Ender Inciarte endured an injury-plagued season in 2019 that saw him appear in just 65 games while logging just 230 plate appearances. His overall numbers were disappointing but he once again proved capable defensively in center field and barring some roster movement this winter, will likely be back as a key piece of the Braves again in 2020.
What went right in 2019?
Not a whole lot. Inciarte got off to a slow start at the plate before going on the Injured List in mid-May. Once he returned, he was able to find some success offensively, albeit in a small sample. After putting up a .218/.300/.323 line over the first 40 games, Inciarte hit .293/.411/.520 over the final 25 games of his season. That led to some really cool moments, like when he hit this massive blow to sink the Marlins:
His value is still mostly tied to his defense where he was good again although there were some signs of slippage. With such a limited sample though, it is hard to come to a firm conclusion.
What went wrong in 2019?
Besides the aforementioned slow start at the plate, Inciarte went on the injured list on May 15 due to a lumbar strain in his lower back. The back injury would keep him out through the middle of July. It’s possible that he was playing hurt in the beginning of the year, given how poorly he played in all facets of the game, but it’s hard to tell one way or another given that it was just 40 games. One worrying aspect that could suggest injury was a plummeting contact rate in 2019. Early in the year, he often looked overmatched — if you go back and watch video of his last two PAs on April 24, when he faced David Hernandez (three-pitch strikeout) and Raisel Iglesias (long PA ending in a strikeout looking) you get a sense that maybe he just wasn’t the same as in earlier years. Given that he has little power, he can’t afford to have strikeout and whiff rates creep towards league average, especially since he still swings a lot as though he was going to make more consistent contact.
There was also a lot of this, which is just the worst:
Inciarte provided a bit of a spark for the Braves once he returned but it was short-lived as he returned to the injured list on August 17 after he suffered a strained right hamstring while running the bases.
Inciarte has been a notoriously slow starter at the plate and we can’t be sure just how long he had been dealing with that back injury. Per Baseball Savant, Inciarte saw a steep drop off in Statcast’s Outfielder Jump metrics in terms of reaction time and burst. He also went from 27.9 sprint speed in 2018 to 26.8 this season.
What should we expect in 2020?
Again, we can’t be certain how much a factor the early back injury had on Inciarte’s struggles and the subsequent drop off that Statcast showed. Still, he is now 29 and will soon start to see some of that athleticism slip away. Unlike other defense-first players, though, Inciarte doesn’t really rely on his speed, so he may retain defensive value further into his 30s — it’s something to watch.
Inciarte is under contract through 2021 with a team option for 2022. Atlanta could look to move him this season but they don’t have a lot of options for center field besides moving Ronald Acuña Jr. there full time, which doesn’t seem like something that they are eager to do.
If Inciarte can put the injuries behind him then there is reason to believe that he can still play a key part in the outfield. Even in his very best season at the plate, he was about a league-average hitter, but his defensive ability in the outfield gives him value. He could probably benefit from sitting against tough lefties, as he’s hit for a 79 wRC+ against southpaws in his career.
One of the storylines to watch this offseason will be how the Braves handle their outfield situation. They have already re-signed Nick Markakis to a one-year deal with the idea of shifting him to left field and using him as a platoon player. That would seem to leave center for Inciarte with Acuña shifting over to right field. If Atlanta does move Inciarte, then they would likely move Acuña there but would need to add someone else who could serve as a backup.
If Inciarte remains on the roster and if he can maintain his health, then I expect to see him play a big part again with the Braves in 2020.