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Edwin Encarnacion: Fantasy Fluke?

It’s hard to find a player who increased his fantasy value last season more than Edwin Encarnacion. For years, he was considered a late-round flyer. The type of player who would breakout and hit 30 home runs one season. But after a promising 2006, Encarnacion went backwards. And by last season, even some of his most enthusiastic supporters weren’t sure if Encarnacion would ever emerge as anything more.

Well, things changed in a big way. He went from fantasy roster fodder, to single-handedly winning leagues. The 29-year-old first baseman slugged 42 home runs and hit .280/.384/.557 in 644 plate appearances with the Blue Jays. Because both players experienced massive breakouts with the same team, Encarnacion’s performance has been compared to Jose Bautista‘s 2010 season. Bautista, as we know, managed to build on that success. Now it’s Encarnacion’s turn to prove he is capable of doing the same.

Like Bautista, it appears the Blue Jays worked with Encarnacion to alter his swing. Jack Moore did a great job detailing how Encarnacion’s new approach was driving his new-found power. Encarnacion altered his follow-through, which allowed him to have a shorter path to the ball. ESPN’s Dave Schoenfield also looked at Encarnacion’s initial success, and found that his new approach led to success on pitches thrown over the outer half of the plate.

That’s significant, because one of the most significant forces behind his breakout was his success to center field. Encarnacion has typically been a strong pull hitter, something even he alludes to in Shoenfield’s article. By altering his mechanics, he was able to take the balls over the outer half of the plate, and drive them to center instead of trying to pull them. Encarnacion managed to mash 12 home runs to center field last season. From 2008 to 2011, Encarnacion hit 11 home runs to center.

At the same time, getting around on the ball faster helped in other areas, too. Encarnacion was able to destroy fastballs. He had a 29.9 pitch value against fastballs last season, making him the fourth best fastball hitter in the game. He was also more selective at the plate. His 13.0% walk rate was higher than normal, but Encarnacion didn’t swing as much, either. Like Bautista, Encarnacion seemed content on waiting for the right pitch. He actually made less contact at the plate than in past years, but made up for it by absolutely killing the ball when he was able to put a bat on it.

But is that enough to justify making Encarnacion the second rated fantasy first baseman? That’s where he rated this season, according to Zach Sanders’ rankings. While Encarnacion is far more risky than Prince Fielder, Albert Pujols, Buster Posey or Joey Votto; there’s still some promising reasons to believe he’ll be able to replicate his success next season. Encarnacion adopted a different approach at the plate, which helped him evolve into a much better hitter. As long as he continues to utilize that approach next season, there’s no major reason to think he’ll suffer a big drop-off. Encarnacion may go later than some of the elite, safer first baseman, but he’s definitely vaulted into their company. He should be valued as such next season.