It's one of the most amazing stories of the 2010 baseball season. Omar Infante, a career utility player, has stepped into a starting role with the Atlanta Braves and is threatening to become one of the most unlikely batting title winners in baseball history.
On July 30th, the Braves All-Star second baseman, Martin Prado, broke his finger sliding into home plate. Prado landed on the 15-day DL and Infante was inserted into the starting lineup at second base.
Since that day Infante has hit .363 with a .400 on-base and a .513 slugging percentage.
He's scored 29 runs, hit five home runs and thrown in three stolen bases to boot. Since July 29th, he's had 23 multi-hit games and at one point, hit safely in 14 straight.
On August 10th, Chipper Jones was lost for the season when he tore his ACL making a dazzling play at third base. The injury assured that Infante would remain at second base and Prado would play third upon his return.
Infante has been an absolute life-saver for the Braves, playing in every game since that July 29th date. In all but two of those games he's batted lead-off and helped Atlanta maintain their NL East lead.
Even before Prado and Chipper's injury, Infante was a valuable asset for the Braves. In the 73 prior games, Infante started 40 of them, playing five different positions: 2B, SS, 3B, LF and RF. He hit .330 in those games, including a .429 mark in July.
With Infante's insertion into the starting role and his continued prowess at the plate, his chances of winning the batting title have become a distinct possibility.
In order to qualify for the batting title, a player must record 502 plate appearances. Infante is presently hitting a NL best .343 and stands at 393 PAs with 25 games remaining on the Braves schedule. If he continues his pace of 4.6 plate appearances per game, achieved since he became a full-time starter, Infante will finish with 512 plate appearances. He'll obviously have to play every game to make this mark, but even if he doesn't he can still win the batting title.
How you ask?
Well it's simple. If Infante finishes with say, 490 appearances, Major League Baseball will add 12 at-bats to his total and recalculate his batting average. These at-bats are considered hitless ones.
Tony Gwynn won a batting title in this manner in 1996 when he recorded 498 plate appearances and 451 at-bats. His average of .364 was reduced to .359 and he still led the National League.
Prior to this season, Infante was only a .264 career hitter (though he did hit .305 last year). The important fact to remember with Infante though, is that he is only 28 years old. Players often reach their peak around that age, a fact that's even more true for Infante, who's body has less wear than others because of his reduced role in prior seasons.
Carlos Gonzalez, with an assist from Coors field, is Infante's main competition. He's hitting .337 to Infante's .343. Joey Votto is a distant third at .321.
It's difficult to determine who the most unlikely batting title winner in NL history is.
Al Oliver, a name few know, won the title with Montreal in 1982. But he hit over .300 eleven times in his career. Another Atlanta Brave, Ralph Garr won the title in 1974 (Garr was also 28 when he accomplished the feat). Rico Carty also did it for the Braves in 1970. Very few people outside of Atlanta, remember these names.
In the American League, Bill Mueller hit .326 in 2003. He was a .286 career hitter before that. Mueller was also out of baseball three seasons later.
The only distant comparison for Infante is Snuffy Stirnweiss. Stirnweiss played for the Yankees in 1945 when baseball was severely depleted by the departure of players to World War II. Stirnweiss hit .309 in 1945. He never hit above .256 again and hit only .268 for his career.
With Infante's hitting showing no signs of slowing down and a decent shot at 502 plate appearances, he has a very real chance to become one of the most unlikely batting champions in baseball history
I'd love to hear some readers thoughts about whether or not Infante might be the most unlikely batting champ in the long history of baseball and whether or not he has a legitimate chance at the feat.