Virtually every part of the Braves’ performance has waned in recent weeks, and the team entered Wednesday with six losses in its past seven games and a 16-17 record since the beginning of June.
“Our total game, really,” manager Brian Snitker said of reasons behind the malaise. “We’ve been fighting through it, not as sharp as we had been. It’s just one of them things, I think, that you’ve got to fight through. It’s going to happen. We’re capable of, at any point, coming out and start reeling off a good streak.”
At times like these the lineup is the area most commonly cited by folks who want changes. Well, the lineup and the trade market. But the lineup is more immediate and many people just want to shake it up when the offense is slumping, particularly when the leadoff man isn’t providing much of a spark.
And Ender Inciarte hasn’t been.
Snitker hears it. He was asked about potential lineup changes by reporters Wednesday, and specifically whether he had thought about dropping Inciarte from the leadoff spot. And yes, he has thought about it.
But he hasn’t done it. At least not yet.
“I’ve thought about it. Can’t figure out what to do really,” Snitker said after penciling in Inciarte atop the order for the 18th consecutive game Wednesday night in the Braves’ series finale against the Blue Jays.
Snitker hit Inciarte in the sixth or seventh spots for a while and had All-Star second baseman Ozzie Albies hit leadoff and rookie Ronald Acuna bat second. But when Acuna hurt his knee May 27 and went on the disabled list, Inciarte moved back to the leadoff spot and Albies to the second spot.
Then with Inciarte slumping, Snitker moved Dansby Swanson into the second spot for a two-week stretch in June. But Snitker thought the Braves were at their best with Inciarte leading off when going right, so he moved Inciarte back to the leadoff spot June 22. But he’s not going right.
Inciarte went 4-for-11 in his first two games back atop the order. But in 15 games since, he was 11-for-59 (.186) with a .314 on-base percentage and .569 OPS before Wednesday.
For the season Inciarte had only a .231 average and .301 OBP in 50 games at the leadoff spot before Wednesday, while Albies had a .234 average and .283 OBP in 39 games at the leadoff spot. No other Brave hit leadoff in more than one game.
As a team, Braves leadoff hitters ranked 21st in the majors in average (.234) and 25th in OBP (.293).
Albies has fared far better in the second spot in the order, batting .323 (70-for-217) with a .354 OBP in 49 games at that position before Wednesday.
So, who should bat leadoff? That’s the problem. There’s no obvious candidate other than Inciarte or Albies.
Perhaps Acuna once he gets back into a groove, but that hasn’t happened yet: In 10 games since returning from the DL, Acuna was 9-for-36 (.250) with two homers, one walk, 14 strikeouts and a .289 OBP.
Besides, as Snitker said, “It’s not one or two guys. Offensively we just haven’t been hitting on all cylinders. I don’t know that it matters where they bat. I’ve come to the conclusion, they’re not going to pitch anybody any different (based on) where they’re hitting in the lineup.
“They’re going to pitch to the player, not to spot. And I don’t think they care anymore who’s behind him. Because with the information they have and how they plan attacks, it’s not about who’s behind you. It’s about that individual, is how they’re going to go about pitching to that guy.
“I firmly believe they’re going to get pitched the way they’re going to get pitched because of who they are, not where they’re hitting.”
In that case, he could try something a bit more radical by having resurgent Nick Markakis (.324 average, .391 OBP) bat leadoff. But Snitker understandably likes the production the Braves are getting from the Nos. 3-4 combination of All-Stars Freddie Freeman and Markakis followed by No. 5 hitter Kurt Suzuki when he’s in the lineup.
And moving Markakis from the 5-hole would seriously test Snitker’s theory of it not mattering who’s hitting behind whom.
Bottom line: The Braves need to get Inciarte going, to get something that’s at least a facsimile of the production he had during his 2017 All-Star season when Inciarte hit .304 with a .350 OBP and .752 OPS. Before Wednesday, he was hitting just .244 overall, with a .315 OBP and .655 OPS.