Why Ender Inciarte Is a Rookie of the Year Contender
Not a whole lot has gone right for the 55-78 Arizona Diamondbacks this season. But the Snakes may have found something in center field.
Rookie Ender Inciarte has put himself in the conversation for National League Rookie of the Year, thanks to a terrific rookie season as the Diamondbacks' lead-off hitter and center fielder. The 23-year-old didn't come into the season as one of the team's top-10 prospects in any preseason prospect publication, but has emerged as one of the top rookies in the National League.
Since becoming the D-Backs' everyday leadoff hitter on June 28, he's been one of the best in the National League, with a slash line of .296/.338/.403 and nine doubles, two triples, three homers, 31 runs scored, 16 RBI, and eight stolen bases. He also has a .329 weighted on-base average (wOBA) and weighted runs created (wRC+) of 105. And here is how his full-season numbers compare to other National League rookie position players in 2014.
Inciarte's wins above replacement of 1.9 is second-best among all NL rookies, trailing on Cincinnati's Billy Hamilton, the likely NL Rookie of the Year. His nERD is below average, but is comparable to Hamilton's and not a whole lot worse than the other rookies listed above. And while some of his offensive numbers don't indicate Inciarte has been an "impact" player, his month of August show a player who is on the rise.
This month, Inciarte trails only Russell Martin, Nolan Arenado and Starling Marte among all NL position players in fWAR, and his slash line of .311/.355/.447 as Arizona's lead-off hitter has been outstanding. Among National League center fielders this month, his 1.3 fWAR is tops, slightly higher than St. Louis' Jon Jay (1.2) and New York's Juan Lagares (1.1). He also had an 18-game hitting streak that was recently snapped, the longest by a rookie this season.
Much of Inciarte's value comes from his outstanding defense at one of the most important positions on the diamond. Again, with the caveat that defensive metrics have their flaws and are simply a best attempt at quantifying something that is difficult to quantify, FanGraphs has listed Inciarte as the third-best defensive center fielder in the National League this year, behind only Lagares and Hamilton (minimum 300 plate appearances). His 11 Defensive Runs Saved is second (trailing only Lagares' insane 30 DRS), and his eight outfield assists is second-best among NL rookies, only one behind Hamilton.
Inciarte doesn't walk a lot, with just a 5.0% walk rate this season, and a 5.9% walk rate since becoming Arizona's full-time leadoff hitter back on June 28. The league average is 7.6%. However, his season-long strikeout rate of 11.9% (it's 11.8% since June 28) is better than the league average, which is 20.9%. He puts the ball in play and likes to swing the bat, with a contact rate of 86.8%, higher than the league average of 78.7%. Inciarte also keeps the ball on the ground, with a ground ball rate of 54.5%, higher than the league average of 45.7%.
Arizona is actually lucky to still have Inciarte. Last year he was exposed to the Rule V draft and was selected by Philadelphia. He managed to make it through spring training and stayed on the Phillies' roster until he was waived three days into the 2013 season so Philadelphia could make room for Ezequiel Carrera. By rule, Inciarte was returned to the Diamondbacks, where he is now flourishing. By contrast, Carrera is no longer with the Phils.
Our projections see him finishing up the year with a .266/.319/.391 slash line, with a wOBA of .309, and an OPS of .710. There is still some work to do and some rough edges to smooth out, but Inciarte has emerged as one of the more promising young center fielders in the National League.
That's welcome news for an Arizona franchise that has not had a lot go right so far this season.