With the Ender Inciarte Extension, the Braves Bet on the Defensive Aging Curve
Baseball is really, really, really hard to evaluate. There are so many things that are unknowns: how much credit or debit you give to pitchers, the value of base running, and the value of defense, to give some examples, are relative guesses considering what could be done scientifically, in theory. So that’s why when a team bets on something we do have a decent idea of, like a home run hitter, it’s more of a sound bet. We know that home runs have a certain value, so a player that hits a lot of home runs has value that can be easily and readily quantifiable. Even a five-year-old can count the number of dingers on the back of a baseball card.
Betting on defense is a totally different story. In yet another instantiation of betting on young defense, we have the Atlanta Braves. The Braves signed their young outfielder Ender Inciarte to a five-year, $30.5 million extension with a $9 million club option for 2022. Inciarte was originally signed out of Venezuela in 2008, and he had a great start in Arizona: in two seasons, he was worth 8.9 rWAR/6.0 fWAR/8.0 WARP. He was then sent to the Braves in the famous deal that also included Aaron Blair and Dansby Swanson in exchange for just Gabe Speier and Shelby Miller.
In his first year in Atlanta, Inciarte had yet another great year. Although his offense stagnated a bit—100 wRC+ in 2015 vs. 97 wRC+ in 2016—his defensive value was even higher. By all metrics, he was one of the best defenders in the game: he was worth 14.8 Defensive Runs Above Average by Fangraphs, 18.9 FRAA by BP, and 1.7 dWAR by Baseball-Reference.
If you do some back-of-the-napkin math, which Nick Stellini over at Fangraphs did at the time the news broke, you’ll see that in theory, this saves the Braves a lot of money in the long run. But, when you think of it another way… does it?
Let’s break this down: Inciarte was a Super Two eligible player, and MLB Trade Rumors predicted he would get around $2.8 million in just arbitration. Keep in mind as well that this deal only buys out one (or two) years of free agency. The problem with that, obviously, is that those free agent years are purely theoretical, and you now no longer have the option of non-tendering him if things didn’t work out for some reason. And that’s my point.
I’m not saying this extension is bad. I’m not even saying Inciarte is bad. I guess this is what you harp on when news is slow in the dead of winter. But, if we’re being honest here, how much money would they save if they just let Inciarte walk through the steps of arbitration without interference? Probably not as much as you’d think. If we assume that free agents make about 55% of what free agents would make, as has been posited, then he would get half of that surplus value, so about $60 million. But also consider the general deflation of defensive value in free agency, and in arbitration, as opposed to offensive value, and then that shades down the contract a bit as well. This is estimation, but you’re looking at maybe $15 million of saving—again, depending on the probability at which Inciarte hits these arbitration milestones.
Throw in that defensive caveat and betting on it becomes more dubious. We don’t really know how to quantify it, and it varies heavily from year to year. The only saving grace is that the Braves find themselves on the right side of the defensive aging curve:
Defensive Aging Curve. Used all positions, but OF similar by less smooth. After age 28, the defensive decline starts pic.twitter.com/rKocdA4HnV
— Jeff Zimmerman (@jeffwzimmerman) December 11, 2015
The Braves still have a couple more years of peak defensive performance in theory, and that’s worth something. It also gives the Braves cost certainty into the future, so they can plan payroll down the line without having to predict what he’ll make every single year.
This probably works out, but my argument would be to always stay skeptical of the supposed benefits of locking up young talent when we should all know that the progress of baseball players is non-linear. You obviously get the benefit of certainty in this case, but it also prevents you from saving yourself from a tenth-percentile outcome. Sometimes it works out, and sometimes it doesn’t (cough cough, Jason Heyward). Defense is funny like that, especially when that is the cornerstone of value.
The Braves have a lot of problems, and it’ll be interesting to see how this new crop rounds out as they try to create a new contention window. I imagine Inciarte will be a crucial piece of the puzzle, as they hope to capture defensive value before it withers away faster than nearly any baseball skill.