Thursday, July 14, 2016

Is Ender Inciarte a Braves outfielder of the future?

Many people who watched the Braves in this terrible season have fallen in love with a few players. I think one of the primary players is Ender Inciarte, who has been something of a defensive revelation in center field. His speed and ability to make contact effectively have made him a unique asset in the organization that I didn't really expect.

The Braves acquired Ender as part of the famous Shelby Miller deal to the Diamondbacks, along with Dansby Swanson and Aaron Blair. If even one of those guys turns out to be a long term answer, that trade is a win. If two guys pan out it's an overwhelming win. The chances that all three pan out is damn near impossible but if that happened it would be one of the biggest one-sided trades in all of MLB history. And that's excluding if Shelby is a good player or not.

Offensively Ender has been pretty bad this season in total. He's hitting with a .599 OPS which is on the wrong side of terrible. He's batting with a .227 average, but almost no power as he's slugging .306 on the year. That slugging number is really the problem. For a center fielder with his speed, I need Ender to be a gap to gap doubles machine, with the ability to steal second or third when he's on base. And make no mistake, these are the lowest slugging numbers of his career, as he was slugging .386 for two seasons in Arizona. I could live with .386 and a .350+ OBP. I can't live with a .306 slugging number.

Ender's strikeout to walk ratio is good right now at 29-20, so he's not giving up a ton of outs at the plate and he has a good eye, which is key because he needs to be on base for his speed to be an asset. That brings up something of his bad luck when it comes to balls in play, because his current BABIP (Batting average on balls in play) is .255 on the year. Now, BABIP only matters for a couple of reasons, when it's absurdly high or low. When it's high, people will warn you that the player is out over his skis, and that he's got to return to normal at some point. When it's low, people will say he's having bad luck and he's not as bad of a hitter as his numbers. An average BABIP usually settles in somewhere between .290-.310 for a season. So by those metrics, Ender is getting screwed and is nowhere near as bad of a hitter as 2016 numbers would tell you, which also makes sense because he's at his lowest OPS in the last 3 years.

So based on what I'm seeing from Ender's career, assuming a normal average on balls in play over time, I think he's about a .270/.325/.380 slash line player offensively, with some room to grow. That would make him a .705 OPS guy, which isn't much to write home about, but there's some other elements to consider about Ender's value to this team. The first is his base stealing ability. He's stolen 48 in his career, and been caught 16 times. If he was an everyday starter, I'd imagine he could steal about 30 bases a year if the Braves made it a priority. That's a couple of ifs, but it's a key point that more steals means more RISP chances for him to score runs. And that's where Ender's value is going to be on this team, not with his slugging, but as a guy who increases his on-base percentage and crosses the plate a lot.

The other value Ender bring is defensive. As you know, I consider defense to be overrated when looking at player value at many positions. Center field is NOT one of those positions. Your up the middle infielders, and center fielder need to be the strongest defensive positions on the field. Your center fielder has to make reads, cover the most ground, and captain the defense in the outfield. Ender can do all that very well. In fact, he's already accumulated a 6.1 dWAR on baseball reference in 2.5 seasons. In fact, if you look at players that have over 1000 innings on Fangraphs over the last 3 years, you'll see that Ender ranks as 8th defensively in CF. Ahead of guys like Jackie Bradley Jr. and Carlos Gomez. That's not bad company.

Overall, we have to look at Ender Inciarte's value to the team related to contracts. He's 25 years old, under control until 2021. He'll hit arbitration next year and the Braves can decide to give him a longer term deal or not. I think they should, because it likely won't be that expensive to hold him. Right now he's making the league minimum essentially. If Ender can improve his batting slightly and hold on to his speed for another 5 years, I'd sign him to that deal. HOWEVER, I would never sign a guy like Ender for a second deal, because his speed is going to slump in his 30s, and he's not a good enough bat as constructed right now to demand that kind of value.

So is Ender Inciarte a longer term piece? I think for the near future it could work. I'd want him to anchor my outfield while guys like Mallex learn how to play in the corners. For what it will cost the Braves and the value they could get back? It makes a lot of sense to me that Ender will be a part of this club in SunTrust Park.

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