Patience in Encarnacion Paying Off as Slugger’s Bat is Heating Up
Bob Toth | On 30, May 2017
All season long, manager Terry Francona has encouraged patience with slugging first baseman and designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion while the Indians’ big free agent acquisition struggled with some consistency and an elevated strikeout rate at the plate.
That patience appears to have paid off.
The last eight games have provided nothing but encouraging results for the Indians and Encarnacion as the calendar inches closer to the summer months. Historically, the big bat has been a slow starter, owning a career .243/.324/.433 slash in April and .244/.327/.488 mark in May. But in June and July, he is a career .288 hitter with a .382 on-base percentage.
Encarnacion’s April of 2017 was frustrating to watch at times as he struck out in nearly one-third of his total plate appearances, but he also drew the highest number of walks in the month in his 12-year career. He drew free passes at a 16% clip and his 17 walks in the month equaled his 17 hits. His .343 OBP for the month was the fourth-best of his career in April, which helped to ease the effects of a .200 batting average.
So while the power was down, Encarnacion saw pitches, worked opposing pitchers, drew his walks, and bided his time while acclimating to a new clubhouse and a new situation in Cleveland. He was also spending the bulk of his time in the dugout, doing exclusively a designated hitter’s work from April 16 to May 5. Even since returning to the field, he has taken his glove to first base just four times, with two of them coming in the DH-less interleague series in Cincinnati.
“He’s had periods where he looks like he’s starting to kind of get it, and then he’s fallen back,” shared Francona on May 1. “He’s been a typically slow starter. I’m telling you, and I get it, he’s hitting .200, but as cold as he got, he’ll get just as hot. He’s healthy and he’s really good. It’s just not been his best month. A lot of Aprils are like that for him.”
His May numbers are just a touch higher than his career averages, with two more games yet to be played in the month. In 25 games, he has put up a .250/.349/.478 slash, up in all three departments. His doubles and homers are up in seven more at bats than the previous month. His walk rate has dropped slightly to 12.3%, but much more encouraging has been a better rate of avoiding the strikeout. After striking out at a near 33% clip in April, he has struck out just 20.8% of the time in May. That rate is far more in line with predictions from ZiPS (19.6%) and Steamer (20.8%) and much closer to his production with the Toronto Blue Jays last season, when he struck out in 19.7% of his plate appearances.
The improved production has coincidentally come since Francona’s roster shuffle that moved Carlos Santana down in the lineup to the fourth spot and saw Jason Kipnis inserted at the top of the batting order. Encarnacion was moved into the fifth spot to alleviate some of the pressures of being in a position (and with a contract size) expected to contribute runs with great frequency, and he has responded with a .275/.327/.608 slash since being dropped down a spot with a pair of doubles, five homers, and ten RBI.
Encarnacion has been steady where some of the numbers count, especially in the on-base percentage department. His .346 OBP for the season is not all that far removed from the .352 career mark that he brought to Cleveland after his first eleven Major League seasons.
The 34-year-old has seen a different diet of pitches at the dish this season, which may be factoring into the results when trying to clear the table. Albeit a smaller sample size than previous seasons, he has seen fewer fastballs this season (52.7% through Sunday’s game) than the majority of his career (with the exception of last season, when 52.2% of his pitches seen were fastballs). This has led to a small uptick in slider usage and a notable 3.1% jump in changeup use as teams look to approach him with more slow stuff. The slider in general has been problematic for him and opposing teams have noticed, as he has seen the pitch second to only four-seamers and he has just four hits off of it for a .138 average with 23 whiffs (entering Monday’s action). The changeup has also caused him fits at times, as he has hit just .200 against it this season.
When he is getting fastballs, there have been fewer four-seamers and more sinkers than his career norms. It all could factor in to the elevated K rate in the early going.
Even after factoring everything in, his April (.277) and May (.270) BAbip were right on pace with his career BAbip of .273.
When Encarnacion is swinging, he is swinging at far fewer pitches out of the zone than in years’ past. He enters play Monday with a 21.7% O-Swing%, compared to 23.8% last season and 25.2% for his career. There has been a notable jump in his percentage of swinging strikes overall, however.
While the power numbers may be a little less than hoped for, he has hit the ball hard. His line drive percentage is more than 5% higher than last year’s mark and more than 6% over his career average, which has cut into his fly ball rate. Those hard hits account for 40.5% of his contact, nearly 8% higher than his career average and 3% more than last season, indicating that he may be sending some well-struck balls right at defenders or that opposing managers are shifting their squads into spots to eliminate some would-be hits.
He entered the season with very balanced platoon splits against opposing pitchers, as the right-handed hitter had posted a .264/.344/.495 slash against right-handers and a .268/.376/.499 line against left-handers. This season, he has hit for a higher average (.250) and put up a higher on-base percentage (.408) against southpaws, but has just two of his homers in 56 at bats against them. His average (.215) and OBP (.314) have been lighter against same-siders, but his slugging percentage is 89 points higher as all four of his doubles and eight of his ten homers on the season have come in his 121 at bats against righties. His batted balls spray chart shows a tendency this season to use the whole field more against right-handers, while his contact against left-handers have been more pull-heavy, indicated in the below charts via Fangraphs.com.
Pitchers have worked Encarnacion low and away at a far greater percentage than other areas of the zone. His swing percentage, however, has been more focused over the middle of the plate and on pitches up and in. While he has made frequent contact with pitches over the plate and especially in the low and away quadrant of the strike zone, pitches up and in have not resulted in much contact. He has found good results on pitches right over the plate, as would and should be expected, but has also fared well with his hit results from those pitches low and away.
What may be encouraging during his current eight-game hitting streak is that Encarnacion has cut back on his strikeout rate and seems to be looking for and recognizing his desired pitch and going for it. Strikeouts are intrinsically linked to power hitters, but Encarnacion is also lauded for his eye at the plate. Of his eleven hits during his current streak, eight have come off of either two-seam or four-seam fastballs, two have come off of sliders, and one off of a single. Seven of the hits came in the first three pitches of his at bat, including all three non-fastballs hit. Just three of the hits came on pitches in the upper reaches of the strike zone, as he appears to be focusing more on pitches from the middle of the plate on down. Two of his three homers and both of his doubles during his streak have come off of fastballs, and the one extra base hit that did not, his second homer on May 23 against Cincinnati, came on a 3-2 slider.
The numbers may not have been what was expected of the franchise-record contract given to Encarnacion thus far, but history has shown that the next two months would be the time that his powerful bat will provide big things to a lineup. If the last couple of weeks have been any indication, Encarnacion’s bat has woken up from its spring slumber and is ready to erupt with some big numbers for the Indians lineup.
Photo: Ron Schwane/Getty Images