Ender Inciarte was not young when he was called up to play in a decimated outfield in 2014; he’s now 25 years old, and it may be the case that he doesn’t get much better than he was in 2015, at least on defense. What he is, though, is a very good player. Inciarte was exactly average on offense in 2015 (100 wRC+). When a player adds average offense with average defense at a not-particularly-hard position, you get an average player, which is more valuable than it sounds. When a player adds average offense with very good defense at a particularly hard position, you get an above-average player. Maybe a well above average player. Maybe an All-Star player.
Inciarte will wear a Braves jersey now, after the trade that brought Shelby Miller to Arizona. David Peralta has played his way into full time starter status, A.J. Pollock might be the second-best outfielder in baseball, and Yasmany Tomas will get a shot to start full time as we wait to see whether he can take a big step forward. Barring injury, Inciarte wasn’t going to be a full time starter on the championship version of the D-backs. He was, though, positioned to be just as valuable to that club as a full-time starter can be.
In what was nearly a full season of playing time, Ender Inciarte just put up 3.3 wins above replacement by the Fangraphs measurement, and 5.3 wins as calculated at Baseball-Reference. A three win player is an All-Star player. He brought a tremendous glove, a steady bat without much of a platoon split, and the positional flexibility to allow the D-backs to carry just four outfielders for most of the season, which eased the strain of using a 13-man pitching staff and for one month-plus stretch, carrying three catchers.
Say each of three starting outfielders played 90% of games when on the roster, but that they also each lost a 15-day stretch to the DL for a minor injury. Even in those fairly rosy circumstances, there would be about 75 outfield starts that would need to be filled by one or two other players — the equivalent of half a full-time player. Say that backup player was your average miserable backup type, someone with good defense but who produced runs at a 40% worse than average clip (60 wRC+). Giving that player half time status subtracts almost as much value as you would gain by swapping Peralta out for a clone of A.J. Pollock. Not quite… but almost.
Time shares are great. You can plug players in strategically based on who’s banged up or fighting a cold, based on starting pitcher matchups… the list goes on. Yes, to facilitate a 4-man, 3-position time share, sometimes each player plays a little bit less than they might have in other circumstances. But how do we know, for instance, that Pollock could have posted a better year by starting a few more games? He played in 157 games, but with a handful of pinch hit appearances; he started just 143 games in the field and only 138 of those were end-to-end. Rested and fresh is good. And, if we can extend a pitching injury principle: not playing fatigued as often might help avoid serious injury.
The three outfield spots is the most obvious and easy place to have a 4-man, 3-position time share, and all you really need to make that work is two outfielders capable of starting in center field. The great thing about pitching is it’s fungible; the best starters can start. With position players, it’s not exactly the same thing, as your few best players might be fighting for time at one spot. But as position players go, Ender Inciarte may be the most fungible in the sport: he’s an above average player at three outfield spots, and he fits in your outfield even if you already have three starters. If you can take full advantage of Inciarte as a starter, great; you might have your self a player worth 3 or 5 wins above replacement. If you only play him part time in a time share, he might still be worth 2 or 3 wins, while doing some other good things for your roster.
Inciarte might improve close to every team in baseball, because he fits so many situations and is just good enough to make just about any of those situations better. That’s probably why this is happening:
#Braves GM Coppolella on Inciarte: “We have been contacted by more teams with interest in Inciarte than there were with Shelby Miller…
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) December 18, 2015
If Socrates Brito, Peter O’Brien or whoever else is used in the 2016 outfield is barely better than replacement level, the D-backs will absolutely miss Inciarte. If one of Pollock, Peralta or Tomas miss a significant part of the year to injury, the D-backs will absolutely miss Inciarte. Only one team can win the World Series every year, and it makes sense for a team like the D-backs to plan as if most things go right. With Inciarte, though, the D-backs didn’t have a backup player; they had an insurance policy with a high cash value and a very high likelihood of paying out.
They also had a player that was damned fun to watch. I thought 9-3 groundouts were cool, but I think 9-6 fielder’s choices might be cooler.
The man could run, and it seemed like he always worked a decent at bat against lefties and took advantage of mistakes.
Even if the mistakes were in the infield.
Inciarte probably was the 5th or 6th best and most valuable player on the D-backs as of the end of last season. It’s possible that the D-backs made the 2016 club better by trading for Shelby Miller. But Miller would have to be pretty damned good.
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