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Edwin Encarnacion: Who Knew?

Edwin Encarnacion had a breakout that few predicted and he carried many a fantasy team with Pujolsian-like production for bargain basement prices. Since this is kind of what we do — that is, try to sniff out those back-of-the-draft goodies — one has to wonder if we all should have seen this coming.

Perhaps the reason Encarnacion gnaws at me so much is because I wrote his FanGraphs+ profile last year, and had this to say:

“…(B)ut if Encarnacion is going to play every day and he gets into the 550 at-bat range, you can bank on 20+ home runs, 70 RBI, and he should provide at least a respectable batting average. About 45% of his batted balls are fly balls, and his home run per fly ball rate dipped to 9.4% in 2011 whereas his career average is 11.9%. Should he see an uptick in HR/FB and his isolated slugging returns closer to his .200 career level (.181 in 2011), there‚Äôs certainly potential for more home runs here.”

So yeah, 20+ cough cough. At least I said “+”.

But the point here is that there were some indications relative to his HR/FB rate and ISO which suggested we could see more balls leaving the yard in 2012. And to be a teensy bit fair to myself, there is the line about “potential for more home runs here.” But this isn’t a post about defending my own prognostication, it’s about trying to figure out if we should have been able to reasonably uncover this gem ahead of time.

First of all, there’s his big second half from 2011 where he hit .289/.370/.491 with 12 home runs over 273 at bats. Solid, to be sure, but nothing that would have predicted the 2012 explosion — and Encarnacion looks like he’s a second half kind of guy to begin with as his career wOBA in the first half sits at .346 vs. .359 in the second.

In looking at his HR/FB, sure there was some expectation that it ought to creep up towards his career norm, but he wound up setting a career high:

E5HRFB

His career rate was just shy of 12% prior to 2012, but it now stands at 13.1%. I throw the little trend line in there because I find it interesting that the slope isn’t terribly steep, and in fact — his rate in 2012 isn’t that far off from what we saw in 2010. And if I were a bettin’ man, I’d wager that his HR/FB rate will probably be in the 15.5-16% range in 2013.

2010 actually demonstrates an interesting comparison year. He only played in 96 games, but he hit 21 home runs with an ISO of .238 over 360 plate appearances. If you look at his hit trajectory from 2010 and 2012, they’re remarkably similar:

Season GB/FB LD% GB% FB% HR/FB
2010 0.63 17.50% 32.00% 50.50% 15.10%
2012 0.67 17.60% 33.00% 49.50% 18.70%

And through 360 plate appearances in 2012, Encarnacion had hit 23 home runs, although his slash line was far better at .293/.381/.559. The big change? In 2010, he swung at over 30% of balls outside the strike zone and last year it was just over 21%. He simply became a more selective hitter.

On the ISO front, I’d expected it to come up to something in the .200 range to match his career level, and here’s the same kind of visual as the HR/FB, just because, yay graphs!

E5ISO

Trend line is a little steeper here, and his career rate is now .207. And again, looking at this objectively, if I’m going to accept the new and improved selective E5, I wouldn’t doubt that it could settle in around .250, which might not produce another 42 home runs, but it certainly could mean 35. And there were only eight players to hit 35 or more home runs in 2012, so that’s still something pretty special.

Lastly, something that I can’t point to necessarily as evidence or causal or anything beyond the empirical is his speed off the bat on home runs and his home run “true” distance as reported by ESPN Hit Tracker. I’m actually dabbling in how much of the variance in home run per plate appearance can be explained by the speed off the bat and true distance, and it’s actually pretty sizable (shocker). But since I don’t have that data for you here, let’s just assume that it’s better to hit them further and go from there, alrighty?

So here’s Encarnacion’s true home run distance and corresponding speed off the bat (yes, you read it correctly – S.O.B.) for the past four seasons:

AVG Dist SOB
2009 405.2 104.8
2010 407.5 104.9
2011 401.3 105.2
2012 413.2 106.4

Everything kind of headed in the right direction, eh? At the very least, you can’t necessarily look at this and conclude that his distance was down, his speed off the bat is down, and thus 42 home runs seems like a big old fluke. It might be a fluke, sure, but at least everything trends positively, take it or leave it.

Encarnacion turned 30 on the 7th of January, so while he’s not on the right side of the aging curve, he’s not dead yet, and there have certainly been examples of players blooming late in the past, and Encarnacion really only needs to look at the guy in front of him in the order as evidence.

From a fantasy baseball perspective, I think you have to tread cautiously though. If his ISO dips a bit and his HR/FB rate comes down a tad it’ll obviously affect his home run output. But given his improved plate discipline, you shouldn’t have to worry about a .240 batting average anymore, and he’s going to be hitting in the middle of a pretty terrific lineup which will afford many RBI opportunities. I’m still expecting a .275, 35 HR, 100RBI kind of season from him, but I’m probably one of the more optimistic out there.