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Don’t Look Now, But Ender’s Game Might Be Back

Forgiving the bad pun in the title, the Braves’ Ender Inciarte has been mostly useless for fantasy purposes this season. However, he has been turning it on lately. Is he really back?

San Diego Padres v Atlanta Braves Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Remember that awful trade between Atlanta and Arizona last offseason. You know the one where Atlanta sent a poorly drawn caricature of Shelby Miller to Arizona and they sent back their top prospect in Dansby Swanson and a productive outfielder named Ender Inciarte and one of their top pitching prospects in Aaron Blair. But Arizona did get someone named Gabe Speier back too, so they’ve got that going for them, which is nice.

Anyway, we all know what has happened since then. Miller has been one of the worst starters in baseball, Swanson has been promoted straight from AA to the majors, Blair has pitched for the Braves this year, and Inciarte has been a starter for them all season. The Braves have already dominated this trade and Swanson is just starting to have value.

However, I’m sure the Braves would have liked to see better offensive production from Ender. To illustrate this, take a look at his 2015 and 2016 numbers side by side:

PA HR R RBI SB AVG OBP SLG ISO BABIP K% BB% Hard%
2015 561 6 73 45 21 0.303 0.338 0.408 0.105 0.329 10.30% 4.60% 26%
2016 468 3 63 27 13 0.291 0.353 0.384 0.092 0.326 11.30% 8.10% 23.30%

The batting average, slugging percentage, steals, homers, RBI, and ISO are down. His walk rate and OBP have surged this year, but that has been the lone improvement. His average has fallen despite nearly the same BABIP. So, it’s not been a great 2016 so far, but look at his rates since the all-star break:

AVG OBP SLG BABIP Hard %
1st Half 0.227 0.294 0.306 0.255 18.70%
2nd Half 0.368 0.423 0.477 0.411 28.70%

Well there is both good and bad news in this table. The good news is that his hard hit percentage has jumped up by 10%. The bad news is that his second half performance is very much driven by a nutty 0.411 BABIP. These two things are certainly related, but a league-averageish hard hit rate is not enough to carry a +0.400 BABIP. Before just leaving it there and saying that Ender’s great second half numbers are not a sign of a change in skills but merely an overcorrection in BABIP from the first half to the second, I’m going to dig just a little bit more.

Interestingly, his walk and strikeout rates are almost identical between the two time periods. His high ground ball rate is also nearly unchanged (about 47% in both halves), along with his infield fly ball %. Some things that did change include an increase in line drives in the second half with an equal decrease in fly balls. This 8% surge to 28% line drives could certainly lead to a big jump in BABIP since liners produce higher BABIPs than any other type of batted ball by a large margin.

But then there’s this:

That shows the rolling average of both his line drive and hard hit %. It’s weird that they don’t line up in the second half of the season. His line drive % is declining when his hard hit rate surges. This tells me that he is definitely hitting the ball harder, even on grounders and fly balls, and line drives don’t tell the whole story for his inflated BABIP. That’s good because line drive rates are very noisy and are not predictive. Let’s add his pulled ball % to the graph and see what happens.

He is clearly pulling the ball more in the second half (the yellow line). That usually leads to an increase in power, especially homers, but since Ender isn’t a home run type of guy, it just increases his doubles and singles. More line drives, then more hard hits and pulling the ball more? Let’s go to the Statcast data to see if he is truly improving here.

Looking at the rolling average (black line, average of 20 balls in play at a time), he has certainly been increasing his exit velocity in the second half. Side note: Fangraphs provided the previous data and graphs, while Baseball Savant provided the Statcast data. He had a hamstring injury that kept him out for most of April, but it is doubtful that he was still nursing that injury into June, so I don’t think that is the explanation here.

In the end, Inciarte looks like he really is getting back to his 2015 form. He had a rough start to the year, but this recent surge driven by BABIP luck, line drive luck, pulling the ball more, and hitting the ball harder looks like it will drive his season long numbers close to his 2015 stats. I expect him to continue hitting well for the rest of the year and he might be useful to teams looking for runs and steals down the stretch. His increase in hard hits looks very legit and I expect his season-long average and slugging to continue to rise.

In 2017 I don’t expect him to establish a new performance level, just to keep being the good leadoff hitter he was in 2015. Over a full season, I would expect a 0.300 average, 25 steals, and 85 runs or so. If he can maintain his improved walk rate from this season, his OBP could easily be in the 0.360 range. That’s a fine fourth/fifth outfielder in most leagues and a solid starter in NL-only leagues. Tschus!