Everything totaled, Omar Infante has been a pretty mediocre hitter since he came up with Detroit back in 2002. His career triple slash line of .275/.319/.399 supports that statement. He has well over twice as many strikeouts as walks while only occasionally flashing any power; a good offensive comparison for Braves fans would be Jeff Francoeur who has a career line of .266/.308/.424. Braves fans, however, know a different player than the one that spent six seasons in Detroit. Since coming over to the Braves (and National League) in 2008, he has been a significantly better hitter. With the tomahawk on his chest, Infante has played to a respectable line of .318/.360/.425. Remember how the media used to refer to Edgar Renteria as a National League player? Well Infante’s defensive versatility would actually justify that label, and he appears to have improved his hitting since coming over to the senior circuit as well. Combining his ability to play several positions well with an improved bat has earned him recognition as one of baseball’s premiere “super utility” players, and Bobby Cox has loved having him as a weapon off the bench.
But since the All-Star break, Omar has been much more than just a valuable role player; he has been the Braves’ MVP. While filling in for Martin Prado and Chipper Jones, Infante has had the best stretch of his career. Of all National League players with at least 125 plate appearances since the break, only nine have posted a higher OPS than Infante’s mark of .957. There is also a good chance that the stretch is a result of improved skill rather than statistical variation (a.k.a. a “hot streak” or luck). In 205 PA prior to the break, Omar only drew 9 walks while striking out 39 times. But in his 133 PA since coming back from Anaheim, he has 8 walks compared to just 11 strikeouts. Although the walk rate has remained somewhat similar, his strikeout rate has plummeted over the past 34 games. It is quite possible that Omar’s ability to make contact has improved since becoming an everyday player. Whatever the reason, the change in strikeout rate is so drastic that it appears Omar has actually gotten better as the season has gone along.
The stretch also highlights the fact that Omar is having the best season of his career. A major reason for this is his batting average on balls in play which is a ridiculously high .393. Although this number is almost certainly unsustainable, there is reason to believe that he will continue to post a higher BABIP than his career average of .315. Several weeks ago I wrote that Jason Heyward needed to start hitting more fly balls. In Omar’s case the opposite has proven to be beneficial. For the season, 46% of his batted balls have been grounders compared to his career average of 37%. For someone who is not a power hitter such as Omar, this is a good thing. His homerun to fly ball rate, although still relatively low, is also the best it has been since he hit 16 big flies for Detroit back in 2004.
While I am not ready to confidently say Omar will continue to produce offensive numbers significantly better than those of the past two seasons, the Braves would be crazy to decline his 2011 club option worth $2.5 million. He has clearly improved since coming over from the American League, and there is no one else in the organization that can come close to replacing him. If he can continue to keep the strikeouts down, the Braves should be more than thrilled to start him at second base next season if Chipper decides to hang it up.
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