Adjustments, instincts have Inciarte on verge of 200-hit season

Braves hitting coach Kevin Seitzer has played alongside or coached hundreds of hitters during 21 seasons as a major league player or coach. Yet he can’t think of one that reminds him much of Ender Inciarte, the All-Star center fielder had two hits in Monday’s doubleheader against the Mets and needs just one more to record the seventh 200-hit season in Atlanta franchise history.

“He’s Ender,” Seitzer said Monday at Citi Field before the series-opening doubleheader. “He’s a unique player, a unique mentality, a unique swing. He has come a long way since last year. Just as far as understanding himself, understanding his swing.”

Inciarte currently is sitting on career-highs in average (.307), home runs (11), RBIs (57), slugging percentage (.412) and OPS (.763), and his 199 hits are tied with Astros MVP candidate Jose Altuve for second in the majors, five hits behind North Gwinnett High graduate Charlie Blackmon of the Rockies (204).

After hitting .207 with a .621 OPS in his first 20 games through April 27, Inciarte had a .323 average, .368 on-base percentage and .786 OPS in his past 130 games before Monday, putting the speedy leadoff man on the verge of the first 200-hit season by a Brave in more than 20 years, since Marquis Grissom had 207 in 1996. Ralph Garr holds the franchise record with 219 hits in 1971.

“The adjustments that Ender made from the first half to the second half last year were huge,” Seitzer said, “and when a hitter goes through struggles real bad and then starts to come out of it, you really find an understanding of who you are and what you need to focus on in order to maintain consistency. He’s come a long way.”

He's started slow in each of his two seasons with the Braves, who got Inciarte along with shortstop Dansby Swanson from the Diamondbacks in a lopsided December 2015 trade that sent Shelby Miller to Arizona.

But after pulling a hamstring in the first week of the 2016 season, spending a month on the disabled list and hitting .202 with an anemic .523 OPS in his first 30 games for the Braves through June 5, 2016, here is what Inciarte had done in 253 games since then: .310 average, .359 OBP, .774 OPS, 71 extra-base hits (11 triples, 14 home runs), 84 RBIs, 166 runs and 35 stolen bases.

Oh, and a Gold Glove for his defensive prowess last season, with a good shot at another this season.

“He’s a sharp kid. Very intense, very hungry, very hard on himself, has high expectations,” Seitzer said. “That’s probably the biggest hurdle for him is the emotions, controlling that. I spend most of my time on his head more than I do on his swing. Keeping him dialed in on his strengths and not trying to do too much.”

For a while last week it looked like Inciarte’s 200-hit bid might be sidetracked by a jammed thumb. He went 3-for-19 with no extra-base hits and one RBI in his first five games after jamming his left thumb while sliding at first base it an attempt to avoid a tag.

Braves manager Brian Snitker had Inciarte sit out one game to let the soreness calm down. That seemed to do the trick. Since the rest, Inciarte is 9-for-25 with four extra-base hits in six games, including three hits Sunday against the Phillies.

“You get 200 hits, that means you’re getting out there on a regular basis,” Snitker said. “That means you’re playing every game. And he’s done that this year, which is good to see. Playing center field is a difficult position, lot of running. And for him to hold up like that is really good. I think he came into spring training in really good shape, and like I say, you’ve got to be out there regularly to get 200 hits.

“The fact that it’s been so long since a Braves player has done it – we’ve had some really good players through the years. It’s a really big milestone in a guy’s career.”

The left-handed-hitting Inciarte has speed, ability to slash the ball to all field and surprising pull power if a pitcher makes a mistake. He’s also got good instincts and recall.

“He’s got a real good feel for what pitchers are trying to do, where he needs to be hunting (for pitches),” Seitzer said. “He’ll sit on pitches a lot, because he gets a real good feel. For example, facing (Philadelphia starter Henderson) Alvarez the other day, he’s got that 56-mile-an-hour curveball that he flipped two times in his only big league start (this season) against Oakland before he faced us, and he would use it sporadically when he was with the Marlins and healthy. 

“Well, Ender’s leading off the inning, I think it’s his second at-bat, and he goes, ‘I’m going to sit on that eephus (slow pitch).’ I go, dude, he only throws a couple. He goes, ‘He’s gonna give me one.’ I said alright, go ahead. 

“Sure enough, he threw it. It was a ball, and (Inciarte) said, ‘I was sitting out in the outfield for two innings thinking about, how do I hit a slow-pitch softball? I know exactly how to do that when I’m playing (softball) with my buddies; I’m going to take that swing when I get that pitch.’ I would have loved to have seen that be a strike. He was ready for it.”

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