Ender Inciarte hit leadoff for the Diamondbacks last night. That’s probably not surprising because on the season, he’s hit in the leadoff spot 58 times. If you told me before the season that Ender Inciarte was going to be the team’s leadoff man for over a third of Arizona’s games, I’d have said you were crazy. Either that or the season was about to go horribly wrong. We know how that turned out.
This isn’t about Ender Inciarte as a leadoff man, though. After a bunch of talk about optimizing lineups and consistently slotting players in specific lineup spots last season, there’s been very little chatter this season on the matter. Maybe that’s because the lineup has continually shifted out of necessity or maybe its just because we’ve all given up. Either way, Ender Inciarte has his spot in the lineup for the time being. The only question is, what role should he play going forward?
If you’re a regular here at Inside the ‘Zona, first of all, thank you for being a regular. Second, you’ve probably come to realize that my co-author, Ryan Morrison, and I rarely disagree. We have similar outlooks, similar preferences and a familiar love for the game. Sure, his passion for tandem starters is a little wonky, and maybe he finds my desire to find the next great minor league Diamondback somewhat strange, but by and large, we see eye-to-eye. But not entirely so when it comes to Ender Inciarte.
I’m not going to state Ryan’s case for Ender, because he already did it last week. Instead, I’ll focus on my take and you can be the judge. No, really, read both pieces and leave us a comment. Just make sure you vote for me (#TeamJeff).
My issue with Inciarte stems from something that’s gotten a ton of press over the last few days: the way we value defensive contributions in the WAR metric. If you know WAR, you know that it’s an imperfect model to express player value that is comparable across leagues, positions and time. It’s context-neutral and thus is incredibly applicable in many, many instances. We love WAR, and while it’s imperfect, it’s pretty freaking awesome.
But back to defense: how much should it count towards a player’s value? Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports took Dave Cameron and the rest of the SABR community head-on early this week when he wrote that WAR was fatally flawed due to it including too much defense and not enough offense for position players. At the core, Passan argued that we don’t know enough about defense to value it so heavily and that we should reduce the portion of defensive performance in WAR value for position players. Of course, he had no suggestion for how much to reduce it by or no evidence of a better way to do things, which didn’t really help his argument. Instead, Dave Cameron wrote a really thoughtful response that’s going to be an important piece in the SABR world for a long time. You should read it.
But back to Ender Inciarte. He’s been worth 2.2 WAR through 99 games in 2014. While that’s way more than we ever thought we’d see of Inciarte, the value has thoroughly exceeded expectations. Beleive it or not, that actually places Inciarte second in WAR among National League rookie position players, putting him at least at the fringes of Rookie of the Year discussions. Great debut, Ender, great debut.
But where is that value coming from? If you’ve watched many of Inciarte’s at-bats this season, you probably said “defense” aloud when reading the at questions, and guess what, you’re right! He’s struggled to hit all season, as was projected by scouts who saw him as a weak bat the highest level. He’d barely hit for a hollow average in the upper minors, and anyone will tell you, the gap between the PCL and National League is massive. MASSIVE.
Yet Inciarte has produced value. This is because he’s been stellar in the outfield. He was known as an outstanding defender in the minors, earning remarks for having the strongest arm in the Arizona minor league system from Baseball America last season and we already knew he could run. Stuck in center field, Ender Inciarte is already murdering it. He’s rated as the third most valuable outfielder in the National League by FanGraphs’ DEF metric, which is a counting stat, meaning that Inciarte is in the top three while playing nearly 40 games less than his competitors. If we instead evaluate him on a rate basis, using UZR/150 (ultimate zone rating per 150 games played) and filter for all NL outfielders with at least 500 innings in the field, he’s just a hair behind Juan Lugares (who’s creating his own defensive stir) for the title as the best outfield defender in the National League. So, um, yeah, he’s been good.
But notice something about that last sentence. No, not the awkward pause. The word been. I chose that deliberately over the word is. Because UZR tells a story, and I’m quoting Ryan here, of what’s taken place. Ender Inciarte has been amazing in the field this year. That is a fact. Will he continue to be amazing in the field going forward? That we can’t say. Think of the last defensive outfield whiz in Arizona, Gerardo Parra. His defense sure faded, and when it did, so did his value. Now, we can chalk Parra’s slide up to age, losing a step, gaining a few pounds, or some combination of the above. Inciarte is younger and should be immune from those things or a few years, but the fact is this: UZR takes a long time to stablilize (about three years), meaning that we don’t know the true talent level of a player in the field for several seasons. And that’s assuming the player is a full time regular. If you’re keeping score, Inciarte will register a little over half a season’s worth of data by the time 2014 comes to a close, meaning we’d need to see a lot more from him before we could say with any kind of confidence just what kind of player he is. We know what he’s done, but we don’t know what he is or what he’s going to be.
And without being able to really count on Inciarte’s stellar defense, although I am pretty sure it’ll continue to be good, I’m hesistant as to how much we should value him. Is he an every day guy? I don’t think so. With a wRC+ of 77, he clearly isn’t much at the plate. For a team that’s near the bottom of the league in on-base percentage, Inciarte’s .306 OBP isn’t helping. He’s not a finished product offensively, but he’s had inconsistent OBP’s in the minors and it may be a while before he takes a significant step forward, if he ever does at all. We know there will never be any power and he’s no Dee Gordon on the bases, so the upside at the plate is pretty limited. A hollow average and mediocre OBP might be the best-case scenario, and that’s if everything clicks. What if it doesn’t? I’m not betting on major offensive gains for Inciarte. This feels like a one-year, defense-aided season in which a guy came out of the team’s periphery to do something pretty spectacular.
This doesn’t mean that Inciarte is without his place, however. I think he can make the Diamondbacks a better team, and while I’m not in favor of giving him a ton of starts, I think he should see some time against right-handed hitters, as Ryan suggested, and spend the rest of his time being a super-sub in late-inning situations or used as a pinch runner. This is the quintessential role as the team’s fourth outfielder. He should play roughly five times a week, starting twice and subbing in very frequently for Mark Trumbo or whoever else ends up in left field. The defense is legit this season and should probably continue to be good, but the offense just lacks the upside needed to make Inciarte an every day guy. His WAR total would suggest that he’s worthy, but I’m just not sold that the defense holds up at the same level. And if it goes south, even a little, he’s far less valuable than originally thought.
I like Ender Inciarte. He’s done some good things for this club, although that was never really expected of him. He’s a terrific defender who doesn’t hit a lot, but just how good of a defender he is can’t quite be clearly seen. We know he’s been good, though, that much is clear. Is it enough to start him regularly in 2015? Not for me. This team needs to score more runs and leverage it’s pieces to full, maximized utility. By using Enciarte as a spot starter against righties and a super-sub frequently on defense, I think this team can maximize his skill set. But, I’m open to other ideas if you’ve got ’em.
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