It has been a tough 2020 for Ender Inciarte. What do the Braves need to do with their struggling center fielder?
Are there any silver linings? Any positives to take away that would provide a glimmer of hope? His defense is at least providing enough value to hide his struggles at the plate, right?
The Hard Truth About Ender
He’s never been a good hitter. Only once (2015) has he had a wrc+ of 100, meaning in his best year at the plate, he was exactly league average.
In 2017, Inciarte had 201 hits and a .304 average, so he was good that year! Right?
Unfortunately, no. Even in what most consider his best year at the plate while with the Braves, he was slightly below league average with a wrc+ of 98.
The problem with Ender is simple, he doesn’t hit, at all. He can’t be expected to provide much at the plate as he only has a career barrel rate of 0.8%. That’s not ideal.
Further, out of all qualified hitters, Ender Inciarte has the lowest average exit velocity with a 77.7 average exit velocity. Cole Tucker has the 2nd lowest average exit velocity coming in at 82.3.
It also doesn’t help Inciarte that he hits the ball on the ground far too often, with a career ground ball rate of 48.9%. This year, he’s hitting grounders at a 51.4% clip, while only hitting line drives at an 18.6% rate (down from his career rate of 23.3%). That’s not a good combination for someone with the lowest average exit velocity in all of baseball.
Some may say that Ender should be hitting the ball on the ground because it will allow him to take advantage of his speed to get on base. This doesn’t work that well anymore with teams using advanced analytics to provide superior defensive placement and shifts.
Also, Ender isn’t that fast. He currently ranks 10th on the Braves in sprint speed, behind guys like Nick Markakis, Freddie Freeman, and Travis d’Arnaud.
Basically, Ender has been a black hole at the plate thus far in 2020. So much so, that it’s becoming more and more difficult for the Braves to keep him in the lineup.
Gold Glove Caliber Defense?
As stated in the opening paragraph, Ender’s game revolves around stellar defensive play. As a 3-time gold glove winner, his value defensively can make up for his struggles at the plate, right?
Looking back at 2019, Ender dealt with injuries and only played 491 innings in the outfield. In those innings, he put up a 0.6 UZR, 1.4 UZR/150, and had a -1 DRS.
Now it’s safe to say Ender’s injuries probably played a role in him being pedestrian in the field in 2019. In 2018, he put up a 7.2 UZR, 7.4 UZR/150, and had 17 (!) DRS. That’s more like the Inciarte that we’ve come to appreciate roaming center field.
However, in 2020, we are still seeing more of 2019 Ender and not much of 2018 Ender in the outfield. It’s possible he’s still dealing with the injuries from 2019. It’s also possible that these injuries have taken their toll on Ender, along with age, and he’s just not as good defensively anymore.
If Ender can no longer play gold glove defense for the Braves, can the Braves afford to continue playing him?
We’re In the End(er)game Now
Ender Inciarte is under contract with Atlanta through 2021. However, with his recent struggles, both offensively and defensively, will he be in Atlanta through the 2021 season? 2020 season?
If Ender was playing Gold Glove level defense, then the Braves could maybe look past his 51 wrc+ and let him hit 9th. However, he isn’t playing Gold Glove defense.
With top prospect Cristian Pache close to being ready to play every day at the major league level, and apparently able to provide Gold Glove-caliber defense now, how much longer can Ender Inciarte maintain a spot in the starting lineup?
If Ender Inciarte continues to struggle, why not consider letting Pache hit 9th and play center field and see what he can provide to the team?
Ender Inciarte has provided some amazing highlights (like this) during his time with Atlanta, but could his time with the Braves be coming to an end?