Current Edwin Encarnacion vs. Vintage Albert Pujols

Toronto Blue Jays 1B/DH Edwin Encarnacion had another great year with the bat in 2013. He posted a .272/.370/.534 line with a 148 wRC+ that was 6th in the AL. This was on the heels of a 2012 season where Encarnacion managed a .280/.384/.557 line with a 151 wRC+.

In his late-career resurgence, Encarnacion has become the rarest of players, a power hitter that rarely strikes out. Only Chris Davis and Miguel Cabrera had more home runs than Encarnacion’s 36. The previous year, Encarnacion slammed 42 home runs.

Meanwhile, Encarnacion struck out in only 10% of his plate appearances. Only seven qualified hitters struck out at a lower rate than Encarnacion. None of them had more than 17 home runs.

In fact, you’ll have to go back to the glory days of Albert Pujols (2001-11) to find someone who matched Encarnacion’s home run total with a similarly low strikeout rate.

Here’s a look at their numbers side by side.

Vintage Pujols 40 13.1 9.5
Encarnacion ’12-13 39 13.1 12.3

Pretty impressive, huh? Well, let’s dig even further. From 2001-11, the MLB average walk and strikeout rates were 8.5% and 17.3%, respectively. In 2012-13, they were 7.9%, and 19.9%, respectively. So, here are Pujols’ and Encarnacion’s numbers expressed as a percentage of the MLB average.

Vintage Pujols 222% 154% 55%
Encarnacion ’12-13 238% 165% 62%

So if we adjust for the MLB average, Edwin Encarnacion’s home run and walk rates from 2012-13 were better than those of vintage Albert Pujols. His strikeout rate was a shade worse. If I restricted the comparison to 2013, Encarnacion would be better in all three categories.

Does this mean that Encarnacion from 2012-13 has been the offensive equivalent of vintage Pujols? Well, not quite. Let’s revisit wRC+. Pujols’ average from 2001-11 was a robust 167. Encarnacion’s wRC+ from 2012-13 is 148. Where does this big difference come from?

Pujols in-play batting average in his prime years was .311. On the other hand, Encarnacion has just a .256 in-play average from 2012-13. That’s a very big difference. Only Darwin Barney had a worse in-play batting average than Encarnacion in that time frame.

Does Pujols hit more line drives? What’s the reason for this big split? Here are their batted-ball ratios.

Vintage Pujols 19.0 40.9 40.0 13.0
Encarnacion ’12-13 19.6 34.1 46.3 10.7

Pretty similar. Pujols hits more ground balls, Encarnacion does a better job of avoiding the infield fly. In fact, based on these ratios, you would expect Encarnacion to have a higher in-play average than Pujols.

Recently teams have been using a unique shift against Encarnacion, where they put three infielders on the left side of second base. Here’s a picture below.

This shift has been successful in taking away hits from Encarnacion. Since 2012, he’s hit just .222 on ground balls, compared to .262 for vintage Pujols. In 2013, just 25 of the 170 groundballs Encarnacion hit found a hole. Here’s a link to his spray chart.

On balls he pulls, Encarnacion has a .376 batting average. That might sound very good, but compare it to Pujols, who hit .477 on balls he pulled in his vintage years.

Edwin Encarnacion is an elite hitter. In terms of walks, strikeouts, and home runs, he’s every bit the hitter that Albert Pujols was during his prime years. Sure, his pull-heavy approach might allow the shift to take away some hits, but the shift can’t do anything about the balls he puts over the fence.

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Chris Moran is a second-year law student, former college baseball player and assistant baseball coach at Washington University in St. Louis. He writes for Beyond the Box Score, Prospect Insider, DRaysBay, and sometimes other sites as well. Follow him on Twitter @hangingslurves

20 Responses to “Current Edwin Encarnacion vs. Vintage Albert Pujols”

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  1. Anon says:

    Why use 11 years for Pujols? It seems like vintage Pujols would be better represented by his 2003 through 2009 statistics.

    From 2003 to 2009, Pujols had a 9.5% K% in his worst year of that span (rather than the 9.5% average that you use).

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    • Chris Moran says:

      If we’re splitting up Pujols’ career, 2001-11 makes sense. He was great all of those years (maybe you want to quibble about 2011). Sure 2003-2009 might have been his best years. But the other years were great as well.

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  2. japem says:

    This is really interesting, and it can shows how much BABIP can affect offensive production. However, as you mentioned, Encarnacion is likely to blame for much of his low BABIP because he pulls too many balls. I don’t think you’ll find anyone who says that Encarnacion is as good now as Pujols was in his prime, but his peripherals suggest that he’s closer than people may think.

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  3. Erik says:

    It seems to me that the difference can be almost completely attributed to Pujols ability to spray the ball all over the field, vs Encarnacion’s pull heavy approach.

    What’s interesting is that ‘current Pujols’ is very much a big time pull hitter. I can’t remember the last time I saw him hit a line drive the other way. Defenses have responded and they all employ the same shift on him as they do Encarnacion.

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    • Chris Moran says:

      Partly true, but not quite. Pujols never used the opposite field that often.

      Pujols 2001-2011:
      Pull: 32%
      Middle: 53%
      Oppo: 15%

      Pujols 2012-13:
      Pull: 35%
      Middle: 54%
      Oppo: 11%

      Encarnacion 2012-13:
      Pull: 36%
      Middle: 52%
      Oppo: 12%

      So Pujols and Encarnacion look pretty similar now. But Pujols probably could have been given the Encarnacion treatment even in his prime years.

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      • Spencer Dean says:

        One other thing, HR/FB %. Albert seems to have a far higher HR/FB percentage despite a larger home ball park (not checking the lines). Also, don’t grounders go for hits fairly often – more than enough to make up for the difference in IFFB%?

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      • Ben Cerutti says:

        While it doesn’t seem like Pujols’ opposite field swings are that much more than Encarnacion’s, the 2001-2011 version had 20% more go that way (15% to 12%) OVER Encarnacion’s number.

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        • chris moran says:

          Sure, I can do math. Pujols 2001-11 is still a pretty extreme pull hitter. Generally speaking, a shift like the one used against Encarnacion will be productive on a right handed hitter that pulls goes opposite field 15% or less.

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  4. chris moran says:

    The HR/FB rates are actually pretty close. Pujols is 19.7% from 2001-11, and Encarnacion is 18.1% from 2012-13. Generally speaking, grounders go for hits more often. Still, if you use the xBABIP calculator, it spits out a better mark for Encarnacion than for Pujols. The problem is that Encarnacion’s grounders rarely go for hits in large part because of the shift.

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  5. Daniel says:

    Great article. One thing to add. As a Jays fan I’ve noticed that Encarnacion has a tendency to hit line drives directly at fielders. Particularly LF. I haven’t looked at the data to confirm this but I would guess that it has contributed to his low babip over the last two years as well as the ground ball rate.

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    • Chris Moran says:

      Interesting. I looked this up with Baseball Reference Play Index. They count 15 lineouts to left for Encarnacion from 2012-13. It’s a little on the high side, but Nick Markakis had the most with 28. Only three hitters have pulled more balls for outs since 2012. And Albert Pujols is the next hitter behind Encarnacion on that list.

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  6. Sam says:

    It’s important not to overlook the fact that Encarnacion gets to play half his games at the Roger’s Centre while Pujols had to play half his games at New Busch Stadium. That’s probably a big part of the wRC+ difference.

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    • chris moran says:

      That’s just not that interesting though. Or important. Here are Encarnacion’s home road splits from 2012-13.

      Home: .275/.384/.535, 35 HR
      Road: .278/.370/.555, 43 HR

      Pujols 2001-11
      Home: .331/.429/.614, 219 HR
      Road: .326/.415/.620, 226 HR

      Nothing big there. Park effects aren’t the same for every hitter, and Rogers Centre has been all over the board in terms of HR effects.

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      • Ben Cerutti says:

        More importantly than that…

        Pujols’ split was for 11 years. Encarnacion’s has been for 2.

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        • chris moran says:

          I’m not saying Encarnacion’s career is anything close to Pujols. I’m only saying that if not for the shift and some poor luck, the last two years of Edwin Encarnacion would be equivalent to an average Pujols year between 2001-11.

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  7. Brandon says:

    Just more evidence that it’s amazing what the shift can do to hitters.

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