In the large and exuberant throng of baseball fans that surrounded the ESPN broadcast setup after last night’s game at Turner Field – yes, it was a throng, and an exuberant one — there were several handwritten signs proclaiming love for Martin Prado, one suggesting he run for president, and another that said, “The Devil Wears Prado.”
I don’t know what that meant, exactly — other than the obvious movie reference – but it was cool. And it was fun. And just another symbol of the growing infatuation between so many Braves fans and the selfless left fielder, who has come to represent, for many, the epitome of “team player” in an age when it seems such a species has become endangered.
Throwback player. Old school. There’s no “I” in team – or in Prado. All of it applies, folks. He’s the real deal. No pretense, no hype. His quotes are not carefully worded to mold some impossibly good image of what a ballplayer should be. He is that ballplayer.
In fact, that English is his second language might actually make his quotes all the more honest and real. Because Prado is so passionate and so focused on trying to say what he really means, he doesn’t bother trying to word it in such a way that makes it politically correct or guarded or whatever else we get in sports, from players who are wary of saying what they really mean.
(Although covering a team with the likes of Chipper Jones, David Ross and Eric Hinske, we don’t have any shortage of players unafraid to pull punches and say what they mean.)
Prado, though, is different. He wears his emotions on his sleeve, and puts them in just about every sentence in interviews.
He can’t talk about the Braves without saying how much he loves his teammates and how much confidence he has in them, how much they always “battle” and how, even at times like this when the hitters have not been pulling their weight, he’s sure that they will soon and that he just wants the pitchers to keep doing their great work and it’ll all come together and … well, like I said, the guy is passionate.
“Oh my gosh,” he said of hitting a homer last night to at least give the punchless Braves enough offense to give Jurrjens a win. “Well, something is going to happen. Every single guy in our lineup can change the game. We always battle, and that’s what I love about this team. I’m glad I got a fastball and hit it out of the park, and J.J. got the win.”
And he’s driven. No, he’s beyond driven. But you know that, from all that’s been written and said about his tireless work ethic and his spring-training days that lasted a couple of hours longer than almost everyone else’s every day at Dark Star this year when he was getting acclimated to his new position, the position that he was moved to in November without being told about it beforehand.
He said not a word of complaint after being told he would be switched from second base, where he was a 2010 All-Star in his first full season as a lineup regular, to left field because the Braves had traded for Dan Uggla.
Prado’s initial reaction was, well, OK. And after talking to several teammates on the phone, who told him how glad they were to have Uggla in the lineup, his reaction was something along the lines of, that’s all I need to know, fellas. Left field it is. Let’s do this.
Anyway, flash forward to last night’s 2-1 win over Cincy, when Prado and Jair Jurrjens did about as much as two guys can do to win a game by themselves. Prado hit a two-run homer, threw a guy out at the plate to turn away the would-be tying run, and Jurrjens pitched eight innings of one-run ball to whittle his majors-leading ERA to 1.51 and improve to 7-1, tied for the league wins lead despite starting the season on the DL and having only nine starts.
Prado’s one-bounce throw to Ross in the eighth inning was nearly perfect, and ignited a big crowd just as his game-turning homer had two innings earlier. The joy on Prado’s face as he came off the field was matched by the expressions of his teammates – they freakin’ love this guy – and the smiles on thousands of fans who gave him a standing O as he came off the field to a welcome committee on the top step of the dugout.
This is a guy people can get behind, no matter where they’re from or what it is that brought them to the ballpark or put them in front of the TV. The ladies say he’s handsome, the guys say he’s no B.S. and know that he plays hurt and doesn’t show up opponents or act like a star.
He was voted the second-most-underrated player in the majors in a preseason poll conducted by Sports Illustrated, and it should be noted that players couldn’t vote for their own teammates in that poll (I know because I did the polling of Braves players for the magazine).
In other words, all the votes he got came from players other than Braves. And if they could have voted for any player including their own, you can be certain Prado would have had 24 more votes.
So anyway, here’s where we are this season with Prado: After studying the stats this morning, I’m thinking he might be having the best season by any player who ever had 75 percent as many double plays grounded into (12) as walks (16).
That’s the thing with Prado, he doesn’t walk much. So some who place walks and OBP at the top of the criteria for judging players will never put Prado at the top of their list of valued commodities. But other players don’t judge players that way. Neither do most managers, coaches or scouts. Or many of us unsophisticated schlubs of the print media.
Most of us still like to let our own observations and our conversations with players weight into how we judge the value and performance of an individual. And any Braves player will tell you, there is no one more valuable to this team over the past two seasons than Martin Prado.
This season he’s hitting .282 with seven homers, a team-high 32 RBIs, an unimpressive .325 OBP and a .432 slugging percentage. That’s a modest .757 OPS that ranks 80th among 178 major league qualifiers, one spot behind Johnny Damon (.758) and one ahead of Buster Posey (.756.)
It’s down quite a bit for Prado, who had an .809 OPS in 2010, an .822 OPS in 2009 and an .838 OPS in part-time duty in 2008.
But his value to his team isn’t down, and other Braves believe Prado is just starting to heat up at the plate.
“It’s been a weird year for me,” said Prado, who has grounded into more double plays than anyone in the NL except Albert Pujols, who is one of his heroes and is also having an atypical season by Pujolsian standards. “There’s some days that I feel good at home plate, and the next day I don’t have a clue. But I’ve got to get going, man.
