In this guest post from Kyle Matte we get a look at the amazingness that is Edwin Encarnacion, and his remarkable transformation into one of the best hitters in the game. Follow Kyle on Twitter at @KyleMatte.
Back in July of 2009, the Toronto Blue Jays franchise was in a state of turmoil. Not only was the organization looking down the barrel of their first losing season since 2005, but the face of the roster – Roy Halladay – had made it known he was not interested in re-signing north of the border at the conclusion of his contract, which was set to expire following the 2010 season. It put then-General Manager J.P. Ricciardi in the unenviable position of attempting to trade one of the few true aces in baseball, and with a rotation that included Ricky Romero, Brian Tallet, and Scott Richmond, it was more than just a metaphorical white flag he’d be waving on competitive baseball for the foreseeable future.
To the surprise of no one, the market’s interest in Roy Halladay proved strong. While the Phillies were arguably the favorites all along, both teams in Los Angeles as well as the Texas Rangers reportedly got involved, causing a massive tide of attention from the national media. But come four-o’clock, Roy Halladay was still property of the Toronto Blue Jays. The big name who wasn’t? Scott Rolen. The Greatest Blue Jays of All Time was in the midst of a ferociously impressive season; 3.9 rWAR in just 88 games thanks to a .320/.376/.476 batting line and his usual spectacular defense, so when initial reports of the return began to surface, the airing of grievances began.
3:40 PM EDT: SI’s Jon Heyman says Rolen to the Reds… if he waives his NTC. But for what??? If it in any way Encarnacion I puke and disown this team immediately.
3:55 PM EDT: Puke! “The deal awaits only Rolen’s approval, which he is expected to give; he has a full no-trade clause. In return, the Jays will get third baseman Edwin Encarnacion and a minor leaguer,” says Fox. It better be a damn good minor leaguer.
That’s an excerpt from Drunk Jays Fans’ founder and Editor Andrew Stoeten’s trade deadline live blog. While hindsight is always a bitch, it’s hard to find fault with his immediate reaction. At the time of the trade, Encarnacion was struggling through an injury-marred season, and the 26 year old’s .209/.333/.374 slash line and negative 0.7 rWAR hardly inspired a whole lot of confidence moving forward. Even with solid-average offensive numbers for a corner infielder in the previous three years, park factors and his glorious defensive deficiencies significantly held back his overall value, limiting him to just 2.9 rWAR in the over 400 games since his rookie campaign. Cruel as it may be, there was merit behind his E5 moniker.
Encarnacion saw time in 42 games as the Blue Jays played out the string in 2009, and while his defensive play at third improved from a train wreck to something resembling acceptable, his offense did little more than tread water. He made a bit more contact and cranked some dingers, but the halving of his walk rate basically negated any gains he made otherwise.
Fans began to sour en-masse in 2010, a year that I’m sure Eddie would describe as hitting the absolute rock bottom in his baseball career. He suited up for just 95 games as he made two separate trips to the disabled list in addition to an unplanned vacation to Las Vegas in the middle of the summer. Encarnacion was in his second year of arbitration and was earning over five million in salary, so the probability that the Blue Jays were going to tender him a contract in the fall dropped by the day, and the slugger was placed on waivers and claimed by the Oakland Athletics in November. As it turns out, the universe wasn’t quite finished with this Toronto-Encarnacion union. When Opening Day 2011 was upon us, there was Edwin, standing on the baseline listening to the National Anthem. Manager John Farrell’s plan for his transition to first baseman/designated hitter began, as just 30 of his 122 starts that year came at third base. With the burden of playing the field easing – likely both mentally and physically – the offensive resurgence began to come to fruition. Encarnacion batted to a .384 wOBA in the second half of 2011, as the havoc wreaking, violently disciplined hitter we know and love today emerged from his dormancy – and then some.
Over the next two full seasons Encarnacion would maintain that authoritative swing, posting a wOBA of .396 and .388 in 2012 and 2013 respectively, despite dealing with a nagging wrist injury in the latter year. His 78 home runs were third in all of baseball, and what makes it even more impressive is that he’s doing it with an otherworldly walk-to-strikeout ratio; 166 walks against just 156 strikeouts. The spread is even more emphatic when limiting the sample to the 2013 season alone, as the walk-to-strikeout ratio climbs to an absurd 1.32 (82 walks, 62 strikeouts). As J.P. Breen of Fangraphs wrote last November, power hitters aren’t supposed to do this.
Was it foreseen that Edwin Encarnacion would become one of baseball’s most feared hitters? How did this happen?
Encarnacion was originally drafted by the Texas Rangers in the 9th round of the 2000 MLB amateur draft. Given his place of birth – the Dominican Republic – this may come as a surprise, but Encarnacion attended high school in Puerto Rico, funnelling him into the draft pool as opposed to giving him International Free Agent eligibility and the flexibility to choose his organization. He received a 55 thousand dollar signing bonus from Texas, but just twelve months later, he was sent to the Reds in a three player trade involving Ruben Mateo and Rob Bell.
