The season started! Whoo hoo!
That said, the top story for your at the time of writing 0 – 3 Bravos is not a pleasant one. Center fielder and leadoff hitter Ender Inciarte is day-to-day with a hamstring injury. The speedy Venezuelan was lifted from Friday’s game as he was trying to leg out a grounder. Earlier in that game, I felt like I noticed Ender wince while going back on a ball in center field. This seems to fit the storyline, according to beat writer Mark Bowman via Twitter:
Dave O’Brien of the AJC echoed this optimism in his article on the injury and here:
From O’Brien’s article, some less reassuring undertones from Ender himself:
“I depend on my legs so it’s frustrating that I’ve been having hamstring issues since last year. It’s a different leg but hopefully it’s not going to be that bad.”
Gulp. Ender missed a month last year to hamstring trouble, after all.
We can find a silver lining in that Inciarte removed himself before sustaining a serious injury. What we can take “serious” to mean is up for interpretation, though. Particularly for a player that thrives on speed to provide value in all facets of his game, a hamstring tweak can linger.
So What Now?
It seems likely that the Braves will just trot Drew Stubbs out there until Ender is back. That’ll do for now, as Stubbs is still capable of providing above league average defense in center. We shouldn’t expect him to set the table with much effectiveness at the leadoff spot though; in a small-ish sample of 140 Plate Appearances last year, Stubbs’ OBP was a cellar-dwelling .283. In fairness, 2015 was well below his career marks offensively. But Stubbs drawback has always been his inability to minimize strike outs, so as to get on base more often and better utilize his speed tool.
As a matter of fact, Stubbs owns the 12th worst K% in the bigs since 2009 when he broke in. He has struck out in 30.3% of his plate appearances. Not exactly who you want at the top of your lineup. Fun fact: former Brave Juan Francisco is at the top of the K% list since 2009 with a 34.4% mark. Atta boy, Juan.
UPDATE: So far it looks like the Braves are going with Erick Aybar at the top of the lineup. Aybar is a marginally better suited hitter at getting on base. He accomplishes this by making a ton of contact; he swings at pitches in the strike zone well above the league average rate, and makes contact with those pitches an amazingly efficient 93.7% of the time. Though he is speedy, Aybar doesn’t translate this contact in to a very impressive OBP or AVG, though. It’s possible he will be able to intentionally see more pitches and walk more in the leadoff role. Time will tell… hopefully he won’t be there long.
What the Braves lose with Inciarte out is pretty significant. You’re taking a step down offensively and defensively by sliding Stubbs in. For instance, check out the Statcast breakdown of Inciarte’s stupid good catch against the Nats.
Or just glimpse this gif if you can’t bear to leave Modern Pastime for a moment (it is nice here):
Inciarte’s absence is compounded by the fact that he was hitting in important spot in the order, in front of what should be a pretty consistent run-producing trio with Eric Aybar, Freddie Freeman and Adonis Garcia. The Braves must especially find ways to squeeze all of the run outcomes out of Freeman’s production if they hope to be a scrappy offense that can compete on most days. Stubbs likely doesn’t serve that purpose, unless he miraculously turns around his OBP woes.
Informed fans may be speculating at this point how any extended Inciarte absence may affect the ascent of Mallex Smith to Atlanta. If you don’t know Mallex yet, catch up here via the venerable Ben Chase of Tomahawk Take, my other writing habitat. Optimistically speculating about our promising youngsters is going to be a must for our sanity this season. Keep in mind though, that the Braves will be unlikely to rush Smith unless the 2016 club is looking like a contender that he could help to improve.
So let’s hope 3 things, Braves fans:
- Ender is back in the lineup soon.
- His production is not limited upon returning by any lingering effects, physical or psychological.
- This hammy thing will be a thing of the past, as opposed to a recurring ticket on the DL train.
Hurry on back, Ender! You’re glowing early work in center has been comforting to behold so far.
Now this, just for fun: