The Root of Edwin Encarnacion’s Improvement in 2012 and its Effect Going Forward
2012 marked a magical year for Edwin Encarnacion. In a season that saw a majority of the Blue Jays starting lineup and starting rotation go on the disabled list, EE was a lone bright spot. In fact Edwin was the only Blue Jays position player to substantially outperform preseason expectations, even among such high-potential players as Brett Lawrie and Jose Bautista. At the end of the year he finished with the 7th best offensive season in the MLB by both wOBA and the park adjusted wRC+. In the history of the Blue Jays only a handful of players have finished that high, names like Bautista, Barfield, Delgado, McGriff, and Olerud grace that coveted list.
In total, Edwin Encarnacion hit 16 more home runs than he had in any other season, he had a walk rate almost 3% higher than his previous high and that culminated into a season with more than twice the value that he had produced in any season prior per fWAR.
Despite the massive uptick in performance there seemed to be a slight lack of recognition. Perhaps this was a result of the chaos that was occurring around him? Or perhaps it was a sense of expectation? To some extent the Toronto fan base expected a surge from Edwin Encarnacion. We had always been told he had potential, particularly in the power department.
In 2012 that potential came to fruition, but through what means exactly? On the outside Edwin didn’t seem like a particularly different player, he wasn’t ‘jacked up’ and his play on the field was as clumsy as ever. The main difference we saw was this presumed power that had finally been unlocked. Edwin always had raw power, but changes in 2012 allowed him to utilize it and turn it into game power.
If you were a listener of the now defunct Up and In podcast, Jason Parks and Kevin Goldstein often talked about the concept of raw power versus game power in terms of prospects, but a similar concept applies to major league hitters. The theory states that there is players that have great raw power, but in order for that to translate to ‘in game home runs’ there needs to be an accompanying hit tool of a certain level. In 2011, Edwin’s hit tool was not at that level.
To attempt to fix that, as John Lott wrote late last April, Edwin Encarnacion made a couple changes to his swing prior to the 2012 season. These changes being a subtler leg kick as well as a two handed followthrough. Both of which can be seen in the following two GIFs.
The first GIF is of Edwin Encarnacion’s swing on a HR hit off Jered Weaver in 2011, the second GIF is of Edwin’s swing on a HR hit off Wei-Yin Chen in 2012.
In 2011 Edwin had a fairly large leg kick that started as soon as the pitcher begun his windup, but in 2012 he shortened the leg kick motion, started it later. As for the two handed followthrough, which can be seen in the second GIF, the result was a shorter, more controlled swing. Often the result of shortening one’s swing is an additional amount of time that the hitter can use to see and assess the pitch that’s coming out of the pitcher’s hand. In turn this can be seen in a hitter’s plate discipline statistics.
In 2012, Edwin Encarnacion posted the lowest overall swing rate of his career (41.6%), while still maintaining his career average contact rate (82.1%). He raised his pitches per plate appearance rate from 3.74 in 2011 to 4.19 in 2012. Of course P/PA isn’t the be all end all of plate disciplinary statistics, notably bad hitters like Jemile Weeks and Jamey Carroll also appeared in the top 20 in P/PA in 2012. However if we take a closer look at Edwin’s Pitch F/X Hitter Profile we find that quite a few of the pitches that EE was laying off of in 2012 were breaking balls low and outside.
Each of the above graphics includes Encarnacion’s swing rate against the slider (left) and curveball (right) in 2011 and 2012. As you can probably tell, there is quite a bit less red at the bottom of the 2012 graphic indicating that Edwin swung at a substantially lower number of breaking balls low and outside in 2012 as opposed to 2011. Thereby leading to more balls, more walks, and better overall contact…three things that were supposedly the objective in changing Edwin’s swing.
As well, as was previously mentioned, Edwin hit 16 more home runs than his previous career high, while maintaing the lowest PA/HR rate of his career. This runs somewhat contrary to the theoretical results of the changes that he made. Most often the compacting of one’s swing will lead to less power, not more. Instead Edwin Encarnacion’s HRs were on average 15.8ft further (413.2 ft in 2012, 397.4 ft in all years prior) than his career Average True Distance per Hit Tracker, lending itself to the theory of game power versus raw power.
With both of those points in mind there’s a case to be made that Edwin’s career highs in BB% and HR/FB% aren’t subject to as much regression as one might expect. ZiPS for example projects a 10.6 BB% (down 2.4%) and a 15.1% HR/FB (down 3.6%) assuming the same fly ball rate as 2012, resulting in a .369 wOBA (down 27 points). Pitchers are bound to pitch to Edwin differently, but if he can make adjustments as he did in 2012 there’s reason to believe that he should be able to combat those changes and produce similar overall offensive numbers save for slight regression as the result of age.
Alex Anthopoulos often talks about investing in in the player, the player that puts in the work and makes the needed adjustments. Edwin showed that he could accomplish that last season. Alex Anthopoulos likely saw that when he signed Edwin Encarnacion to a 3-year $27 million dollar contract extension.
He’ll never be an elite (or even above average) fielder, but he has an elite, cost-controlled bat at a position that, league wide, is beginning to lose depth. There’s no reason to believe that his premier performance won’t continue going forward.