The 2018 season has been ugly for one Ender Inciarte. A two-walk night on Tuesday helped his on-base percentage improve to .305 on the year, though no hits meant his batting average slipped to .244. For the season, Inciarte has a .285 wOBA. Of the 162 current contenders for the batting crown, Inciarte has the 20th-worst wOBA in baseball. To put it more bluntly, Inciarte hasn’t been Chris Davis-bad, but he’s been pretty darn bad.
Before this fall, Inciarte was a subject of intense debate between the more analytically-inclined and the more traditional followers of baseball. The former looked at Inciarte from a value standpoint and saw little pop, a substandard walk rate, and a good but not great hit tool and graded him as an average offensive performer relative to his position. True to form, he had a 100 wRC+ in 2017. Traditionalists saw 201 hits, a .304 average, and a sparkplug-like impact on the Braves offense.
Both camps agree on two things – Inciarte is a wonderful defender and has value (some might say RBI) in his glove. The other thing both agree upon is that 2018 has been just all kinds of awful for the Braves center fielder. Let’s dive into how we got there and how much hope for change should exist.
2017: Inciarte Arrives?
The previous season was considered by many on-lookers to be the season Ender Inciarte broke out and became an all-around performer, but really, this thinking is quite flawed. Inciarte wasn’t significantly better over his previous season nor his final season in Arizona. Rather, he was healthy. That health led to notable individual milestones including the 200-hit plateau.
For many, 200 hits means a good deal. Perhaps that’s because it hasn’t happened very often for the Braves since Ralph Garr reached 200 hits in three-out-of-four seasons in the early 70’s. The only other time it’s happened for the Braves came in 1996 with Marquis Grissom. But does 200 hits truly tell us all that much that other stats don’t tell in a more meaningful way? Not really. Even though Inciarte had 200 hits, over sixty players both qualified for the batting title and had a higher on-base percentage than Inciarte. Even among leadoff hitters with 300 PA in the leadoff spot, Inciarte was just barely in the Top 10.
Inciarte also finished 91st out of 144 in wOBA. For all the good things Inciarte did with the bat in 2017, he was still rubbing elbows with an over-the-hill Carlos Gonzalez, Denard Span, and Joe Panik from an offensive value standpoint.
But that was okay. Inciarte was a defensive marvel who was capable of three-win seasons from center field – no small feat. He might have his offensive limitations, but with his defensive skill set, even an average bat made him a very valuable player.
Comparison Time: What Gives?
The defense is still there, but the offense has completely disappeared. As we try to figure out what’s wrong, let’s ask ourselves a few questions. Is Ender Inciarte being pitched differently? Is he hitting the ball differently? And finally – is it just dumb luck or should we be worried?
Is Ender Inciarte being pitched differently? No, not really. From a location standpoint, there are some zones with a little more pitches than the previous season, but nothing really stands out. In addition, Inciarte is receiving around the same amount of fastballs, breaking balls, and offspeed pitches. So, he’s being pitched basically the same. One key difference, however, is that Inciarte is not hitting fastballs. Not even a little. This is a major departure from previous seasons as Inciarte has been a .300+ hitter against fastballs since entering the league. He’s lost essentially a hundred points off his average versus heaters.
Is Ender Inciarte hitting the ball differently? A little bit. He’s increased his exit velocity slightly over last season from 81.2 to 82.1 mph. He’s also added a slightly higher launch angle and has a better Hard Hit percentage. From a plate discipline standpoint, Inciarte is making a bit less contact when he swings at pitches in the zone – possibly giving us more ammo to think he is dealing with a mechanical issue with his swing.
But the bigger issue for Inciarte beyond all this is his pull rate. Coming into 2018, Inciarte was basically Joe Simpson‘s ideal player. He put the ball in play and served it all over the field. He had nearly identical pull/opposite field rates with a higher percentage up the middle. This season, however, his pull rate is over 40% – 5% above his career average. He’s only going opposite field a quarter of the time.
