Ender Inciarte is good at baseball. The 27-year-old center fielder is a two-time Gold Glove winner (and deservedly so, unlike several players who have been past recipients) that was selected to the 2017 All-Star Game. Inciarte also posted a 200-hit season (not a small feat) in 2017 and, in an Atlanta Braves uniform over two-plus seasons, has been worth more than six wins according to both FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.
However, the 2018 campaign is not off to a blazing start for Inciarte and, as a result, the backlash has seemingly arrived. Just a few months ago, Inciarte was a beloved figure in Braves Country, appeasing traditional and casual fans with a .298 batting average over two seasons in Atlanta and generating only faint whispers to question his perch at the top of Atlanta’s batting order on a daily basis. Now, after just 58 plate appearances, those whispers have turned, at least in some circles, to genuine panic.
Of course, 58 plate appearances isn’t enough to influence anything one way or another but they do provide a reality check when it comes to evaluating Inciarte. In short, he isn’t an overly impressive hitter and he shouldn’t be hitting lead-off on a daily basis.
Both things were true even before the 2018 season began but, if you polled Braves fans, neither would have been widely accepted. After all, the aforementioned .298 batting average, quality speed and his place in a middle-of-the-diamond defensive spot combine to form the most traditional of lead-off profiles. Still, even a quick look indicates that he is miscast by those viewing him through that lens.
Inciarte has been a hit-making machine since landing with the Braves and, despite his widespread struggles (34 wRC+) this season, that probably isn’t changing. There are legitimate concerns about his increasing launch angle and fly-ball rate at the expense of quality contact this season but, again, it is a (very) small sample size and one that shouldn’t be taken too seriously to this point.
Still, Inciarte now owns a solid, yet wholly unspectacular .346 OBP over more than 1,200 plate appearances in a Braves uniform and that isn’t befitting of a lead-off man on a quality team. Beyond that, he has never exceeded a 100 wRC+ (the baseline of an average hitter) in any single season during his career and, even in 2017 when he posted the 200-plus hits and an All-Star appearance, much of his value was derived from playing quality defense at a premium position.
There is a deep dive to be made as to just how important a player of Inciarte’s skill set can be to a baseball team but the widely available metrics indicate that he is quite useful. It certainly helps that he is on a bargain contract that is highly beneficial to the Braves but, even beyond that, the former D-Backs outfielder has returned huge value when remembering his plus base-running and legitimately tremendous defense.
What Ender Inciarte is not, though, is an above-average hitter. There is more than enough documentation of that simple fact at this point and that was the case well before he came out of the gates flailing for a team that was otherwise lighting the world on fire offensively.
Concern about Inciarte’s place as a quality Major League starter is misplaced but, in the same breath, it needs to be acknowledged that batting isn’t his strong suit. By proxy, there are other available options (cough, Ozzie Albies, cough) that would be far superior in a lead-off role and it is likely fair to wonder aloud if Ender’s batting profile manifested on a corner infielder would have ever placed him in a lead-off role under the same manager navigating the ship.
It is entirely possible, or even likely, that Inciarte will, once again, lead the Braves in plate appearances this season and he could even repeat as the MLB leader in official at-bats. That would be a mistake, though, because a team’s best offensive players should come to the plate as often as possible and Ender Inciarte doesn’t qualify under that provision for Atlanta.