When the Atlanta Braves announced just a couple of days before Christmas in 2016 that Ender Inciarte had signed a five-year contract extension, there were a lot of attaboys handed out to John Coppolella and his crew. Inciarte, who the Braves acquired in the ridiculous Shelby Miller trade the previous winter, was coming off a 2.9 fWAR season that included a .319 wOBA and some absolutely amazing defensive stats that led to his first Gold Glove.
The immediate results were stellar. Inciarte’s Age-26 season included a .304 average, another Gold Glove, and career-best .328 wOBA. For the traditionalists out there, Inciarte became the first Brave since Marquis Grissom to log a 200-hit season. The five-year contract extension, which covered Inciarte’s arbitration seasons plus his first year of free agency, was looking like a steal.
Another solid year in 2018 followed. Over his first three years in Atlanta – and first two seasons of his contract extension – Inciarte had averaged an even 3.0 fWAR each year.
But then last year happened. Injuries, a stubborn manager who wanted Inciarte to bat leadoff, and just poor play put a spotlight on the guy who blocks everyone on Twitter who doesn’t have glowing remarks about him. Even more noticeable was the drop-off defensively. To be fair, most chalked that up to battling injuries. At the plate, Inciarte walked more than ever, but also struck out more than ever and, for the fourth consecutive year, finished the season with a wRC+ in the 90’s.
It’s early in 2020 and who knows how long this silly season will last? That said, Inciarte’s production so far has been underwhelming, to say the least. He’s hitting just .130 with a .286 OBP. For a guy who depends so much on bat control, Inciarte’s contact skills have eroded to the point where he’s nearly doubled his swinging strike rate from 2016-18. Furthermore, over the last few years, Inciarte has mastered the art of pulling the ball on the ground. In 2017, Inciarte’s pull rate on grounders was 43.5%. Last year, it was 62.7%. This year, in exceedingly small sample size, it’s 77.8%.
Perhaps the problems have always been inevitable for Inciarte. He’s never been a guy who puts a charge into the ball. Even when he was at his best, he ranked among the bottom 1% in hard-hit rate. It’s just who he is. But some of these problems at the plate are seemingly getting worse. He plays in an era where exit velocity is a focus for hitters, yet takes soft – almost-lazy – swings at fastballs that are increasing in velocity. Add in his high tendency to pull the ball softly on the ground and it’s leading to a ridiculous amount of outs.
All of this would be fine if Inciarte was still putting up +20 outs above average in the field. You’d still feel like the value was there. But last year, he posted a +3 OAA. Now, people pointed at injuries and when you take into account that his sprint speed went from 27.9 ft/sec to 26.8 in 2019, it was easy to make that argument. Again, it’s early – SUPER EARLY. But Inciarte’s sprint speed is down to 26.1 ft/sec. To be fair, speed has never been Inciate’s strength. Even at his best, he ranked as one of the slower center fielders in baseball.
But declining speed can’t be completely masked by excellent defensive instincts. It will be interesting to see how his defensive marks continue to fluctuate and whether his sprint speed improves as we continue, but so far, it’s not easy to argue that last year’s declining defensive skillset was due to injury. He looks like a different player. And yes, he still makes a few plays and he clearly did on opening day. But defense is far more than isolated examples. And for the Braves, not having a good center fielder with defensive questions in left field is a problem.
When Inciarte signed his extension, the thing we talked about the most was value. Some suggested that Inciarte’s contract, at just $30.525 million, was one of the best deals in baseball when you look at value-per-dollar. And for two years, that argument held true. Was he a great leadoff hitter? No. But he gave you just enough on offense – plus elite defensive skills – to argue that you were getting a ton of value from him. Now in his Age-29 season with another year valued at $8.7 million plus another $1.02 million in a buyout for 2022, the clock is ticking on Inciarte to show the Braves he still has worthwhile value – especially with super prospects Cristian Pache and Drew Waters waiting in the wings. And unfortunately for Inciarte, soft-hitting outfielders who can’t play center field at an above-average level anymore doesn’t quite impress people as much as it might have a hundred years ago.
Inciate’s legacy might last on, though.
Defensive value is great. But once it goes, it rarely seems to take a gradual fall from elite-to-great-to-above-average-to-average. That is often what we see with players whose calling card is their bat. With defense – probably because it’s so tied into speed – once it goes, its decline is incredibly noticeable and often value-killing. Inciarte’s problems in the batter’s box don’t help. But if his defense doesn’t show up soon, he’s going to cost the Braves a good chunk of change to play elsewhere in 2021.