One of the coolest stories taking place right now is the emergence of George Springer in Houston. Springer is among the more interesting prospects in recent years, and after a bit of a rough introduction to the majors, Springer’s caught fire. He homered again Wednesday, and over the course of the last month, Springer’s gone deep nine times, ahead of Yasiel Puig, Giancarlo Stanton, and Troy Tulowitzki. Springer’s been one of the best power hitters in the world, and over that month, he’s also hit 40% fewer home runs than Edwin Encarnacion.
Encarnacion stands at 15 dingers in 30 days, and over those 30 days, that’s more home runs than have been hit by both the Cardinals and the Royals as whole teams. Previous to the hot streak, Encarnacion had gone deep just once, prompting people to worry that something was wrong. If something was wrong, it was resolved in a damned hurry, and now Encarnacion is among the Blue Jays who have led the team into a playoff position. It’s interesting to examine some of Encarnacion’s recent trends. It’s interesting, too, to compare those against larger ones.
The biggest thing when it comes to power streaks and power droughts is that there’s usually an awful lot of noise. When asked about the difference for Encarnacion, John Gibbons offered that Encarnacion before was just missing his pitches, and now he’s hitting them. A home run is the result of a single swing. A home run can turn into a non-home run very, very easily. Let’s break this down real quick. It’s easy to swing a baseball bat. It’s less easy to use the bat to strike the baseball. It’s less easy still to strike the baseball and hit it somewhere fair. The toughest thing is actually squaring the ball up to make quality contact. That’s where it gets to be a matter of timing and millimeters. A good home-run swing might be almost identical to a non-home run swing, but for a very minor difference, and so it stands to reason that sometimes streaks and slumps will be arranged randomly, and not the result of something being wrong or right. There’s a reason why power numbers take so long to stabilize, relatively speaking. Powerful hits represent a small fraction of all swings.
So, one thing we can say about Encarnacion: he’s not this good, nor is he as mediocre as he was the first few weeks. He’s had some lucky swings, following some unlucky swings. But there have been some changes underneath. Edwin Encarnacion, right now, is hunting certain pitches. He’s looking for pitches he can lift and yank.
A few simple numbers. We’ll split Encarnacion’s season around the end of April, to capture his slump and his surge. First, his rate of swings at pitches over the outer third, or beyond:
Slump: 39% swings
Now, his rate of swings at pitches over the inner third, or beyond:
Slump: 44% swings
Before catching fire, Encarnacion attempted 22 more outside swings than inside swings. Since heating up, he’s attempted a dozen more inside swings than outside swings. Of course, that doesn’t explain everything, but the reasoning is this: Encarnacion is most dangerous over the middle and in, and he’s least dangerous away. This is the case for most righties, but Encarnacion has pull power more than anything else, and he’s been swinging like he knows it.
This mirrors a greater trend over Encarnacion’s career. I’d like to show you a table. Below, we’ll compare 2009-2011 Encarnacion to 2012-2014 Encarnacion, using numbers you’re familiar with.
Quickly glance at parts of the table and you won’t see any real meaningful changes. Encarnacion has chased very slightly less, and he’s swung at strikes very slightly less, and he’s still put a lot of balls in the air. He’s the same sort of contact hitter. But then there are the big differences. Encarnacion has lifted his HR/FB by 50%. His wRC+ is up 43 points. One explanation is that the plate-discipline numbers don’t reveal enough detail.
Let’s look at some swing rates again. First, here are swings at pitches out of the zone over the outer third, or beyond:
2009-2011: 33% swings
And here are swings at pitches out of the zone over the inner third, or beyond:
2009-2011: 25% swings
So Encarnacion has swung at fewer balls away, and more balls in. Put another way, he’s swung at fewer balls he can’t do much with, and he’s swung at more balls that have some power potential. Let’s look now at Encarnacion’s overall swing rates at pitches over the outer third, or beyond, including both would-be strikes and balls:
2008: 43% swings
You see a big drop there between 2011 and 2012, which is also when Encarnacion blossomed into an elite-level slugger. He’s kept up the same habits, and while Encarnacion doesn’t ignore outside pitches, he thinks less of them than he used to. Some of this is psychology and development. Some of this probably has to do with mechanics, which Encarnacion tweaked prior to 2012. This is an old story now, but here are a couple sample swings, the first from 2011 and the second from 2012. Both are home runs.
Watch the front foot and you see a much more modest timing mechanism. Watch the hands and now you see a two-handed follow-through. The first adjustment was to keep Encarnacion from being behind on pitches. These days he’s more balanced earlier on. The second adjustment was to cut down on the swing length and improve bat control. While some feared this would cut into Encarnacion’s power, it’s quite obviously done the opposite, as he’s not lacking for strength and now he’s better able to consistently hit the ball where he wants to.
By improving his timing, Encarnacion is more able to turn on pitches. And by cutting down on the length, Encarnacion is less able to reach away, but he’s better able to punish pitches over the inner half, and beyond that. He’s never been great away, but he’s gotten better in, and now he’s optimizing his swing selections.
Here is a table of slugging percentages by pitch location:
And that ignores, also, whiffs and fouls. What Encarnacion wants to do the least is go after pitches over and beyond the outer third. He’s learned that and improved on that, and that’s in part what’s driven his success with the Blue Jays. That’s in part what’s driven his most recent success with the Blue Jays.
In terms of his eye, Edwin Encarnacion has become a particularly focused hitter, and that’s been true to an extreme degree during his current power streak. He lives by hunting pitches he can drive to left or center field, and while in theory this leaves him vulnerable to pitchers who can work him over the outside edge, Encarnacion’s strikeout rate suggests that it simply isn’t that easy to do that over and over again. He doesn’t miss pitches over the middle or inside. He doesn’t like to swing at the rest of the pitches. A series of perfect pitches away can retire him, but miss outside and you’ll throw balls, and miss inside and you’ll need a new ball. Encarnacion doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room.
In time, Encarnacion will cool off, as this is way too hot of a hot streak. In a lot more time, Encarnacion might decline into something less than one of the best power hitters in baseball. He and Jose Bautista share an awful lot in common these days, and that’s the kind of terrible news for pitchers that makes facing the Blue Jays an unenviable task at the moment.
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