On July 30th the Braves rid themselves of Hector Olivera and acquired Matt Kemp. Kemp’s 2015 and 2016 seasons have been bad. He’s been about a league-average hitter and a poor defender, and he looks out of shape. But the Braves offense took of in August. They were tied for 5th in the National League in runs scored. Kemp was the big trade, so clearly his presence has sparked the offense, right?
Not so fast. Kemp has been much worse for the Braves offensively than he was for the Padres this season. He’s posted an 84 wRC+ for the Braves. He posted a 102 wRC+ for the Padres. So if the Kemp trade isn’t the reason for the great offense over the past month, what is the culprit?
Well, for one thing, Freddie Freeman has gone off. Freeman had a .289/.389/.553 slash line and a 146 wRC+ in August. Over the last 30 days (going into play on September 2nd), he’s posted a wRC+ of 217. He may be feeling the affects of Kemp’s mere presence in the lineup but then again, are pitchers really all that afraid of Matt Kemp these days?
There was another significant change that happened in early August that should get more press than the Matt Kemp deal, if we’re looking for why the Braves’ offense has looked so good lately. On August 5th the Braves inserted Ender Inciarte into the leadoff role, and haven’t looked back. He’s started in the leadoff role every game since, except a Sunday game on August 21st when Dansby Swanson hit leadoff against the Nationals.
Inciarte posted a .430 OBP and a 156 wRC+ in August and he’s posted a .434 OBP and 155 wRC+ over the last 30 days. Inciarte becoming the everyday leadoff role and performing well has probably done more to help Freeman than anything Kemp has done or than Kemp’s mere presence in the lineup. Freeman has basically had Rickey Henderson in his prime hitting in front of him for the past month (without all the stolen bases and caught stealings).
Pitchers have a hard time of it when they have runners on base. They have to pitch from the stretch and they usually want to be careful with the batter so as not to put any more runners on base. This is why, contrary to popular belief, lineup protection often comes from the guys hitting in front of your big bat(s) rather than behind them. This is why the Braves offense has been so good for about a month now, in spite of their newly added cleanup hitter producing at a worse pace than he did with the Padres.
Inciarte is obviously not Rickey Henderson and, as great a hitter as Freddie Freeman is, he’s obviously not a 217 wRC+ hitter. As we all know, the offense isn’t this good. It takes unusually good performances for a bad offense to be one of the best over a month’s time. But while the offense is going strong, the insertion of Inciarte into the leadoff spot and his performance (along with Freeman’s) should be getting much more press than the Matt Kemp addition.