Inciarte is top-of-the-scale outfield arm in Snitker’s view

PHOENIX – Braves interim manager Brian Snitker spent seven seasons as Atlanta’s third-base coach through 2013, so he saw former Gold Glover Jeff Francoeur in his prime along with plenty of other strong-armed outfielders including Jason Heyward, who won his first Gold Glove in 2012.

Ender Inciarte's combination of arm strength and accuracy make him as good an outfield arm as Brian Snitker said he's seen. (Curtis Compton/AJC file photo)

Ender Inciarte’s combination of arm strength and accuracy make him as good an outfield arm as Brian Snitker said he’s seen. (Curtis Compton/AJC file photo)

So when Snitker, who also served on the Braves coaching staff in four seasons in the ‘80s and has spent decades as a minor league manager, says that Braves center fielder Ender Inciarte has one of the best outfield arms he’s ever seen up close, well, it carries plenty of weight.

After all, for those seven seasons as third-base coach, it was Snitker’s responsibility to decide in a split-second whether to send a runner and test an opposing outfielder’s arm.

Inciarte ranks second among National League outfielders and third in the majors with 14 assists, despite missing a month for a hamstring injury. He picked up his latest assist Monday with a perfect throw to the plate to cut down a Diamondbacks runner trying to score from second base on a two-out single in the seventh inning.

(The Diamondbacks should know better than most not to test Inciarte’s arm, since he spent the past two seasons playing exceptional defense for them.)

“There’s always those guys that, as a third base coach, you make sure you know where they’re at all the time,” Snitker said. “Ender’s a guy that you stay with (watch closely as a third-base coach) a long time, because when he catches a ball you’re probably going to shut guys down (hold runners at third).

“There’s those two-out no-brainers that you send all the time. Other than that, you’ve got to stay with a guy like Ender a long time, because he’s dangerous like Francoeur was when he was young – and even now, too. Because there’s not a play they don’t think they can make. Those guys are dangerous when you’re a third-base coach, because they attack, they’re all about making that play.”

Inciarte is one assist behind Pittsburgh’s NL leader Starling Marte and four ahead of the league’s next-highest assist total. Inciarte currently ranks seventh among all major league outfielders in Defensive Runs Saved with 14, and among the six guys with more DRS, five have played at least 100 more innings than Inciarte and three have played more than 200 innings more than him.

Inciarte was hurt in the first week of the season and spent most of April and part of May on the DL, and it took him another month to get his offense going after he finally got healthy. The defense, that’s been solid whenever he’s been in the lineup, be it in center or in left, where he played briefly upon returning from the DL before Snitker decided that Mallex Smith should be the one that switched to left if both were in the lineup at the same time.

“Ender, he’s something else,” Snitker said. “He throws guys out – he’s way deep in the outfield and I’m thinking, no way he’s got a play here. And man, he charges the ball, and his accuracy from that far away is crazy. He’s about as good as I’ve seen.”

As good or better than cannon-armed Francoeur at his peak? (Francoeur still has an exceptional throwing arm, as evident by the fact he’s got eight outfield assists this season – tied for eighth in the NL – despite being a bench player and only occasional starter.

“They’re different type of throwers,” Snitker said. “He’s a little longer (in his catch-and-throw motion) than Jeff. You try to teach those guys to throw on three (ticks), and Jeff always threw on 2 ½. Jeff’s release was always the thing when we first had him, plus the power and the accuracy. But his release was so good.

“Ender’s got a quick release, but just the actual velocity in that arm strength is something else.”

Inciarte also maximizes his efficiency by being in ideal position to throw when he catches the ball.

“His feet are always working, and he gets himself – I mean, you watch him on a sacrifice fly, how he gets in that position,” Snitker said. “He identifies the ball, gets under it and then, he’s getting his feet working. He’s like an infielder, his feet really work well.”

Inciarte sometimes looks as if he’s putting his whole throw into the ball, his motion carrying him forward as he releases the throw.

“Yeah, he stays behind the ball well, where he can get good carry on it,” Snitker said. “He gets the backspin, where balls travel, where if it does hit the ground it’s probably picking up steam. That ball hits the ground and it’s like shot out of a cannon.”

Inciarte has played exclusively center field for the past few months, but has shown – with Arizona and earlier this season – that he can play similarly outstanding defense as a corner outfielder. He rotated between all three outfield positions for the Diamondbacks.

“You can play put him at any one of those outfield spots and that arm is going to play unbelievable,” Snitker said. “You put him in left field and he’s going to be able to go to the line and he’s going to keep doubles to singles, and he’s going to throw out, like I say, those two-out no-brainers that third-base coaches do.”

Snitker explained what he meant by “those two-out no-brainer” decisions that third-base coaches make, the kind that leave many fans scratching their heads and wondering why a runner was sent.

“(Third-base coaches) don’t care if they get those (runners) thrown out on those, it’s just rolling the dice,” Snitker said. “It’s hard enough to get one two-out hit, let alone two. So consequently you just roll the dice, and it takes a perfect throw – and (Inciarte) has the ability to (make that throw).”

Generally speaking, the level of defense that Inciarte plays, and guys like Jason Heyward and especially Andruw Jones before him, is not something that is learned in spring training.

“That’s stuff you don’t teach, guys like that,” Snitker said. “We don’t take them out into the ponza (??) or something like that when they’re 18 years old and get that. That’s God-given right there. He just has the instinct and the ability that’s just something you can’t teach.”

Snitker was asked if there was anyone else he’s coached against or had on one of his teams that compared with Francoeur and Inciarte, in terms of arm strength and accuracy.

“The kid the Orioles had, the Cuban kid, Dariel Alvarez, he’s got about as good (a throwing arm) as I’ve seen also,” Snitker said, referring to a Cuban free-agent signee currently playing at Triple-A Norfolk. “(Rick) Ankiel was a guy that would scare you, too. If he got his hands on it, that think was lethal also.

“Back in the day, Jayson Werth was a dangerous guy, because he had power and he had the accuracy and release, that whole thing…. There’s a lot of guys out there who were really good. The kid they had here, Parra (former Diamondbacks Gold Glover Gerado Parra). Very good. Accurate, power, release, the whole thing.”

Snitker said he remembers watching Hall of Famer Andre Dawson, late in his career, still making long and firm throws between innings, being disciplined in that warm-up exercise unlike so many outfielders who just casually make a series of long tosses between innings. Snitker would tell younger players to follow Dawson’s example.

“The reason a guy like that probably kept his arm (strong for so long),” Snitker said. “He could probably go out there right now and throw. But he threw between innings with a purpose.”

•  I’ll close with this one from the great band Calexico, which was formed in Tucson, Ariz.

“FALLING FROM THE SKY” by Calexico

Calexico

Calexico

Well, I dreamt you were playing
An old guitar from a five and dime
There was a song trapped inside
With the sweetest tune
You said it was sad to sing

Where do you fall when you have nowhere to do?
Where do you go where you have no one to see?
What do you see when you have nothing to feel?
What do you feel when you’re all alone?

It’s a song that circles round and around
Like a bird lost inside a cloud
Cut off from the stars and they’re guided in the light
Not sure which way is up or down anymore

Where do you fall when you have nowhere to do?
Where do you go where you have no one to see?
What do you see when you have nothing to feel?
What do you feel when you’re all alone?

Tired of waiting
Clouds will be breaking
Soon you’ll escape and
Someday we’ll find a place in the sky

 


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