FanGraphs: Atlanta's surprising star

For your surprising statistic of the day, check out who leads the National League in batting average. Recognize the name on top -- Martin Prado? If you don't, it's not a big deal. Not even the prospect experts at Baseball America noticed Prado's ascension until it was obvious to anyone paying attention. Only now, in the midst of his third straight quality season is the Braves second baseman starting to get his due.

Prado, 26, never made a Braves Top 10 Prospects list at Baseball America. When he broke camp with the team in 2008, after cups of coffee during the two previous seasons, he was supposed to be just a utility infielder, someone who could play in place of Chipper Jones at third, Yunel Escobar at short, and Kelly Johnson at second. Yet despite a sprained thumb that kept him out for 59 days, the Braves still managed to get Prado 254 plate appearances in which he hit .320/.377/.461. Those are impressive numbers for anyone, much less a reserve.

In 2009 Prado again broke camp as the primary utility man. But when Kelly Johnson started to struggle, Prado found his name on the starting lineup more frequently. By July he was the regular starter at second base. The Braves nearly doubled his playing time in 2009, giving him 503 plate appearances, and hit .307/.358/.464. That's when people started to take notice.

The Braves took a gamble on Prado this winter. Johnson was up for salary arbitration, but rather than pay him an increased salary after a year during which he struggled, the Braves decided not to tender him a contract, implicitly handing the job to Prado full-time. Once again Prado has rewarded their confidence. In addition to leading the NL in hitting (.325), he ranks fourth among senior circuit second basemen in OPS (.819). (Of course the leader in that category is Kelly Johnson, so let's not give Atlanta too much credit.)

After a slow start, the Braves are now in first place in the NL East, in no small part because of contributions from two players making around the league minimum, Prado and Jason Heyward. While Heyward gets the hype because of his age and prodigious power, Prado, because he plays a premium defensive position, has contributed equally to the Braves record. He has been worth 1.7 Wins Above Replacement, while Heyward is just a fraction better at 1.8.

Prado is still under-appreciated and he probably always will be. But Martin Prado has made the most of his opportunity and is a big part of why the Braves currently sit in first place, even if he's overshadowed by his teammates. For years, Martin Prado was overlooked, but given how well
he's played in the big leagues, it's time to give him his due -- the man is one of the better second baseman in baseball.

Joe Pawlikowski is a writer for FanGraphs.