Ender Inciarte was dropped in the Braves lineup by Brian Snitker on Sunday, April 29th to the 9th spot, away from his customary spot of leading off, since establishing himself there in early 2016. This move had been a hot topic in the week or two leading up to the change by us here and many others on Twitter, which means that this article originally started out as an argument for the change to be made. In true Braves Twitter fashion, it still seems to be a hot topic of debate, despite the obvious benefits of giving more plate appearances to their 2 best hitters of late, Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuña.
So not to let good material go to waste, I will be using it to argue for why the change is probably best for the team and Ender as a hitter.
The Braves most notorious defensive wizard and Twitter.com name searcher has accrued 2006 plate appearances in the lead off spot over his career. In those plate appearances, he has slashed .301/.346/.403. That’s respectable, though hardly elite. In fact, not a single one of his plate appearances, lead off or otherwise, have come for a team that finished with more than 79 wins in that teams respective season. The Braves are currently on pace for quite a few more than that And to give the team its best shot at accomplishing that, Inciarte cannot lead off for the Braves anymore.
Immediately you’ll point to the 201 hit season he had just last year. And it’s true, 2017 was the best offensive season of his career. His .304/.350/.409 line was good for a whopping 100 wRC+. Exactly league average.
And to replicate that output again, Inciarte would have to repeat his uptick in the power department from last season, where he clubbed 11 home runs, 27 doubles, and 5 triples to reach a .106 ISO, which was the 6th worst among all hitters who qualified for the batting title last season. Aside from Dansby Swanson, who sits 4th on that list due to a historically disappointing sophomore slump more than his skillset, the other 4 names are light hitting speedsters you might recognize: Jose Peraza, Dee Gordon, Billy Hamilton, and D.J. LeMahieu.
Everyone recognizes those names because they are all useful players who are known for their volatility year to year. Gordon and LeMahieu both have won a batting title, only to have regressions the next season due to not being able to sustain the increased power that made them all the more valuable the previous season. Of course, Gordon was famously hit with an 80 game suspension the following season, but he slugged just .340 in the month of April before the suspension, and only .333 after returning from the suspension on July 28th, helping his ISO shrink from .085 in 2015 to a .068 mark. This was a huge drop off from his .418 slugging in his batting title season. Similarly, LeMahieu saw his slugging drop from .495 to .409 the year after his batting title, landing him at a .099 mark for 2017, down from .147.
Do you know what else these guys have in common? None of them have ever hit leadoff for a playoff team.
Well, that part isn’t completely true. Dee Gordon did hit leadoff for the 2014 Dodgers, but if anything, that held them back from being an even better team. Gordon was the 9th worst hitter out of the 11 on that Dodgers team that saw at least 200 plate appearances. Gordon came just ahead of an injured Andre Ethier and Clayton Kershaw’s personal catcher A.J Ellis. An outrageous breakout from Justin Turner, a great Yasiel Puig, and still effective and healthy performances from Carl Crawford, Hanley Ramirez, and Barves Legends Matt Kemp and Adrian Gonzalez are what made them a playoff team. Not to mention two should be future Hall of Famers heading the rotation.
So, now that I’ve briefly summarized the lack of success of teams without Magic Johnson/Hollywood money in the modern era that employ this type of hitter in the leadoff spot, let’s check back in with 2018 and see how Ender Inciarte is doing.
.254/.307/.319, good for a 75 wRC+.
And like clockwork, he has played directly into the archetype. Just 6 of his 35 hits in 2018 this far have gone for extra bases. Worse than that, check out the spray charts.
Once again, the data doesn’t lie. All of Inciarte’s extra base hits that have stayed in the park (so, 5 out of 6) have been line drives. And the fact is, he is only hitting line drives at about a 21% rate, which is easily the lowest of his career so far, and obviously down from the 23.3% rate he had accrued entering the season. He’s also been hitting balls softer than ever before, as his hard and medium contact rates have both hit career lows, while his soft contact has seen a decent bump. At the plate, Ender is just not clicking the way he was in 2017.
Teams like the Braves, who absolutely do not have Dodger money in any shape or form, cannot afford to continue batting Inciarte lead off regularly if they wish to make it to the playoffs. This is no longer the era of Cameron Maybin, or Jonny Gomes, or Gordon Beckham. The Braves are the most talented they have been since 2014. Inciarte is, by a big margin, the worst performing full-time starter on the team at the plate this season. Ozzie Albies is a top 30 hitter in baseball this season. Ronald Acuña Jr. is performing at the insanely high level he was expected to. For arguments sake, even Nick Markakis has risen from the dead to hit at a rate not seen by him in a decade. The Braves finally have the depth and talent to achieve greater success at the top of the order without Inciarte.
This is all seeming very negative, but Inciarte is still a fantastic defender at one of the toughest positions on the diamond, his instruction from first base coach Eric Young has shown outrageous results on the base paths, and I and many others still believe he can hit well enough to be an everyday player for a while longer. But it probably isn’t going to happen from the lead off spot. At least not right now. The Braves need to give their best hitters more plate appearances than their worst. Batting Inciarte 9th adds a new dimension and layer to the Braves offense. If Ender suddenly had a Charlie Blackmon like breakout, of course, that should change. But conventional wisdom and scouting tells us that Ender is definitely more Gordon than Blackmon, and should be used as such.
Who should hit leadoff? That is the next interesting discussion. While Ozzie makes much more quality contact than Ender, he has the same plate discipline profile. I expect an adjustment period to come for Ozzie where he will have to decide how to handle much fewer pitches in the zone.
As they are currently performing, I think Nick Markakis looks like the winner here. Slide Ozzie back to #2 and let Acuna hit behind Freddie.
I definitely wouldn’t mind Markakis leading off. I don’t think he’ll keep up the homerun pace, but his walks and doubles should remain. And some of those homers that aren’t homers anymore will be added to a doubles pace that already matches career highs there.