Encarnacion Powering Tribe Lineup as Expected

May 1 is never a good time to hit a panic button when it comes to baseball.

Whether it is a team or player that has just gone through a sub-par April, the game has proven time and again that things are never exactly what they seem one month into any baseball season.

That old mantra has been proven yet again this summer when it comes to the Cleveland Indians and their $60 million dollar investment in Edwin Encarnacion. On May 1, many Tribe fans were shouting, complaining, and worried that Double E would be the latest in what seemed to be an emerging line of Indians’ free agent busts.

April was not kind to Encarnacion in his first month with his new team. Through 24 games of his Cleveland tenure, the slugger was not slugging or hitting much of anything. He had a mere four home runs and nine RBI to go with a paltry .200 batting average. One of the bombs and one of those RBI came in the season opener, so it was pretty slim pickings after that.

Some of the Indians faithful began to wonder if Encarnacion, at 34, was starting to age and whether he would flash his power of his Blue Jays years with his new ball club. The first baseman/designated hitter had spent the previous eight campaigns in Toronto.

North of the border is where he blossomed into a home-run-hitting superstar. In his last five seasons with the Jays, Encarnacion never dipped below 34 homers or 98 RBI. Last season, he drove home a career-high and American League-leading 127 runs. He matched a career-best with his 42 jacks. Needless to say, his April with the Tribe was not looking anything like a season that would be en route to those numbers.

However, a look at the veteran’s recent history saw that his porous April was actually about on par with his track record. He was a notoriously slow starter with the Blue Jays. His four bombs in this year’s first month were actually the same as his April total for 2015. They were more than his first month totals in 2014 and 2016. In those last three seasons, Encarnacion hit 34, 39, and 42 homers, respectively.

Almost on cue, Cleveland’s newest middle-of-the-order bat started to heat up with the weather. He knocked six taters in May and seven in June. He had a bit of a power outage in July with only four round-trippers. However, he had 18 RBI for the month with the lowest number of games, thanks to the mid-month All-Star break.

A three-time All-Star himself, Encarnacion started to remind the Cleveland fans why on July 25. In a game the Tribe led 7-0 through two innings against the Angels, only to see go to extra innings tied at that same number of 7-7, Encarnacion saved the Tribe from letting a sure win slip through its grasp. He mashed a game-winning grand slam in the 11th frame, endearing himself to the Progressive Field crowd with what is one of the more memorable moments of the Indians season thus far.

On that late-July date, the 98th game of the regular season, Double E was at 21 homers and 59 RBI. The power numbers still were not quite what one would expect of a guy guaranteed $60 million over the next three years and possibly $75 million if a fourth season team option is picked up. Still, it was a far cry and improvement from his April totals. He had also pulled his batting average up from the gutter to .262, much closer to his .264 career average.

That walk-off slam seemed to get Encarnacion going in a big way. He spent the month of August mashing the way he did in his Toronto days. His invisible parrot that he runs the bases with after knocking a ball out of the park got more of a workout. He hit 10 homers in August to go with 18 RBI.

All told, Encarnacion entered the final full month of the regular season at 31 home runs and 78 RBI. He started September on the same power surge that he was on in August. In Friday’s doubleheader against the Tigers, he had three hits, including a 32nd home run and two more RBI, taking his season total to 80 heading into Saturday night’s game in Detroit.

According to ESPN projections, after Friday’s contests, Encarnacion is on pace for 39 homers and 97 RBI. That would be right at the 39 bombs he averaged in his best seasons over the last five years with Canada’s lone baseball team. The runs driven in would be less than normal. He topped the century mark four of those five campaigns. However, he does not need to drive in that many with these Indians.

For some of those seasons in Toronto, Encarnacion and Jose Bautista represented the sole run-producers for the Jays. Josh Donaldson was added a couple years ago and it helped make Toronto a playoff team in 2015 and 2016 with three of the game’s top power hitters.

In Cleveland, the Indians have a 34-home run hitter (of a season ago) in Carlos Santana. Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez have surprised this year with their 20-plus homer power. However, both were expected to be the strong run-producers that they are. Jay Bruce, a 30-jacks guy, was added in mid-August. When healthy, Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley, and Lonnie Chisenhall are all solid at driving in base runners. All told, Encarnacion has not necessarily had the same opportunities to collect a high RBI number as he did with the Blue Jays.

Encarnacion is doing just what was expected of him. He is providing a power bat in the middle of the batting order. He is making it so the guys at the top of the lineup, like Lindor and Ramirez, see good pitches so the slugger is not going bombs away with too many runners aboard the bases. It is a big part of why those two have set career highs in homers because pitchers do not want to walk them ahead of Encarnacion.

As Encarnacion inches closer to his 35th birthday in January, he is showing there is a lot more left in the power-hitting tank. In a season in which nearly half the regular lineup had struggled with injuries, Encarnacion has been a strong, steady presence. He is worth every bit of the nearly $15 million base salary the Indians are paying him this season. Last year, Santana and Mike Napoli, whom Encarnacion replaced on the Tribe roster, led the club with 34 homers each. Encarnacion should certainly top that. If he hits that projected 39 total, it would tie him for 13th most in an Indians season all-time for a team that has been around more than 100 years and has seen its fair share of power hitters.

On May 1 some fans wondered if Encarnacion was destined to go down the same path as the likes of Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, or Keith Hernandez, who were all free-agent splashes that did not quite pan out for the Tribe. Now, he has more a chance to resemble the likes of Juan Gonzalez, the first time, or Roberto Alomar as free agents whose immense talents did carry over from their former squads. Encarnacion is again reminding baseball people that in a 162-game schedule, it is not how you start, but how you finish. Teams and players should not be judged by a single month alone. Encarnacion is enjoying a fine first year in Cleveland and powering the Indians toward what seems be a second straight A.L. Central Division title and playoff appearance.

Photo: Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

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