For a few years now I have made the argument that the best second baseman in all of baseball wasn’t José Altuve, Ozzie Albies, or anyone playing Major League Baseball. The best second baseman in baseball for some time now has been the Tokyo Yakult Swallows’, Tetsuto Yamada. He still holds that title, and I didn’t think anyone would come close to taking it from him anytime soon but in Cuba a new challenger has emerged and at the bare minimum belongs in the discussion for the best second baseman in baseball.
César Prieto isn’t a name I expect to be known beyond the hardest of the hardcore baseball fans. I’m here to tell you that if you don’t know his name now would be a great time to start getting to know the star second baseman of Elefantes de Cienfuegos. You can focus on his current Serie Nacional de Béisbol record 43-game, and counting, hitting streak if you want. Or, you could focus on his attempt to hit over .400 in a season. If neither of those catches your fancy you could dig deeper into how he’s only 21-years-old but has been on a steady rise to his current level since his age 19 season.
The first thing that people should notice about Prieto is that he simply does not strikeout. Think Willians Astudillo, only much, much better. In 2018-19 he struck out 44 times in 413 plate appearances. He followed that with a 2019-2020 campaign where he lowered his strikeout total to 23 in 330 plate appearances. This season he has 5 strikeouts in 209 plate appearances. That’s a steady decline in strikeouts that speaks to his amazing bat-to-ball skills.
To continue the Astudillo comparison, you may say that it’s great he makes all this contact and doesn’t strikeout, but what is he doing when he does make contact? As much as I love La Tortuga, Prieto is in a different league as he doesn’t just make contact, he makes nothing but meaningful contact. Over the past three seasons, he has provided slash lines of .356/.396/.471, .352/.440/.480, and .412/.466/.572. What you can easily see in those numbers is that Prieto is improving year by year, and he’s improving in ways that make it clear he is a truly great hitter versus someone who only possesses a keen ability to put bat to ball.
What’s most impressive about Prieto’s season-by-season slash line is not only that the metrics increase every year, but that every year there is a significant difference between his Batting Average and his On Base Percentage. Prieto doesn’t just not strikeout, he also takes his walks when they are given to them. The past two seasons he has walked more than he has struck out, and while his walk totals are never going to wow you, they are sufficient enough to talk about in his overall profile as a hitter. In 2020-21 his BB% is a seemingly unimpressive 7.6, but when that is placed in the context of a 2.5 K% it becomes a mite more noteworthy. Based on his career trends there’s no reason that Prieto’s walk totals shouldn’t continue to increase and if his bat-to-ball skills remain where they are that makes him a most dangerous hitter indeed.
The two areas where Prieto still has some work to do if he ever hopes to truly overtake Yamada as the best second baseman in baseball are in his ability to hit the long ball and his base-stealing adventures. In the latter category, he’s nothing more than average on the basepaths while Yamada is stellar. In Yamada, you’re talking about a guy who regularly steals around 30 bases and is caught about 4 times a year. Prieto averages 6 swipes a season but also averages 4 times caught stealing. This is one area where I would like to see Prieto focus on more so that he can either get better at it or become more selective about when he does run.
Power-wise there’s a bit more to Prieto’s power game than can be found in his Slugging Percentage. This season his SLG is an impressive .572 but it comes attached with a run of the mill ISO of .161. The diminutive Cuban star has only hit 10 home runs in his entire career. There’s simply no way he’ll ever be able to match the raw home run power of Yamada, who for comparison’s sake has 219 in a 10-year career. The key for Prieto is to continue to do what he has done this year and drive balls into the gaps. Prieto doesn’t have to be a huge home run hitter to slug the ball well, but people need to understand that Prieto is a gap-to-gap hitter and not a slugger sending balls over the fences left and right.
Fielding metrics are still a work in progress in SNB, but the general consensus is that Prieto is a very good fielder, though a step behind the very best. That would place him in lockstep with Yamada. At only 21-years-old there’s no reason to think that Prieto’s defense won’t get better or at the bare minimum stay in the very good category during these prime years of his career. There’s nothing wrong with him being a very good fielder when he’s as great of a hitter as he has been so far in his professional career.
An interesting way to cap our discussion of Prieto is the number 5.7. That is Prieto’s OVAL for the 2020-21 season. OVAL is like a precursor to WAR. It’s not quite there yet, but the more research that is done into SNB the closer we get to having a WAR metric. Currently, Prieto sits eleventh in the SNB, and the guys in front of him are all big-time sluggers. He is a better fielder than everyone in front of him (OVAL does not yet take defense into account) and as he improves his overall game he will continue to climb up the OVAL ranks. I’m not a big “WAR is the end all and be all” guy, but Prieto’s OVAL sitting where it does this season is promising for the seasons still in front of him.
Tetsuto Yamada is still the best second baseman in baseball. It will take Prieto some time to come close to overcoming the greatness that Yamada has made the hallmark of his career. He’s only 21 though and already in the discussion. That is emblematic of the special talent that Prieto possesses. Perhaps one day Prieto will leave the ranks of SNB and show off his considerable wares in MLB. Even if he doesn’t, he’s on a path to be among the best second baseman in baseball for years to come. That’s something we all need to appreciate, while we can.
Statistical research provided by Yirsandy Rodríguez
Lead photo courtesy of Unknown – Unknown