Ender Inciarte is not a great hitter. Every time I say that, I piss off a certain segment of the fan base who let’s me know all about why that isn’t true. Of course, not wanting it to be true doesn’t make it any less true. Ender Inciarte is not a great hitter.
But that’s not what these early season struggles are about. The last three years, Inciarte has posted wOBA’s of .325, .319, and .328. This year, he’s at .213. Inciarte isn’t a great hitter but this isn’t that. This is a league average hitter hitting like a pitcher. Something is missing. And doesn’t take long to realize what that is.
Here are those wOBA numbers from above, just in graph form:
Now here’s a second chart:
Ender has lost his line drives. What is normally a LD rate around 22% is at the moment a LD rate around 12%. Now saying a player hits better when he’s hitting line drives is like saying a car runs better with a working engine. It’s not really ground breaking news but it’s more important with Inciarte than it is with most players. Ender’s batting profile doesn’t just thrive with his line drives, but it survives off them. He doesn’t have another means of production outside of them the way the rest of MLB does. Consider this chart of 2017 production:
This chart shows us two things we already know. Ground balls are bad and line drives are good. Those things are true for Inciarte too. But it shows us something else as well. I’ve highlighted the key cell. Where the average player is normally getting production from their line drives and fly balls, Ender is just getting his from line drives. His production on his fly balls is abysmal and the reason isn’t all that surprising. He just doesn’t hit the ball hard enough to drive it. 387 players put at least 100 balls in play last year. Out of the those 387 players, Inciarte ranked 376th in average exit velocity at 81.2 mph. This is why his fly ball production is so poor and why his line drive rate so crucial to his success. It’s literally all he has.
When I put together the hitting profiles in the off-season, this was how I ended my Inciarte blurb:
Objectively, it terrifies me if his LD rate ever fluctuates, as it’s been known to do, because that’s all he has. But so far, it hasn’t.
Looking at his profile in the off-season, it was quite worrisome at the time just how dependent on line drives Ender’s entire offensive profile was. If you don’t know, line drive rates can fluctuate severely from year to year and, consequently, so can the production derived from them. And this is where Ender is right now. His line drive rate has dropped and he has nothing else to supplement the value.
But it’s not all bad news. The second chart I showed you at the top was Inciarte’s line drive rate over a year to year time frame. Of course, 2018’s input on that chart isn’t a full year. In fact, it’s just 13 games. When you look at his line drive rate over a rolling 15 game average, the picture looks a little different:
As I said, when zoomed in, you can see the actual fluctuations that happen over the course of a year. There was a 15 game stretch in 2016 when his LD% was below 10%. There was another one in 2017. Two, actually. It happens and it’s happening right now to Ender. The difference is, in 2018, it’s all we have to go on so far. Small samples can be evidence of something or they can make us look stupid. We’ll know in time but my guess is, by the end of the year, the 2018 graph will look very similar to 2016 and 2017. Peaks and valleys and peaks and valleys.
There are a few things I want you to take away from this. One, Ender is not a great hitter, but a league average hitter, and that’s not an insult. Being a league average hitter is hard to do. Two, Ender’s offensive production is more volatile than most because his fly balls don’t produce at the same level as most MLB players and must rely heavily on line drives. This point is key in understanding his offensive limitations. And three, this is nothing new for him. He has always been this way and we should view the start of his 2018 season as a dip in the graph, not a drop in talent.