Well, guys, this one is difficult to sugarcoat. Or, really, the point is that the sugar didn’t help. 2020 came, and it wrecked Ender Inciarte. He went from “starter on a good team” to “toxic asset that’s probably off the team” in the span of one shortened season. It was grim, and while the season ended well before he had any chance of salvaging it, it’s not clear whether the Braves would have given him the playing time to do so anyway.
What went right? Uh... erm.... he barreled a ball? That’s not being glib. He literally barreled a single ball. Here it is:
Also, I guess there was a game where he was perfect, going 3-for-3 with a walk, with three of those leading off innings... but the Braves lost anyway. There wasn’t a lot to pick from here.
What went wrong? Pretty much everything. Good grief, it was awful. At the top line, Inciarte finished with -0.6 fWAR in 131 PAs, which is pretty horrendous if you’re keeping score. Much of the cross-section of player value just tanked. He had a 40 wRC+, which is real bad. There was literally one player with a worse batting line in as many or more PAs (Jo Adell).
Despite defense being his carrying tool, that too turned somewhat sinister in 2020. Previously, in 2019, Inciarte saw a dropoff from his usual gaudy defensive stats: his DRS dropped from 17 to -1 and his UZR from 7.2 to 0.6. Granted, he only played a partial season in 2019, and one year’s worth of defensive stats doesn’t mean much... but in 2020, he ended up with -1 DRS and -1.3 UZR. His OAA remained positive in 2019 (+3), but in 2020, again, it sank to -1, with him recording negative values on both coming in and going back for the first time in his career. A teeny sample, still, to be sure, but there was no relief from the 2020 doldrums to be found in Inciarte’s glovework, either.
We could talk at length about the dubious, bewildering offensive statistics he posted during his 131 PAs, though I’m not sure what the point would be. Still, one in particular stands out: in 2020, Inciarte set a new Statcast-era record for lowest average exit velocity, with 78.2 mph. His strikeout rate increase, he made less contact when swinging at the zone, he made way less contact when swinging outside the zone (not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself), and he had a “weak” contact rate (per Baseball Savant) of 12.8 percent, a rate four times higher than league average.
Baserunning was literally his only value-positive component, but even here, it was driven largely by his ability to “avoid” the double play... which was largely granted by how poorly he hit the ball in the first place. His baserunning and base stealing were marginally positive, but still somewhat sinister: he made at least one awful stolen base attempt decision, and his sprint speed continued to drop precipitously, going from average in 2019 to bottom-third in 2020.
Special mention to one memorably bad game for Inciarte in 2020: August 22, against the Phillies. Inciarte went 0-for-4 with three weak groundouts and a strikeout. Two ended innings, and the third came with the walkoff run on first and none out. The Braves ended up walking off anyway, but yeesh.
Outlook for 2021: Inciarte’s decline was so precipitous, and the depths to which he plunged so immense, that it seems to warrant some kind of explanation. One of those explanations is, of course, “Shrug, it was two months.” That’s probably the best one, but I went looking for others. The huge decline suggested that he was injured, but I couldn’t really find any evidence of that. Finding “sprint speed decliners” on or before age 30, focused specifically on guys who went from average or above to below average, did not suggest that this was an impossible occurrence, or that the guys who suffered it were hurt. Inciarte’s own history has certainly featured two-month lulls before (though none were quite this bad), and he recovered afterwards. Player performance varies so much over a two-month period that I can’t draw any real link between “being super-bad for eight weeks” and “playing injured.”
In some ways, 2020 (and perhaps the seasons beyond) are kind of the Revenge of the Projections for Inciarte. For years and years, they forecasted him to be more like an average player, and he reeled off 3-win seasons by outhitting his inputs. That didn’t quite happen in 2019, but he was also hurt, so there wasn’t really a chance to see whether he’d end up a 2-win guy or a 3-win guy over a full season (his pro-rated performance was closer to 2/600). After 2020, though, most projections are seeing him as closer to replacement level. Is that what’ll happen? Who knows.
I’m not sure we’ll get to see that resolution with Inciarte still in a Braves uniform, however. He was left off the playoff roster and didn’t even get called back up when Adam Duvall was hurt in the NLCS, as the Braves handed a starting role to Cristian Pache instead. He still owed $9.025 million, and if the expectations are truly that he’s at replacement-level going forward, he’s going to be hard to move. I’d guess he’s more of a fourth outfielder, backup at this point, but the Braves are going to have to convince some other team of that to be able to ship him off. Given the way the team has moved on from guys they’ve lost patience with fairly quickly (see Kevin Gausman, Mike Foltynewicz), I’m not sure he factors into Atlanta’s plans any longer, especially with Pache existing. In any case, he’ll be looking for redemption in 2021, but it might come against the Braves rather than with them.