The best and most timely defensive play of the year happened in Citi Field on Sept. 21. The Mets were fighting for their playoff lives but were on the verge of being swept by the Atlanta Braves. After blowing a three-run lead, the Mets had one chance in the bottom of the ninth at a redemptive win on a powerful swing off the bat of Yoenis Cespedes.
“When it left the bat, I was like, ‘Aw, man,’” Braves manager Brian Snitker said that night.
Braves center fielder Ender Inciarte had no time for thinking or lamenting. He only had time for sprinting. He raced back to the wall in right-center, timed his leap perfectly, stretched out his right arm to just over the orange line, squeezed tight and held on as his feet touched back on the warning track.
“He willed himself to catch that ball,” Snitker said.
There were wills and there were ways for Inciarte throughout 2016. He was rewarded with the NL’s Gold Glove Award for center field, the first of his career. He’s the fourth Braves center fielder to win one, joining Dale Murphy, Marquis Grissom and Andruw Jones. Jones won 10 in a row from 1998 to 2007.
“Braves fans are used to seeing that from Andruw Jones,” Inciarte said with a smile on the Braves' game telecast moments after the catch. “I’m just trying to copy him.”
What makes Inciarte great
There’s no shame in being a Jones clone. Like Jones, Inciarte, 26, excels on catching balls hit to the shallowest part of the outfield. Inciarte led the majors in range rating on shallow fly balls in 2016. He was 12 converted plays above average. In other words, take every batted ball hit against the Braves with Inciarte on the field, and the sum of his catches would have been 12 greater than the average center fielder.
In the prime of Jones' career, his throwing arm was a high-value asset. That’s also true for Inciarte. His 12 assists were the most by an NL center fielder, and his four double plays started tied for most in the majors. He has an arm that is very strong, and it’s one that is only getting better.
“He’s become more rational in his decision-making with his throws, which was something Kirk Gibson was urging him to contain in Arizona,” a major league scout said. “He used to believe so much in his arm strength that throws became reckless and forced. He doesn’t do that anymore.”
The maturity in decision-making has extended to other areas of his game as well.
“It seemed like before, he had trouble getting jumps on balls and always made up for it with his speed,” said pitcher Brad Ziegler, a former Diamondbacks teammate who is still an admirer from afar. “But now he’s gotten really good at reading the ball off the bat, and it’s put him on another level. He’s become a star player. He’s a lot better at deciding when to go for the risky play. He’s really special to watch.”
What the numbers show
Inciarte actually had better defensive numbers in 2015 with the Diamondbacks, but might have been inadvertently hurt come awards season that year by being too versatile. His 29 defensive runs saved ranked second in the majors to Kevin Kiermaier, but since Inciarte’s time (and runs saved total) was split between right field (13 runs saved), left field (12) and center (4), he didn’t necessarily stand out at one spot.
Those who studied closely knew how good Inciarte was. He won “The Fielding Bible” Award for multi-position excellence in 2015.
The Braves also knew how good he was, netting him with shortstop Dansby Swanson and pitcher Aaron Blair in an offseason trade that sent Shelby Miller to the Diamondbacks. Fredi Gonzalez, who started 2016 as the Braves' manager before being fired in May, and then Snitker put Inciarte in center field and let him do what he does.
On April 6, the second game of the season, he foreshadowed what was to come, making a diving catch on Ryan Zimmerman and then throwing a strike to double up Bryce Harper at first base. Fans would have to wait for the full glimpse, as Inciarte strained his hamstring the next game and missed a month. But once he returned, he was pretty good.
This season, Inciarte made 117 of his 126 starts in center field. He was second to Reds center fielder Billy Hamilton in defensive runs saved and ultimate zone rating (UZR) at that position, but led in other metrics, including a lesser-known metric, Total Zone Runs. That allowed Inciarte to have an edge in the statistical component (known as SDI) that makes up 25 percent of the Gold Glove vote.
How important was that? Fifteen of the 18 winners ranked either first or second in SDI when the last set of numbers were released in August.
The Braves have Inciarte under contractual control for the next four seasons. He is still growing as a hitter, batting .291 with a .351 on-base percentage but only a .381 slugging percentage last season, which made him an overall slightly below-average offensive player. But he is highly polished in the field.
ESPN baseball analyst Doug Glanville notes Inciarte has “a range of skills” and that the one area of improvement for him would be in eliminating the pre-throw crow hop, which would allow him to get rid of the ball quicker. But the package is there to be Jones-like dominant.