Encarnacion Finding Old Power in New Place With Indians

Fans of the Cleveland Indians are finally being treated to the power displays and run-producing ways of slugger Edwin Encarnacion that Blue Jays fans had become accustomed to over the past five years. The Tribe faithful could not be happier to finally see their new cleanup hitter producing like the All-Star and MVP candidate that he has been in season’s past.

At the end of April, some Indians followers and baseball aficionados across the country were ready to call Encarnacion a bust. They were saying the Indians overpaid this past winter when they went out of their comfort zone and gave a large contract to arguably the best free agent on the open market this past offseason. Cleveland had not gone on an offseason baseball spending spree in four years, a little gun-shy from the last time the club had opened its pocket books.

To be sure, the first month-plus was not kind to the Tribe’s new first baseman/designated hitter. However, comparisons to Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, high-profile Cleveland signings prior to the 2013 campaign that did not end well, may have been a little premature. Swisher and Bourn took nearly three years to completely prove that they were not worth the lucrative contracts the Indians had given them. There were some fans who were ready to bail out on Encarnacion after less than a quarter of a season.

Encarnacion, a historically slow starter at the plate, tends to warm up with the weather. Those who knew that took the wait-and-see approach with the player the Indians gave a guaranteed three year, $60 million deal to in December.

The patience is being rewarded now. Over the past few weeks, Double E’s power has returned. He has been taking more and more trots around the base paths with his invisible parrot, exhibiting the high-octane offense he displayed the last five years with in Toronto when he averaged 39 bombs per season.

After his first month with the Indians, Encarnacion was hitting just .200 with four home runs and nine RBI in 85 at bats. Less than 40 contests into his first season with his new squad, he was dropped from the cleanup spot in manager Terry Francona‘s bating order to No. 5.

As recently as May 20, fans were still fretting about the Tribe’s major investment. For Cleveland, which is not known as being big players in free agency, another high-profile miss on the market would be devastating. Unlike the Yankees, who can brush aside an expensive signing that fails to work for another expensive player, the Indians do not have an infinite amount of dollars on hand to cover up mistakes or misses. Tribe management has to get it right with signings whether its keeping the team’s own players on long-term deals or going outside the organization. The Indians have been very good at this the last few years, thus a run of four straight seasons over .500 and a chance at a fifth consecutive this year. However, on that day in late May, Encarnacion was hitting .199 with seven home runs. A Cleveland team needing an offensive surge from its would-be star middle-of-the-order hitter got just that.

Starting May 21, Encarnacion embarked on an eleven-game hitting streak that saw his average spike to .235 by June 2. He hit three homers in that stretch to get his total jacks to double digits. His hot hitting has carried into June. This month, heading into Saturday night’s game, he was hitting .361, with four home runs and nine RBI, taking his season totals to .257, 14 bombs, and 31 runs driven in.

Those are numbers getting a lot closer to a guy paid to be a franchise player. He is now on pace to hit more than 30 taters and driving in about 80 runs. The latter state is still quite a bit below expectations of 100-plus. As for the batting average, he now is near his career .266 average. He is a power guy, not a contact guy. The Indians are paying him to hit 35-40, or more, home runs, not hit .300. He is now doing just that. Encarnacion is looking more and more like a guy who was an American League All-Star last year, three times total in his career and a four-time top-15 vote-getter in the A.L. MVP race.

More importantly, Encarnacion is starting to hit like the guy who so thoroughly empowered the Tribe’s offense last year. On the Indians’ journey to last season’s World Series, veteran first baseman/DH Mike Napoli hit 34 homers with 101 RBI, leading the Tribe in both power categories. He and Carlos Santana (34 bombs and 87 RBI in 2016) were the big boppers on a club that went to the Fall Classic. Some feel Santana had a career offensive season because he did not feel the pressure of being the lone true power bat in the Tribe lineup that he was much of 2010-2015.

Encarnacion was view as an upgrade to Napoli. Double E is a year younger at 34. He also has a longer track record of hitting the long ball and driving in runs. He had been one of the best at it the last five years, while 2016 was Nap’s first really good power campaign since 2013 and his home run and RBI totals were career highs a year ago, making it harder to project if he could keep it going than Encarnacion. That’s why adding the former Blue Jay to an otherwise unchanged ball club felt like an improvement to a team that has high hopes of getting back to the World Series and finishing the job this season.

The Indians are going to have a hard time getting there if Encarnacion does not produce like he has the last handful of years. In 2016, he hit 42 homers for the Jays, tying a career high he had set in 2012, his breakout campaign. From 2012-2016, Encarnacion never hit less than 34 homers or drove in under 98 RBI. Fans wondered if he would sniff those numbers in his first year with Cleveland. In April, it seemed hard to fathom. Now, it seems like he will.

Encarnacion is hitting well and hammering moon shots that last year’s version of Napoli would have been proud of. He seems like he is going to be just fine. As his bat is heating up, so is the rest of the team. He helped the Tribe score eight runs in Friday’s game in Minneapolis and the offense put up 15 more to take both games of the doubleheader Saturday to claim first place in the A.L. Central Division.

Encarnacion getting hot could have a domino effect on the rest of the lineup. If teams want to start being careful pitching to him, other hitters will see better pitches. It is what happened last year when Napoli was going so strong. Santana has struggled this season with just eight homers and a .213 average. If Encarnacion can continue channeling his power from the last five years, Santana may be able to settle in more. It could get guys like Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, and Jason Kipnis, all hitting below their expectations, to see better pitches and start collecting hits at their normal paces. Already, in the last week or so, we have seen J-Ram and Kip get going a little more.

Encarnacion can have a trickle-down effect on the batting order if he can remain locked in. In turn, the lineup can start driving the Indians as it did a year ago and get the team moving away from its slightly above .500 ways and on the path to much better things.

The “bust” labels fans wanted to put on Encarnacion in April now must be removed as he is instead busting opposing pitching and busting out in a big way as the power hitter the Indians hoped he would be back on that December day when the club shocked the baseball world by signing one of the best free agent hitters of the past offseason.

Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images

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