Ender Inciarte’s six-year run with the Atlanta Braves came to an end in 2021. While his performance dipped over the last three seasons, Inciarte deserves some credit for helping Atlanta through their rebuild, playing a big role on the 2018 division-winner (2.9 fWAR) and chipping in during 2019 (0.9 fWAR) as well.
The Braves acquired Inciarte on December 9, 2015 from the Arizona Diamondbacks in the trade that also brought Aaron Blair and Dansby Swanson to Atlanta in exchange for Shelby Miller and Gabe Speier. While most of the focus on that trade was on Swanson, Inciarte stepped right into the Braves’ outfield and made an immediate impact. He hit .291/.351/.381 with 24 doubles and seven triples in 2016 in his first season with Atlanta. He also captured the first of three straight Gold Glove Awards and inked a five-year, $30.5 million extension with the club that offseason.
That deal looked good at the time but as is often the case in baseball, didn’t age particularly well. Inciarte turned in another strong season in 2017, logging 201 hits while hitting .304/.350/.409 and earned his first trip to the All-Star Game. At the time, the Braves were still progressing through a rebuild and the question was out there as to whether or not they should trade Inciarte when his value was at its peak. The comments and replies on Twitter are still humorous to revisit.
In 2018, Inciarte overcame a slow start and helped the Braves to their first division title since the rebuild. Things started to go south from there as he continued to be hampered by back and lower leg injuries that sapped his effectiveness.
There was a lot of talk before the 2021 season as to whether or not Inciarte would be part of the Opening Day roster. Numerically, he was projected to amass between 0.1 and 0.7 WAR on the season in a part-time role, basically a lower-echelon bench player. He ultimately made the Opening Day as a reserve and saw some sporadic playing time early, including four starts, before injuries derailed him again.
2021 Season results
Inciarte began the season as a reserve outfielder and actually got off to a decent enough start at the plate before hitting the injured list on April 17 due to a strained left hamstring. He returned to the active roster on May 14 but hit just .194/.250/.250 over 69 plate appearances before going on the COVID list on July 19. Inciarte wouldn’t see the active roster again as he was designated for assignment on July 24 and was released five days later.
Inciarte signed a minor league deal with the Reds on August 5 and hit .288/.354/.339 with 15 games for their Triple-A affiliate in Louisville but was again released on August 28.
All in all, it was kind of the crater for Inciarte, with a 59 wRC+ and a .227 xwOBA. As a slap hitter, Inciarte has routinely foiled xwOBA — his career wOBA-over-xwOBA gap in the Statcast era is .032! That he outhit his xwOBA by roughly that amount in 2021 yet still ended up with a 59 wRC+ is woeful. He did play some pretty good defense in his tiny sample, with +1 DRS, +2 UZR, and +2 OAA, which was enough to give him positive fWAR despite the awful hitting, but just barely: Inciarte ended 2021 with 0.1 fWAR across 89 PAs.
Ender Inciarte 2021 Stats
What went right? / What went wrong?
Inciarte seemed to be clinging to a roster spot entering the 2021 season and was no doubt aided by the $8.7 million he was owed thanks to that long-ago contract extension. The Braves had enough turnover in the outfield that he would have gotten an opportunity had simply been able to stay healthy. However, Inciarte hasn’t been able to stay on the field since the start of 2019.
Offensively, pretty much everything went wrong, as his strikeout rate ballooned while his contact quality, already miserable, somehow dipped even further. Combine that with his lowest-ever line drive rate, and that’s a recipe for a very bad stew. Defensively, again, he did rebound in a tiny sample from a decline that seemingly took hold in 2019 and persisted into 2020. But, when you’re essentially dead last in how hard and effectively you hit the ball, that won’t keep you on a roster.
Road to the Title
WPA doesn’t account for defense (it should), and Inciarte managed a horrendous -1.05 WPA in his 89 PAs, seemingly coming up in a bunch of key spots when he was on the field. WPA is kind of a counting stat (though positive and negative values cancel each other out), but Inciarte still managed to finish in the bottom 100 (out of over 700 players, including pitchers, with at least 10 PAs in 2021) in WPA, despite playing for the equivalent of less than a month.
With that said, he did have a couple of big games for the Braves this year, including one where he had a pinch-hit single on an 0-2 count to start the ninth in a one-run game. After reaching base, he ultimately scored the tying run (on a bases-loaded walk!) in a walkoff victory. That little event makes Inciarte the first player in this series to contribute his highest cWPA of the season in a Braves win. Here’s that April 15 single in all of its 0.07% cWPA goodness:
(We’ll just ignore that, on the season, Inciarte cost the Braves -0.61% WPA, which is again, a pretty big number considering it came in just 89 PAs!)
Outlook for 2022
Inciarte’s future is unclear. He just turned 31 at the end of October. By all accounts, he is a solid teammate and a good person to have in a clubhouse so it wouldn’t be out of the question to see him get a shot somewhere in 2022. Still, the leg injuries are a major concern, even if you look past his extreme lack of oomph. Perhaps a transition to coaching is in his future.
It became fashionable to hate on Inciarte at the end of his run and he seemingly went from being a good value to overpaid overnight. Still, he was a reason to watch the 2016 and 2017 Braves when there weren’t many good reasons to tune in. It is too bad that he wasn’t able to stick with the team through the end and be part of the World Series celebration. It’s also somewhat sad, in a meta-sense, that the Braves took off this season by ignoring outfield defense in favor of mashing baseballs, a strategy that seems to perfectly align with the last half-decade of play. Inciarte is an extreme case, for sure, but if things keep going like they are, there won’t be room for anyone of his ilk on a major league roster.