PHOENIX — When Philadelphia claimed Cleveland outfielder Ezequiel Carrera three days into the 2013 season, Ender Inciarte was the odd man out. He lost his major league roster spot with the Phillies and was returned to Arizona, per Rule 5 stipulations.
It was the best thing that could have happened, Inciarte believes.
"I knew I wasn’t ready to play" in the majors, Inciarte said before Friday’s 5-1 victory over San Diego.
Eighteen months later, his preparedness seems complete.
Inciarte’s recent 18-game hitting steak is the longest by a rookie this season, and he has shown the skill-set of a prototype leadoff hitter/center field defender with regular playing time the last six weeks. He is hitting .261 and is fourth among NL rookies with 73 hits and 10 stolen bases. He has eight outfield assists, one behind Reds rookie Billy Hamilton, and his 1.5 WAR as calculated by FanGraphs is one of the top in the 2014 rookie class.
Those numbers shout major leagues, and it seems hard to believe that a player who stole another base and made two nice catches in center field Friday was uncertain of his fit two springs ago. He believes they are the byproduct of another necessary season in the minor leagues, not only to hone his skills but also to prepare himself for the mental grind.
"I needed to learn more about hitting, about the game, about controlling myself, about failure," said Inciarte, a most mature 23. "
"Because baseball is not about being good all the time. You have to train yourself every day. It is not like you are going to prepare yourself for failure, but you prepare yourself to have good days, knowing that some days are not going to be great."
Such as early this season. Inciarte had four hits in his first 36 at-bats after being recalled from Reno on May 2. It ate at him, but it did not haunt him, as it might have earlier. One of the lessons he learned during an up-and-down season at Double-A Mobile last season after begin returned as a Rule 5 pick was how to play through the tough times.
"It is something that you have to learn yourself. No one is going to teach you how to be strong in your mind. You have to prepare yourself," Inciarte said.
"I was staying positive. I knew I wasn’t doing good, but I also knew that there was going to be one time that I was going to take advantage of one opportunity, and maybe that one opportunity was going to open more doors for me, and it has. The more at-bats I was having in the big leagues, the more I knew I was going to be able to perform."
Inciarte’s season has unfolded just that way. Since a four-hit game in a 9-8, 14-inning victory over Cleveland on June 24, Inciarte has hit .293 with seven doubles and five stolen bases. That streak began one day after manager Kirk Gibson moved Inciarte to the leadoff spot for good, which is the best fit for his game and seemed the best fit for the team after A.J. Pollock went down with a fractured hand.
"You kind of hesitate whether you want to move a kid like that up there, but since we’ve moved him up there that he’s improved and kind of run with it," Gibson said. "He understands what it means to be up there in that role. He has good baseball aptitude. He makes good plays. He understands situations. He slaps it. He can turn on a pitch. Runs the bases well. Still a little reckless about his throwing. We’ve talked about that. Mac (coach Dave McKay) is working with him on all the time.
"He’s come a long way. He came up here, he had an opportunity and he’s made the most of it."
It has not come without adjustments. Inciarte has worked tirelessly with hitting coach Turner Ward on flattening his swing through the hitting zone, and it has paid off.
"When I got here, I was a different hitter," Inciarte said. "A month after that, I had to make an adjustment. Just trying to stay inside the ball the most that I can.
Regular time has helped Inciarte’s timing at the plate, and his speed and defense have been apparent from the beginning.
Speed "is the biggest part of my game. I am going to work hard in the offseason to try to gain some pounds and get stronger, but speed is going to always be my best tool, and I have to take care of that. It’s my future," Inciarte said.
Inciarte certainly appears to have played himself into the D-backs’ plans going forward, perhaps at worst a fourth outfielder when Pollock returns, but he will not look that far ahead.
"I’m thinking it is August twenty-second, and tomorrow is going to be August twenty-third," Inciarte said three hours before Friday’s game.
"I care about today. Tomorrow is going to take are of itself. I’m happy with what I am doing now, but it is not enough. Everything has to get better. My speed. My throwing. My power. The way I play defense. I have to keep getting better. I have to keep sharpening my tools."