Outfield Depth: A Former All-Star Centerfielder
By Andy Singer
Photo Credit: Thearon W. Henderson, Getty Images
For all of the discussions we’ve had this offseason about the outfield, we have largely ignored the current in-house depth chart waiting in the wings down on the farm. In this short series, I’d like to take a look at a few players who could see time in the Bronx in 2022. Today, we’ll look at a former All-Star the Yankees were surprisingly able to pick up on a minor league deal prior to the lockout: Ender Inciarte.
Ender Inciarte was a hot name a few years ago, so it was pretty jarring to see his name come across the wire as a minor league signing. While we haven’t seen Inciarte play much baseball in 2020 or 2021, his skillset and experience make him a potentially viable candidate to see time in the Yankees’ outfield in 2022.
A Hot Career Start
Ender Inciarte hit the ground running from his first big league season with Arizona in 2014. While Inciarte was never a big bopper at the plate, his elite defensive profile in centerfield has always provided value, when healthy. Despite OPS+ metrics that rank him as approximately average to slightly less so at the plate, Inciarte’s defensive metrics made him an above-average player, producing 3.3 and 5.0 bWAR in his first two seasons, respectively.
While it is rare to see teams value defensive prowess in the same breath as offensive firepower, Inciarte’s skillset was valued highly enough within player evaluation circles to make him one of the centerpieces in the trade that sent Shelby Miller to Arizona between the 2015 and 2016 seasons.
Inciarte continued his career in Atlanta, starting in centerfield and earning Gold Glove awards in each of his first 3 seasons, even earning a trip to the All Star Game in 2017. While Inciarte’s value at the plate was slightly below-average according to OPS+ and wRC+, he remained an above-average player due to his defensive skills and baserunning ability.
Injuries have derailed Inciarte’s career since 2019. While Inciarte still basically performed up to his previous numbers in 2019, he suffered the first of numerous hamstring and lower body injuries. His performance cratered around lower body injuries in 2020 and a 2021 thumb injury.
Realistically, Inciarte has not approached the value of an average player since 2019.
Why Do I Have Some Optimism?
Inciarte does some things really well, and they happen to be skillsets that the Yankees lack. While indications are that Inciarte has lost speed in recent seasons, backed up by the fact that Statcast rated his Sprint Speed in the 45th percentile in 2021, Inciarte has still been able to stick in centerfield due to the fact that he gets great jumps on the baseball.
Inciarte bats from the left side, and while he doesn’t have any pop, Inciarte is capable of maximizing his high in-zone contact rates (85.9% in his injury-shortened 2021 season, well above the league average) due to advantageous launch angles produced by his bat path. The Yankees really don’t have a lot of high-contact hitters to move runners along, and they don’t have left-handed hitting, so Inciarte does check those boxes.
Inciarte also has traditionally been a good baserunner, and anyone who watched the Yankees in 2021 knows that they were one of the worst baserunning teams in baseball, so add that as a mark in Inciarte’s favor.
Lastly, for the first time in years, Inciarte appears healthy and was able to have a full offseason to train and prepare for the season. I have some hope that Inciarte can come to camp with improved top-end speed, maybe not back to his prime, but hopefully back to the guy he was in 2019, which makes his profile much more intriguing.
Inciarte is the opposite of the type of player the Yankees typically covet. Inciarte makes gobs of contact, making contact on swings on pitches in the strike zone well above league average for his career, though his average and peak exit velocities are well-below average. Despite that, Inciarte’s average launch angles give him the best chance for success with those modest numbers, slapping liners around the field. Inciarte also typically strikes out at a rate well below the league average while walking at a roughly average rate. At his best, Inciarte is a contact-oriented bat who is roughly league average. Inciarte hasn’t been near his best since 2019, but with better health, Inciarte is still close enough to his prime that there’s legitimate hope for a rebound.
Given his injury history, Inciarte is not someone we should count on to replace Aaron Hicks in centerfield, nor do I think that Inciarte’s presence will keep the Yankees from pursuing a reunion with Brett Gardner. Inciarte is a nice fallback option should the Yankees have trouble in centerfield again, and I think Inciarte is more legitimate insurance than what has been around in the last couple of seasons.