Bill Shanks

Inciarte key to Braves’ season

Atlanta’s Ender Inciarte is hitting .349 in games the Braves have won this season.
Atlanta’s Ender Inciarte is hitting .349 in games the Braves have won this season. AP

It might be too simple to say a leadoff hitter’s success can predict the success of a baseball team’s offense. We could possibly do research to show that’s normal for any team.

It certainly has been that way for the Atlanta Braves. The stats prove that as leadoff man Ender Inciarte goes, so go the Braves.

In the 14 games the Braves have lost through Monday, Inciarte hit only .164 (10-of-61) with an on-base percentage of .177. In the 10 games the Braves have won, Inciarte has a .349 (15-of-43) batting average and an OBP of .417.

Inciarte proved last season he can be a tremendous impact player on offense. Inciarte hit .341 last year after the All-Star break with a .396 on-base percentage. The Braves turned around their season, with a 37-35 second half, and Inciarte was a big reason why.

The Braves were awful in the first part of the season, with a 31-58 record. Inciarte hit just .227 and had an OBP of .294 and missed 30 games with an injury.

Not many knew what kind of player the Braves were getting when Inciarte came from Arizona in the Shelby Miller trade two Decembers ago. Dansby Swanson was the main piece, since he had been the top overall pick in the previous draft.

Inciarte had hit .303 with Arizona in 2015, with a .338 OBP. He was considered a good outfielder who could run a little and get on base at a decent clip. We all had to learn what type of player Inciarte was, and he showed us a lot the second half of last season.

His defense stands out. On Monday, Inciarte was given his Gold Glove award for 2016, and he deserved it. The catch Inciarte made last September against the New York Mets, robbing Yoenis Cespedes of a home run, will rank up there with Otis Nixon’s catch of Andy Van Slyke in 1993 as the best in Atlanta’s history.

And if you watch the Braves regularly, you don’t need stats to know what Inciarte does on a nightly basis in center field. He’s outstanding, and the Braves have not had anyone play outfield like Inciarte since Andruw Jones left a decade ago.

It’s a great advantage for this team to have two sluggers in the lineup. Freddie Freeman and Matt Kemp are on pace for between 30-40 home runs this season, so it’s Inciarte’s job to get on base to score on those home runs.

The fact Freeman has just 14 RBI and nine home runs tells you Inciarte hasn’t done enough so far. It’s one reason the Braves are a few games under .500 after the first month. Inciarte has gotten better in the past week (.333 average, .400 OBP), but the Braves need to see consistency.

Manager Brian Snitker is juggling who hits second. Swanson is off to a slow start, so he has been dropped down. Adonis Garcia has gotten on track by hitting second for a few days, but it’s likely Snitker has Brandon Phillips in the two-hole considering his hot April (.355 average).

Inciarte has showed a bit of power so far, with five home runs. That’s fine, but the main objective is for him to get on base. If Inciarte is more like the player he was last year in the second half, the Braves offense will once again be very dangerous this season.

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