Feb. 17, 2019 Lake Buena Vista: Atlanta Braves outfielder Ender Inciarte reacts on the field during spring training at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex on Sunday, Feb. 17, 2019, in Lake Buena Vista. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

‘Second-half mentality’ for Inciarte at the start would be big boost for Braves

“My mind has to be ready from the first game of the season, from Day One,” Inciarte said Monday at Braves spring training. “I feel like once I’m getting close to the end, my mind and body is so ready to go. At the beginning, once you kind of have a bad game, (you think) ‘I still have a long time to fix it.’ I shouldn’t think like that.” 

It would be a big deal for the Braves if Inciarte can get his mind right during spring training and be ready to rake on Opening Day. Manager Brian Snitker is considering batting Inciarte at the top of the order, a move that would put Ronald Acuna’s power in the four hole with Josh Donaldson and Freedie Freeman in between. 

Inciarte began 2018 batting first but Snitker dropped him down in the order after Inciarte had his slowest start since becoming a lineup regular. In 91 games played before the All-Star break Inciarte hit .243 with a .312 on-base percentage. The OBP was worst among Braves starters and, considering Inciarte’s typical lack of power (.337 slugging percentage), he probably was the worst overall hitter early in the year. 

The slow start was nothing new for Inciarte. The exception was 2017, the year Inciarte got his first and only the All-Star nod. Last season was Inciarte’s worst start offensively since becoming a lineup regular and, considering his typical lack of power (.337 slugging percentage), he probably was the worst overall hitter in the lineup before the All-Star break. 

And then, suddenly, Inciarte was one of the best. Over the final 65 games Inciarte hit .302 and slugged .448 with a .345 on-base percentage. Acuna was on another level after the break, but Inciarte was right there in a group that included Freeman and Johan Camargo. 

Inciarte said “the biggest change was in my mind” with less focus on results. He says he was hitting the ball hard early in the season but not getting good outcomes. StatCast data shows that Inciarte had a much higher percentage of hard-hit balls after the break vs. before but, baseball being a funny game, maybe it matters more what Inciarte thinks happened. 

In any event, the timing of Inciarte’s surge in production was fortuitous for the Braves. 

“When the team got a little bit cold, I got a little bit hot,” Inciarte said. “I was able to help the team in one of the most important parts of the year. I will stay with that. We went to the playoffs and I wouldn’t change anything.” 

Inciarte has a unique position among Braves regulars. There’s long-time lynchpin Freeman and newcomer Donaldson, two veterans with long track records of big production. There’s Acuna and Ozzie Albies, who are just beginning what could end up being superb careers. 

There there’s Inciarte, who is somewhere in between. 

Inciarte won’t be 29 years old until October so he’s still in his prime. So far, he’s produced one All-Star season among three as a Braves regular. Yet Inciarte is an old pro compared to Acuna and Albies. The former hadn’t yet signed when Inciarte debuted in the majors, and the latter was playing rookie ball. 

Inciarte was a late bloomer, at least by today’s standards. He debuted in the majors at 24 years old, was mostly a platoon guy for the Diamondbacks over two seasons and then became an everyday center fielder for the Braves in 2016. 

Inciarte is young enough baseball-wise that you hope you can get a little more from him. You pretty much know what you can expect, and that’s good and bad. 

It’s good because even if Inciarte doesn’t give you much at the plate he’s going to be great in center field. He’s been a pleasure to watch while winning three consecutive NL Gold Glove Awards. 

But staggering starts offensively also are the norm for Inciarte. If he can sort that out he’d have a more consistent bat to go along with the great glove. Then the Braves would have one of the better bargains in baseball: Inciarte will make $22 million through 2021, part of the extension he signed in December 2016. 

Remember, Inciarte was viewed as a throw-in when the Braves acquired him from Arizona along with prized prospect Dansy Swanson for Shelby Miller during the 2015 offfseason. Miller hasn’t regained his All-Star form and Swanson so far has struggled as a hitter. 

The Braves won the NL East in 2018 because they got the usual production from their veterans plus some surprise contributions elsewhere. Maybe this will be the year Inciarte produces offense from beginning to end, and maybe that will be the thing that puts the Braves over the top again. 

“I am going to bring my second-half mentality from spring training on,” Inciarte said.

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About the Author

Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham has covered the Hawks and other beats for the AJC since 2010.