The Underappreciated Edwin Encarnacion

If you think about the five most dangerous hitters in baseball (as ranked by wOBA) over the past two years, you’ll certainly come up with the top two (Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout) pretty easily. The No. 3 (Joey Votto) and No. 4 (Andrew McCutchen) bats probably wouldn’t be too difficult to discern either. But which player would round out the top five: Robinson CanoBuster PoseyGiancarlo Stanton?

That trio and many others are valid guesses, but none of them make it into the top five, and if not for the big picture at the top of this article giving it away, you might have been cycling through names in your mind for hours before coming up with Edwin Encarnacion. Often thought of as not even being the best hitter on his own team, the truth is that the soon-to-be 31-year-old Toronto slugger is one of baseball’s elite bats and still is almost certainly the sport’s most underappreciated power source.

Nomadic beginnings

If fans haven’t properly respected Encarnacion, they’re not alone, because the sport itself hasn’t always either. For years, he had been a quiet favorite of some stats-oriented observers, who looked past lousy third base defense and poor batting average (he failed to top .251 in four of his first six seasons) in favor of impressive on-base and power skills. In parts of five seasons with the Cincinnati Reds, Encarnacion hit a solid .262/.345/.449, all before the age of 27, butoccasionally clashed with manager Jerry Narron and found himself fighting for playing time with the likes of Ryan Freel and Rich Aurilia.

In 2009, Encarnacion was shipped off to the Toronto Blue Jays in the Scott Rolen deal, but even then it wasn’t smooth sailing. He was outrighted off the 40-man roster in 2010, spent time in the minors and was waived again following the season, briefly landing in the Oakland organization before the A’s let him go as well.

Just three years ago, any team could have had Encarnacion for nothing at all, and that’s shocking when you look at what he has done. Since 2010, he has more home runs than David Ortiz and only one fewer than Stanton and Cano. His wOBA over that span is identical to Shin-Soo Choo‘s, who just collected a budget-busting contract from Texas, and hiswRC+ is exactly the same as that of respected stars Joe Mauer and Carlos Beltran. Even when judging Encarnacion by wins above replacement, which penalizes him for that unimpressive defense, he has been worth roughly as much asMatt Kemp in that span.

That’s pretty strong company to be mentioned in, and it hardly stops there. Over the second half of last season, Encarnacion was an almost identical offensive performer to Arizona first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, who ended up as the National League’s second-place finisher in the MVP ballot. Here’s a look at how they compared over that span:

Goldschmidt: .288/.408/.544 16.4 walk rate, .399 wOBA, 152 wRC+
Encarnacion: .286/.401/.538 16.2 walk rate, .398 wOBA, 152 wRC+

If one thing separated them, it was that Goldschimidt struck out 20.7 percent of the time in the second half, which isn’t out of the ordinary; the sport as a whole struck out 19.9 percent of the time in 2013. But Encarnacion whiffed a mere 6.7 percent of the time in the second half and 10 percent overall, making him the rare power hitter who doesn’t pile up absurd strikeout numbers, and that puts him in some other rarified company.

Contact hitter

Since the turn of the century, just five other players have done what Encarnacion accomplished in 2013, which is to hit at least 36 homers while striking out fewer than 62 times. Two of those players — Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols — rank among the best who have ever played, and two others — Todd Helton and Gary Sheffield — will have strong Hall of Fame cases to make when they become eligible. Only six qualified hitters struck out at a lower clip than Encarnacion did last year, and they were mostly Marco Scutaro types, not power hitters, with none coming within 100 points of Encarnacion’s .534 slugging percentage.

If you take that further, looking only at power hitters who know how to take a walk without piling up strikeouts, you’ll find Encarnacion’s name nearly alone at the top of the peak. Over the past two years, 28 hitters displayed an ISO of at least .200, and just five from that group walked at least 13 percent of the time; of those five, only Encarnacion and Votto walked more than they struck out. When you’re piling up free passes, not whiffing and showing immense power, you’re usually doing something right.

Of course, simply not striking out doesn’t instantly correlate with success — strikeouts aren’t often much worse than other outs — but putting the bat on the ball more often does put Encarnacion in position to take advantage of his natural skills. Again looking at 2012-13, Encarnacion has the third-highest fly ball rate in the game, and the 14th-highest rate of home runs per fly ball. The equation there is simple: more contact leads to more fly balls leads to more homers.

That’s easier said than done, and in Encarnacion’s case the key came through coaching. Prior to 2012, he was advised to shorten his swing by keeping both hands on the bat, rather than letting his top hand come off in his follow-through, and to stop attempting to pull every ball to left field. It worked, and quickly: Of Encarnacion’s 24 career homers to center and right field, 11 have come in the past two seasons.

Playing for a team outside of the media spotlight and often overshadowed by teammate Jose Bautista, Encarnacion generally gets left out of the conversation about baseball’s best. He finally made his first All-Star team in 2013, but that’s just a small step toward the recognition his performance deserves considering how great his past two seasons have been. When he’s an MVP candidate in 2014 (assuming he will have no ill effects following minor wrist surgery in September), don’t say you didn’t see it coming. After all, the past two awards went to a powerful corner infielder who didn’t offer much defensive value, either.




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Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.

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