key to being known in baseball is very simple: be good at many things for a long time. It’s the dream of the modern front office to have a team of players with no true position. We all love watching sluggers mash, but we like a lot less watching them flail and struggle and answer questions about their mechanics as we wait out the ludicrous extension to which they were signed. We all love watching a defensive whiz dash around the infield spearing grounders, but we like it a lot less when he once more drives a pitch into the ground with the bases loaded, continuing his grotesque spree as a serial killer of rallies.
Prado debuted in 2006, with two walks and a rally-sparking triple in his first game in place of an injured Marcus Giles, the seventh player ever to make the jump from Double-A Mississippi straight to the big club in Atlanta. Giles shook the bone chip out of his finger and returned the next night, so the Braves shifted Prado over to third, where he balanced out his previous night’s success by going 0-for-3. The next big league pitch he would see would be in August.
Prado managed to find that balance for the middle chunk of his career, playing the majority of his time at second and third base, shifting into left field in 2011, being slotted into every infield position in addition to left in 2012, and settling back in at third as his career wound down. A healthy sprinkling of first base is in there as well, and he even got dropped into right a few times. So Prado had the versatility to tingle the nose hairs of a GM in 2019. Did he have the output?
It certainly felt like he did, if you were a fan of an NL East team he didn’t play for over the last 13 years. He hit .295 with 109 wRC+ and 6.2 walk rate against that division over the course of his career, during which he played in the East for parts of 12 seasons. Since 2009, when he started getting regular playing time, his BABIP has zigged and zagged over and under the league average, leaving it at a just about even .310 for his career.
He even balanced out the balance issues of the Braves’ own creation from 2009-2012. “We were so left-handed dominant over the last number of years,” GM Frank Wren told reporters in November 2012. “Now to be able to better balance our lineup left and right, that was something we felt could really enhance our team.”
Of course, this was shortly before Wren would deal Prado to the Diamondbacks in favor of Dan Uggla at second base. When the team had brought in Uggla to play second in 2011, Prado slipped into the outfield. His first year getting regular reps in left field, the Braves got negative production from the position (-0.9 WAA), but in 2012, through 495 PA, Prado contributed to its 1.3 wins above the league average. Meanwhile, with Uggla manning second base, the Braves got -2.7 WAA.
If we prune off the first three and last three years of Prado’s career, when he wasn’t getting a full season’s worth of playing time due to being too green or too hurt, we’re left with his prime years. That’s where we’ll measure his worth. I’m not a big believer in subtracting a guy’s poor numbers to fluff him up a little, but in this case, we’re talking about Prado’s most effective season, and 2009-16 was when he was least hindered by injury or rookie-ness or not doing enough P90X. And in that period, he finished seven out of eight seasons with a wRC+ higher than league average, and 15 points higher than league average four times. That’s not a cluster of success, either; it happened in 2009-10, 2012, and 2016. In addition, he finished with an OBP (and an OPS) higher than league average seven out of eight times, and at least 15 points higher six times. And he was worth an above average number of wins every year from 2009 to 2016 (except for 2011, which has been the outlier in all of these), for a total of 13.1 WAA from 2009-16.
I’m not telling you this because it’s incredible. It would be silly to sit here and tell you that Prado is some sort of baseball wizard because he’s played multiple positions over the course of 14 years and was once named the “Chas Roberts Air Conditioning & Plumbing Cool Play of the Game.” But when we look back on Prado’s career, we see a man who provided a consistent counterweight to the pull of baseball’s madness. A manager could look at him and know what he was going to get: double digit home runs, 20-30 doubles, not a lot of strikeouts, okay defense. Sure, you could say that about a lot of guys, but the difference here is that from Prado, you would actually get it.
Any power he had left was zapped by Marlins Park; his versatility was murdered by age. But on the last day of the 2019 regular season, the last one Prado will ever play, his career home run total stood at 99. He’d homered in high leverage situations and complete garbage time. He’d homered off everybody from Roy Halladay and Max Scherzer to Brett Oberholtzer and Kyle Kendrick. His 1,000th career hit was his third career home run off Kenley Jansen.
In his last at-bat, he smashed a ball to deep left off the Phillies’ Edgar Garcia, his 100th career home run: Perfect balance in at least one stat column. And when he left the field, lifted in the ninth, Martín Prado exited baseball to a round of applause.