Boy, did we have a weird outfield last year. The right fielder played like an MVP candidate for half the season and then like Nick Markakis in the next half, the centerfielder played like BJ Upton for half the season but would end up close to his career averages, and the left fielder played like Mike Trout. And when healthy and on the roster, they all played every day because our bench depth was rather thin at times.
You may think those are exaggerations, but they’re not. Right fielder Nick Markakis entered the season on the last year of a 4-year deal in which he was patently league average in almost all phases of the game. He was, though, steady in his presence, working his games played to a crescendo from 156 games in 2015, 158 in 2016, 160 in 2017, and all 162 in 2018. The man never spent a day on the disabled list in his time with the Braves, and that’s saying something.
Through June 30th, Nick was on a tear. He hit .326/.391/.492 (.883 OPS) in 361 PAs, by far his best stretch this decade. Had he kept that pace, he would have ended up with a league-leading 52 doubles, 18 home runs, and 112 RBIs. But almost right at game 82, he began to slow down considerably. Maybe it was all of the All-Star game hype, playing almost every day for 4 years, etc. But he would hit .266/.340/.385 the rest of the way, leaving a gaping hole in the middle of the lineup. He went 1-12 in the Division Series with 3 walks and no XBH. He finished with a 2.6 fWAR, 14th among qualifiers in RF. He will end his career having earned $44M in 4 seasons, and Atlanta will have a tremendous opportunity this offseason to improve this position.
Ender Inciarte had a similarly manic season for the Braves. Through 100 games, he was hitting .253/.318/.350 (.666 OPS; how fitting). It got so bad that AA acquired right-handed hitting Adam Duvall to platoon with Ender and hit against lefties. But Ender would have a reverse run to Markakis’ streakiness, and he would hit .289/.340/.443 from August 1st on. He would finish the season with a .265/.325/.380 line that was still a little off his career pace. Fangraphs liked him fine, giving him a 2.9 fWAR, which is in line with his career in Atlanta due to the defensive metrics liking him a little better. B-Ref gave him a 3.4 bWAR, which split the difference of his first two seasons. That puts him around the top third of centerfielders in baseball overall.
It was most odd; he would steal 13 bases in 15 chances in April, but would steal only 15 bases in 27 chances (!!) the remainder of the season. Due to that abysmal rate for so much of the year, he would lead the league in times caught stealing. Perhaps bag theft slumps like hitting does?
But the guy you’re going to pencil into the outfield for the next several years was 14th in OF WAR but didn’t even qualify for the batting title. And along that thought, had Acuna not been held down in AAA and not suffered the leg injury in Boston, he would have finished 6th in MLB OF WAR if he played 150 games. Ronald Acuna was the most hyped prospect in baseball, and somehow, he exceeded that hype. We had heard it all before. George Lombard was going to be the next Dale Murphy. Andy Marte was going to be the next Chipper Jones. Christian Bethancourt was going to be the next Brian McCann. And Ronald Acuna was going to be the next… well, the Braves don’t have a player as good as he’s supposed to be. But he’s doing it.
He did everything we thought he could, within reason. He hit 26 HRs in 111 games, stole 16 bases in 21 chances, and finished with a .917 OPS. He didn’t do everything perfect, though. Defensively, he committed 5 errors, and would have occasional lapses in judgment leading to misplays. He’s striking out a little too high of a rate (25.33%) with 123 K’s against 45 BB’s. But a 144 OPS+ will play regardless of what happens at the plate along the way. The Braves may try to offer him a huge long-term deal this offseason with some of the available monies they have, and that would be money well-spent if structured properly.
Charlie Culberson logged the fourth-most innings in the outfield, so you would call him the primary back-up outfielder. And overall, he played great: .270/.326/.466 with several big home runs and overall dependable defense in LF. He did start one game in RF as Markakis DH’ed. Preston Tucker was our second-most offensively productive back-up outfielder, but his defensive limitations only allowed him to stick on the 4-man bench when Acuna was in AAA. Not sold on Lane Adams, the Braves largely began the year with Peter Bourjos, and that was a failure. Danny Santana logged some innings in the outfield. Adam Duvall, as mentioned, was acquired at the deadline to hit lefties, but he was an unmitigated disaster, hitting .132/.193/.151, being buried on the bench in September and not making the NLDS roster. For having such a limited opportunity, Lane Adams actually ended up semi-productive, carrying a nice hitting line in short sample largely thanks to a home run off of a Phillies position player. But he provides excellent defensive and baserunning reinforcement, and he’s your perfect AAAA player.
The outfield will undoubtedly look different in right field next year, but short of a large roster-altering deal, we’ll see Acuna, Ender, and Culberson back in Atlanta next year. Who knows how great Acuna may be in his sophomore year.