“I’ve been working hard, and I’ve got great support from my teammates. I’m always positive. I knew that I hit that ground ball hard, and I’ve been hitting a lot of ground balls hard into double plays. I never give up. I always expect something positive in a game, either defensively or offensvively.”
He might need to get going overall, but at home he’s been going for quite a while now. Maybe it’s the energy, that love affair between Prado and his people here at Turner Field, Whatever the reason, the guy has been doing serious work in home games while struggling on the road.
I’m sure that none of you were aware – because I wasn’t, and haven’t seen it noted anywhere – that Prado enters this Memorial Day game riding an 18-game hitting streak at Turner Field, during which he’s batted .363 (29-for-80) with four doubles, five homers, 19 RBIs and a remarkably tidy .400 OBP and .600 slugging percentage (1.000 OPS). I’m not making that up, those even numbers.
During the same period on the road, he’s hit .216 (.8-for-37) with two doubles, no homers, three RBIs and a .268 OBP and .270 slugging percentage.
The home crowd loves him, for good reason. And maybe he’s feeling it. Or maybe it’s just a flukey thing and soon he’ll be hitting better on the road and it’ll all even out.
But I’m not so sure about that. It takes something special to get an Atlanta crowd to really embrace a player who’s not a superstar, and they’ve done it with Prado.
Workaholic, underdog, tough as hell, always talking about his team and not himself — yeah, that’ll do it.
♣ Digging into JJ’s numbers: Jurrjens leads major league starters with a 1.51 ERA and leads the NL in winning percentage (.875), yet doesn’t rank among the league’s top 10 in opponents’ average (.234) or opponents’ slugging percentage (.331).
He does rank sixth in the NL in opponents’ OBP (.271), but what really jumps off the page of Jurrjens stats is his opponents’ average with runners in scoring position. It’s a microscopic .093 (4-for-43), which would lead major league starters if he had enough opponents’ plate appearances to qualify.
(That’s right, he’s not pitched enough to qualify for some categories, yet is tied for the league wins lead. Says plenty about his performance.)
Four-for-43, folks. That .093 is 32 points better than any qualifying NL starter.
I asked him this morning if that was a reflection of him learning to pitch better in those situations as he’s gotten more experience, or just luck and small sample size, or some combination of the above.
“You’re always going to need luck,” he said. “It’s a little bit of both. I used to be a guy who, when I got in trouble I’d try to do too much and the ball would get flat. And when I got to the big leagues with Detroit, the pitching coach just told me when you get in those big innings try to minimize [damage] and sometimes just try to pitch for outs.
“Sometimes when you pitch for outs, you’re more relaxed and your pitches move more, and sometimes you get a swing-and-miss. Then you get a big out and you can bear down a little bit more….”
Has he learned to do it better?
“Yeah, it’s also knowing who’s coming up behind [a hitter], too. If you have a Joey Votto coming behind, then the guy in front of him you prefer to [make] beat you and you try to be aggressive with that guy and hope they hit a rocket to somebody. And that’s how I go about it, when I’m in certain situations, see who’s on deck and who I want to try to pitch to.”
He’s made nine starts, and in every one of them he’s pitched at least six innings and allowed two earned runs or fewer.
♣ Good matchup today: For this Memorial Day game, we’ve got San Diego’s Aaron Harang (5-2, 3.96 ERA) facing Tim Hudson (4-4, 3.95), who missed his last start while recovering from back stiffness.
Hudson is 4-0 with a 2.03 ERA in his past five starts against the Padres.
Harang is 1-3 with a 4.72 ERA in eight career starts againt the Braves.
♣ Out of time. Let’s get this posted so you can read it before the first pitch. We’ll close with James McMurtry’s great tune about this holiday, which you can hear by clicking here.
Thank you to all the men and women who’ve served or are now serving in our military. We’re forever indepted. R.I.P. to my uncle Wayne, a Vietnam vet who paid a dear price.
“MEMORIAL DAY” by James McMurtry
Mama keeps tryin’ to get the game on the radio
Daddy’s gotta know the score
There’s a big yellow thing on a flat bed trailer
Wonder what that thing’s for
We got towels rolled up in the back seat window
Keeping us out of the sun
Just a hundred more miles and we’ll be at grandma’s
Sure is gonna be fun
Maybe she’ll take us fishin’
Maybe she’ll bake us a pie/Remember like she did that one time
Back before grandpa died
It’s Memorial Day in America
Everybody’s on the road
Let’s remember our fallen heroes
Y’all be sure and drive slow
Ninety eight degrees in the shade of the tool shed
Can’t go back in the house
They’re all in the kitchen yellin’ ‘bout something
Don’t know what it’s about
Joey ‘n Mary said not to worry
Said it’s just the same old figh
tHappens whenever they all get together
Everything’s really alright
It’s Memorial Day in America
This is how it’s supposed to be
Let’s remember our fallen heroes in the land of the free
Daddy’s in the big chair sippin’ on a cold beer
Grandma’s cuttin’ a switch
She overheard Mary cussin’ her brother
Called him a son of a bitch
She got a good green limb off a sweet gum sapling
Man that’s bound to sting
But Mary don’t cry just stands there and takes it
Doesn’t seem to feel a thing
No Mary don’t cry, you know she’s a big girl
Wonder what made her so mad
She takes those licks looking in through the den door
Staring right straight at her dad
There’s a big yellow thing on a flat bed trailer
Daddy nearly hit that bird
They’re both in the front seat
Starin’ right straight ahead
Neither one saying a word
The sun’s going down in the rear view mirror
Gonna be driving all night
Wonder if the neighbor’s fed the canary
Wonder if the cat’s alright