Braves center fielder making highlight-reel plays the norm
By Terence Moore
Nothing against the rest of the Braves, but Ender Inciarte is the people's choice around the clubhouse. Well, at least among the pitchers. You get the feeling that, one of these days, he'll arrive for a game to find his locker filled with flowers, boxes of candy and thank you cards.
Some of those gifts might come from Braves manager Brian Snitker and other members of the organization, all in appreciation of a first-time All-Star this season with a bat that is as nearly impressive as his glove.
But the bulk of those hugging Inciarte ... we're back to Atlanta's pitchers.
"Yeah, a lot of times they come up to me and say, 'I love you, baby,' and 'I can't live without you in center field.' Stuff like that," Inciarte said, easing into a smile. "It makes me feel really good, and it makes me want to go out there and keep getting better every day for every one of them."
So that's scary. If Inciarte improves more on defense from where he is now, The Powers That Be in the game will have to name the Gold Glove Award in his honor someday. He won his first and only one last season, but you should consider several things. Even though he made his Major League debut in May 2014 with the D-backs, he didn't play his first full season with the big boys until the following year. That's when he captured the Fielding Bible Award for his defensive prowess at different positions.
Then the Braves acquired Inciarte before the 2016 season, and soon afterward, he became their starting center field. Brilliant move. He promptly grabbed that Gold Glove following a slew of eye-rubbing plays, and he tied Adam Eaton and Billy Hamilton last year with 11 5-star plays -- one in which the catch probability is less than 25 percent, according to Statcast™ -- in center.
That said, Braves veteran pitcher R.A. Dickey suggested Inciarte produces nothing less than 6-Star moments and above.
"I think the thing that makes Ender so special is his ability to make the extra-special play, and not just the ordinary play, because he's got a great arm, he's always accurate, and he's just the complete package when it comes to a center fielder," said Dickey, a 42-year-old knuckleballer, referring to the current owner of a center-fielder-high six 5-star grabs. "He gets great reads on balls, but even more than that, he keeps that extra runner from advancing, because of the accuracy of his great arm."
Which brings us to this: Since Dickey has been around the Major Leagues for a while (you know, 15 years that featured previous stops with the Rangers, the Mariners, the Twins, the Mets and the Blue Jays), where does he place Inciarte when it comes to his past teammates in center?
"Oh, wow," Dickey said, pausing and thinking. "I've played with some pretty good ones. Look. To be fair, I think he's certainly at the top of the heap as far as the guys I've played with at that position."
More than a few of Dickey's pitching teammates on the Braves would agree, especially if you go by their wide smiles and fists pumps after Inciarte turns "impossible" into just another word during games. As a result, the following is becoming a habit for this organization: Bigger-than-life center fielders on defense, or at least those with bigger-than-life moments.
Remember The Catch by Otis Nixon in 1992? Inciarte does, even though he was just 2 years old at the time in Venezuela.
"I've seen the video quite a few times," said Inciarte, 26, of that moment at old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium when Nixon planted his foot against the 10-foot-high wall in center during a dead sprint to get enough momentum to leap far enough to reach over the barrier to snatch a home run from the Cardinals' Andy Van Slyke. "A lot of people started talking about that catch again, especially when I made that one in New York [against the Mets] last year. After I've watched that [Nixon catch] a bunch of times now, it was an amazing catch."
The same went for Inciarte's Mets-killing grab last year after he raced like crazy for the wall in center at Citi Field, jumped and snatched a potential game-winning homer from Yoenis Cespedes to end the game.
Before Inciarte and after Nixon, there was the defensive wizardry for Atlanta in the mid-1990s of center fielder Marquis Grissom. Not only did he collect four Gold Gloves, but he caught the last out of the 1995 World Series when the Braves won their only overall championship during their run of a Major League-record 14 consecutive division titles.
"To be honest, I didn't see Grissom play that much," Inciarte said. "I just paid more attention to his hitting, because when I was little, I always played video games, and I always wanted to have him on my team."
Maybe Grissom's solid offense on those video games spurred Inciarte toward his .294 batting average in 2017 with eight home runs and 14 stolen bases as a leadoff guy with more plate appearances (516) than anybody in baseball. Defense is Inciarte's true love, though, and that brings us to Andruw Jones, the other member of the Big Three of all-time Braves center fielders. He is the owner of 10 consecutive Gold Gloves from 1998-2007.
Unlike the Nixon and Grissom years, when Inciarte concentrate more on recess and nap time than assists and putouts, he was a teenager down the stretch of Jones' career as a defender with flawless instincts.
"Well, you know, I'm going to tell you this," Inciarte said. "When I was little, I used to watch a lot of the games with my father, because he was a big Braves fan, and he used to tell me all the time that, whenever I couldn't get to a ball, 'You see how easy Andruw Jones makes those plays? You've got to be able to make those plays like that. You've got to make them look easy all the time.' So that's something I've tried to get from Andruw. He made those catches look easy, and that's something I always admired about him. He would never make anything hard look hard. He would make everything look easy."
Are we still discussing Jones, or have we switched back to Inciarte?
They're becoming synonymous these days.
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.