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Pedro Alvarez, Edwin Encarnacion, and Usable Power

With the season now on the threshold of the playoffs, there’s no more logical a thing to consider briefly than — and the public is certainly demanding to know more about — the question of raw power versus usable power and what it looks like at the major-league level.

The concept is important, and perhaps underestimated in its importance, but can also be illustrated rather expediently in the persons of Pittsburgh third baseman Pedro Alvarez and Toronto first-base/DH-type Edwin Encarnacion. Of Messrs. Alvarez and Encarnacion, one can make three true statements, as follows — namely that (a) both players hit 36 home runs this season, (b) both recorded something not unlike 600 plate appearances, and (c) both hit home runs in just under 6% of their respective plate appearances.

A table, incapable of lying, bears this out:

Name Team PA BB% K% HR HR%
Pedro Alvarez Pirates 614 7.8% 30.3% 36 5.9%
Edwin Encarnacion Blue Jays 621 13.2% 10.0% 36 5.8%

Despite the similarities between the two, what one can also probably say with some certainty — even while ignoring each player’s respective park factor (which, if considered, would favor Alvarez) — is that Alvarez demonstrated substantially more raw power this year, even while the pair exhibited almost precisely the same usable power. For, while both hit 36 home runs, Encarnacion did so while walking or striking out in only 23% of his plate appearances; Alvarez, meanwhile, in 38% of them. As such, Encarnacion had 477 opportunities to hit those 36 home runs (a rate of 7.5%); Alvarez, only 380 (a rate of 9.5%). Alvarez’s mark was fifth among qualified batters; Encarnacion’s, just 12th.

Just as the comparison reveals what might be a relative weakness for Encarnacion as compared to Alvarez (i.e. raw power, as represented by home runs on contact), it also demonstrates how that one tool must be considered within the context of the player’s overall skillset so far as actual major-league production is concerned. Encarnacion’s control of the strike zone allows his usable power to rival Alvarez’s at the major-league level. Alvarez’s issues with contact, on the other hand, mute whatever advantage he might otherwise have had.

By way of illustrating the relationship between walks, strikeouts, and home runs on contact, the author has provided below a number of situations in which one or the other of those rates has been altered.

First, here are the actual figures produced by Alvarez and Encarnacion in 2013. As noted, Alvarez recorded a HRCon% (home-run rate on contact) about two percentage points higher than Encarnacion.

Name PA BB% K% HRCon% HR
Alvarez 614 7.8% 30.3% 9.5% 36
Encarnacion 621 13.2% 10.0% 7.5% 36


Now here’s a comparison between the two, were Encarnacion to have recorded the same home-run rate on contact as Alvarez. Encarnacion hits nine more home runs, or 25% of his 2013 total, in this scenario.

Name PA BB% K% HRCon HR
Alvarez 614 7.8% 30.3% 9.5% 36
Encarnacion 621 13.2% 10.0% 9.5% 45


Here’s a scenario in which Encarnacion walks and strikes out at the same rate as Alvarez. He hits seven fewer home runs in this case.

Name PA BB% K% HRCon HR
Alvarez 614 7.8% 30.3% 9.5% 36
Encarnacion 621 7.8% 30.3% 7.5% 29


Finally, here’s if both players were to have matched Chris Davis‘s league-leading figure of 13.2% this season. Encarnacion has one of the game’s great power seasons in this instance.

Name PA BB% K% HRCon HR
Alvarez 614 7.8% 30.3% 13.2% 50
Encarnacion 621 13.2% 10.0% 13.2% 63


Understanding both (a) a player’s power on contact but also (b) his capacity for putting balls into play is vital to projecting any player’s offensive upside — and particularly important in the analysis of prospects. This was made clear recently by Nathaniel Stoltz in his exhaustive study of Rangers third-base prospect Joey Gallo. The 19-year-old Gallo hit 38 home runs in 446 plate appearances for Class-A Hickory, but also recorded a strikeout rate of 37.0% at that level. One finds, after accounting Gallo’s 10.8% walk rate, that the giant Italian posted a home-run rate on contact of about 16% — i.e. higher than any major leaguer this year. Gallo was, of course, productive in the Sally League this season, but projecting any young player to post the best anything at the major-league level is difficult. Hence, the cause for concern.

The concern isn’t limited to Gallo. Pedro Alvarez was a slightly above-average player this year (3.1 WAR) while posting the fifth-best home-run rate on contact among qualified players — which is to say, Alvarez’s margin for error so far as preserving his raw power is rather small.

Below are five rough versions of Alvarez’s 2013 season — with only his home-run rate on contact altered from one to the next. Remember that Encarnacion’s rate this year was 7.5%. Michael Cuddyer, Josh Donaldson, and Matt Holliday (none of them slouches in this regard) all recorded rates of about 5.0%, the next step down. The fourth figure (3.5%) is approximately league average. That last (0.4%) is the lowest rate produced by a qualified hitter this season, a distinction shared between Marco Scutaro and Eric Young.

PA HRCon% BB% K% BABIP BsR Fld+Pos HR wOBA Off Def Rep WAR
614 9.5% 7.8% 30.3% .276 0.6 1.8 36 0.332 9 2 20 3.1
614 7.5% 7.8% 30.3% .276 0.6 1.8 29 0.310 -3 2 20 2.0
614 5.0% 7.8% 30.3% .276 0.6 1.8 19 0.283 -17 2 20 0.5
614 3.5% 7.8% 30.3% .276 0.6 1.8 13 0.267 -26 2 20 -0.4
614 0.4% 7.8% 30.3% .276 0.6 1.8 2 0.234 -44 2 20 -2.2