The oldest Cincinnati Reds Top 10 list by Baseball America I could uncover was their 2004 edition on which Encarnacion ranked second in the system, behind right handed pitcher Homer Bailey. In their scouting report, Edwin is described as having “special bat speed and plus-plus power potential”, which most definitely rings true a decade later. Interestingly, it’s mentioned that Encarnacion shows “middle-of-the-diamond actions”. In the Baseball America chat associated with the 2004 Top Ten, writer Josh Boyd is asked what kind of offensive ceiling Encarnacion might possess. He responds with the suggestion that he could develop into a “…slightly above-average major leaguer with occasional all-star potential.”
He once again ranked highly in 2005, being named the Reds number two prospect as well as the 56th best in all of minor league baseball. The publication continued to speak highly of his offensive capabilities, indicating that some scouts had pegged Encarnacion as a .280 to .300 hitter with 20 to 25 home runs annually. On the flip side, they reiterated he possessed a “plus arm, quick hands and middle-infield actions”. There’s enough swing-and-miss there to make Mark Reynolds jealous.
The “20-25 home runs annually” and “plus-plus power potential” comments seem obvious now, but both were legitimate developmental extrapolations at their time. Between the ages of 18 and 22, Encarnacion spent five full-ish seasons in the minor leagues, and his home run totals were 10, 17, 11, 13, and 15, respectively, hardly the 35+ associated with 70 grade power. His career high in extra base hits came in 2002 as a 19 year old in the Midwest League. He amassed 53, a total he’s matched or exceeded in four seasons as a Major Leaguer – including each of the last three.
Encarnacion’s home runs aren’t paint-scrapers, nor are they merely a product of the launching pad known as The Rogers Centre. His 26 “No Doubt” bombs over the past two seasons – defined by the ESPN Home Run Tracker as clearing the fence vertically by 20+ feet and horizontally (true distance) by 50+ feet – lead all of baseball, and they’re so majestic that it feels like Edwin should be riding a unicorn around the bases, not just taking his parrot for a walk.
For the transition from fringe-average hitter to well-balanced baseball demi-god to occur, Encarnacion had to make two major adjustments in the batter’s box; one of a physical nature, and the other of the mental variety. After the 2011 season, Edwin worked with former major league outfielder Luis Mercedes back in the Dominican Republic, who implored Encarnacion to alter his swing. As John Lott detailed nearly two years ago, the suggestions were to keep both hands on the bat during the follow through, and to scale back or eliminate his prominent leg kick. Keeping his right hand on the bat limited how far he could extend his left arm, compacting his swing path and shortening the time between his decision to swing and contact with the ball. By moving from a leg kick to a toe tap, his trigger simplified as well. The streamlined and compressed process has likely gained Encarnacion hundreds of milliseconds with which to make his decision. It may not seem like much to you or I, but when attempting to identify location and seam rotation while determining if the ball exploding out of a pitcher’s hand is a 95 mile per hour fastball or 85 mile per hour changeup, that added time is invaluable. Fewer bats flying into the stands on the third base line is an added bonus, too.
The mental adjustment is easier to qualify when looking at plate discipline metrics. Over the past two years, Encarnacion has employed a seemingly whole new approach; putting himself in favorable counts, swinging only at the pitches he wants, and rarely missing when he does so. Pitchers are throwing him fewer and fewer strikes, as his zone percentages over the past two seasons were 45.2% and 42.9% respectively — each a career low at the year’s conclusion. His Swing% has wisely followed suit, dropping to 41.6% and 41.9%. Pitchers are afraid, and he has refused to be baited. When he has decided to swing, good things have happened; his Contact% of 84.6% in 2013 was a career high, and his 6.3% Swinging Strike% was easily a career low. Interestingly, despite a relatively consistent O-Swing% (24.5% in 2012 and 26.0% in 2013 versus a 25.6% career mark), his O-Contact% has skyrocketed. In his first three major league seasons he made contact with just 44.8%, 48.3%, and 57.0% of pitches he swung at outside the zone. Over the last three seasons that number has risen to 74.0%, 72.4%, and 74.2%, respectively. Some might argue that it’s better to miss pitches outside the zone than to make contact, as the likelihood of putting a weak ball into play is higher. The opposite has reigned true with Encarnacion. While maintaining steady line drive, ground ball, and fly ball splits, his infield fly ball percentage has plummeted and his home run to fly ball rate has soared.
Over the span of seven years, Encarnacion has been categorized as nearly every type of baseball player: top prospect, solid regular, bust, unwanted waiver fodder, and now MVP candidate. While every career is unique, few cover as wide of a spectrum as Edwin’s has. South of the border it’s often joked that there’s something in the water up here, and some have even gone as far as to maliciously suggest the organization has cheated the game by sending an employee to the outfield seats to relay pitch type and location to the batters. For the rational individual, neither of those is true, it’s merely a case of Occam’s razor. The front office has done an excellent job identifying players possessing the raw tools and mental acuity to succeed, and then gave them the opportunity. While the story of Edwin Encarnacion is magical, there’s no magic involved. When the curtain is pulled back, natural talent, the willingness and ability to adapt, and a high work ethic is found. And that is the Foundation of an All Star.