Heavy groundball hitters like Inciarte often live up the middle especially when they don’t hit the ball exceptionally hard. It’s simple math. Up the middle provides more space for a ball to find outfield grass versus pulling or going the other way where you have to deal with the foul lines. Think of Dansby Swanson last year. He pulled the ball 42.5% mostly on the ground in 2017. That’s a quick way to lead to a lot of outs. Nowhere is this problem more evident than when Inciarte hits the ball on the ground, which he does – a lot. In 2017, he carried a 43.5% pull rate on 223 ground balls. In 2018, that mark is up to 60%. Inciarte essentially only goes the opposite way if he gets the ball off the ground.
Is it just dumb luck or should we be worried about Ender Inciarte? Yes and yes. Luck plays a big role in baseball and nobody should ever tell you differently. In some ways, Inciarte has been unlucky. He carries a career .323 BABIP and it’s been over .330 the last three seasons. This year? .272. That should improve. Statcast is less sure about luck as Inciarte carries xAVG, xSLG, and xWOBA that closely mimic his current stats. However, Inciarte has routinely beat those expected marks in the past and likely would continue to do so without the low BABIP.
But you should be worried about Inciarte because this is the player that he is. Think of how Inciarte hits – all arms and very little else. That leads to next-to-no power – not only from a home run standpoint but just simple dynamic power in his swing. As a result, Inciarte is completely at the will of the BABIP Gods. Inciarte lives off the soft line drive to the outfield and finding a hole up the middle. Only a dozen players had more hits on groundballs last year than Inciarte.
If you’re curious, defenses don’t really shift against Inciarte. They may move slightly, but Inciarte faced shifts just 28% of the time in 2017. That mark is slightly higher this year at 33%. It may even go up more if Inciarte keeps pulling the ball at such a high rate. Right now, defenses can shade Inciarte to go the other way in the outfield and to pull on the infield. The more this problem continues, the worse it probably will get for the Braves center fielder.
Moving Forward: Any Hope?
To sum up, this is Ender Inciarte and every other high contact, low power hitter in the league. He may also be dealing with some mechanical issues – possibly due to pressing – pushing him to hit a steady diet of soft grounders to second basemen around the league. The latter can be worked with, but the former will always remain. Short of Inciarte becoming more patient at the plate and taking more walks, the BABIP Gods will decide just how good of a season Inciarte can have.
At the moment, they have decided he is not to have a good year. Hopefully, they change their minds. In the meantime, the last thing manager Brian Snitker should do is keep finding ways to hit Inciarte higher in the order. I preferred him ninth, but Snitker apparently hated that idea. In a healthy lineup, it seems only right to hit Inciarte in the 8-hole unless the BABIP Gods start smiling on him. I know it neuters the speed factor, which is already being heavily restrained by an inability to get on base. But it’s better than Inciarte getting at-bats over the far more productive Johan Camargo and/or Dansby Swanson.
Whatever the case, Inciarte should play. Perhaps, if the Braves had a worthwhile right-hand bat that can play left field – Charlie Culberson‘s not really what I’m talking about – you could move Ronald Acuna Jr. to center when he returns against southpaws. That would allow you the opportunity to give Inciarte a breather. Inciarte is really REALLY struggling against them this season. I’m tempted to believe that’s a simple fluctuation in numbers as Inciarte showed improvement against southpaws the last two seasons.
Regardless, despite a bat that is completely MIA, Inciarte brings value to the team through his glove. It’s why he’s still on pace for a 2.2 fWAR season. If his improves even a little at the plate, he’s getting closer to that 2.5 fWAR area. A second half like 2016 where Inciarte finished with a .362 wOBA and Inciarte can still salvage a 3-win season. Expecting that is a bit much, but Inciarte can’t be benched for more than a game or so every other week. The defensive value is just too high.
In the meantime, the Braves just have to keep working with him and hoping for some better luck sooner rather than later. That’s all they can really do.