Does Edwin Encarnacion Have Another Gear?

This man knows how to use the tool he's holding. - Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Edwin Encarnacion has already broken out to become an elite offensive force over the last two seasons. Is it possible he has a little bit more breaking out to do?

In the wake of the Ubaldo Jimenez signing it's fair to say that the outlook of Blue Jays fans at the moment is pretty bleak. Tom covered it here, Stoeten also addressed it over at DJF and the reasoning, by and large, is sound. This is a team built to win now and there are very serious and legitimate questions as to whether it can. The quiet offseason has been very frustrating for fans that who see holes at second base and in the rotation and players available in free agency who could potentially fill those holes.

Even with all the negativity hovering over the franchise there are some reasons for optimism, small though they might seem at this moment. For one, this lineup has the potential to score quite a few runs. If contributions from stars like Jose Reyes, Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista can be supplemented by solid production from Adam Lind and Colby Rasmus again you are talking about quite the lineup, health permitting. Any improvements from Brett Lawrie and Melky Cabrera could turn a good lineup into a great one, and while second base is still a hole Dioner Navarro is virtually certain to provide an upgrade to 2013's production from the catcher position. I would not describe myself as an eternal optimist or homer type by any means, but I see how this squad could score a lot and improve on last year's league-average type showing offensively.

Today I wanted to look into one source of such an improvement that many would consider unlikely, a second breakout from Edwin Encarnacion. I'd like to begin by acknowledging that there are quite a few logical reasons to suspect that this team's best hitter will not take a further step forward in 2014. Firstly, Encarnacion is at an age, 31, where decline is far more likely than improvement. Secondly, he has performed at such a high level over the past two years (a .276/.377/.546 slash line and 8.2 WAR) that regression to the mean of some description is a reasonable expectation. Lastly, Encarnacion also already had his huge breakout in 2012, hitting .280/.384/.557 after coming into the season with a career slash line of .260/.336/.453 and not many guys get two.

Perhaps most importantly, Encarnacion's 2013 looked virtually identical to his 2012, setting what would appear to be a fairly reliable baseline for his production going forward. After all after seeing the following two lines one would expect more of the same in the future:

Season

AVG

OBP

SLG

ISO

wRC+

WAR

2012

.280

.384

.557

.277

151

4.1

2013

.272

.370

.534

.262

145

4.1

In fact, his 2012 seems a little better than 2013 and on the surface this looks like it could be a gentle aging curve. However, appearances can be deceiving. Although one must concede that Encarnacion's power was slightly better two years ago, there is an argument to be made that he improved in every other area in 2013. Largely what has happened here is that there is quite the disparity between the amount of luck Encarnacion received in 2012 compared to last season.

One of the ways that this luck was particularly noticeable was when it came to getting on base. For the most part OBP is cut and dry. If you don't get out you probably did something to deserve it and as a result players with a high OBP tend to be excellent at baseball. However, there are three scenarios for Encarnacion where getting on base is not particularly indicative of his skill.

The first is the HBP. Some players become particularly adept at being hit by pitches, but Edwin would not appear to be one of them. Since joining the Jays Encarnacion has been hit by 23 pitches, a pretty unremarkable number. Therefore when Edwin gets hit, it's more or less a chance occurrence.

The second way for a guy to get on base without showing a great deal of skill is the intentional walk. While it can be a sign of respect, it's largely situational and a hitter does nothing to earn it, except already being good.

The third way for Edwin to get on base largely via luck is the infield hit. Since Encarnacion has pretty normal speed the amount of infield hits he gets are largely luck related. You can credit him for his hustle, but the difference between his infield hits year-to-year is likely no more than random fluctuation.

If we put these three luck-driven OBP-increasing events together into a chart we can see the baseball gods smiled on Encarnacion far more frequently in 2012:

Season

HBP

Intentional Walks

Infield Hits

Total

2012

11

12

20

43

2013

4

7

10

21

The difference between these numbers more than accounts for Encarnacion's higher OBP in 2012. In 2013 he had more unintentional walks and non-infield hits.

Further differences between Edwin's last two seasons become clearer when examining his batted ball profile:

Season

Line Drive%

Ground Ball%

Fly Ball%

Infield Fly Ball%

HR/FB

Infield Hit%

BABIP

2012

17.6%

33.0%

49.5%

12.0%

18.7%

13.3%

.266

2013

21.6%

35.1%

43.3%

9.3%

17.6%

6.0%

.247

A player who hits as many fly balls as Edwin Encarnacion is never going to post an amazing BABIP and as a result both of the numbers here are reasonable for him despite the fact they are below-average. What's puzzling is that Encarnacion increased his line drives and ground balls at the expense of fly balls and pop ups and still saw his BABIP goes down last season. Although a lower HR/FB means more fly balls in play, the difference there is very slight compared to the uptick in liners and reduction in pop ups. As touched upon above, the infield hits appear to be a big factor here.

Ultimately, it looks like Encarnacion was the victim of good old fashioned poor luck with balls in play last season. Even if he may never post a BABIP above .300 again (something he has done only twice in his career and not since 2007), he can be expected to get more love on balls in play in 2014. What Encarnacion's lack of BABIP luck in 2013 concealed the improvements he made in his approach at the plate.

Edwin's ability to hit for power without striking out has been well documented, but he has also become very adept at taking the walk. What has resulted is a fairly incredible BB/K ratio that got better and better as the year went on. Comparing first and second halves of a season can be a dicey proposition due to the fact the second half is shorter and both samples are on the small side, but for Edwin the difference was drastic enough to be worth noting:

Time Frame

BB%

K%

BB/K

First Half of 2013

11.5%

11.3%

1.02

Second Half of 2013

16.2%

7.7%

2.12

Having a BB/K above one is impressive enough, especially for a power hitter, but what Encarnacion did in the second half of 2013 was virtually super human. If he put up a 2.12 BB/K over an entire season it would be the second best mark in the last ten years, ranking behind only the downright silly 5.66 BB/K belonging to Barry Bonds in 2004.

It's unfair to expect Encarnacion to carry all the gains he made in the second half into 2014 as second half statistics have often proven to be an unreliable indicator of future success. That being said, the difference here has to do with approach and strikeouts and walks are hard to fake. Additionally, the gulf here is so significant it is difficult to ignore. While Encarnacion is very unlikely to have a BB/K above two next season, it's not unreasonable to think he might be trending upward in this regard. After all, he has improved in this area in three consecutive seasons. The last piece of food for thought here is that prior to Edwin's breakout in 2012 he was showing signs in the second half of 2011. Here's what his splits by half looked like that year:

Time Frame

BB%

K%

AVG

OBP

SLG

BABIP

wRC+

First Half of 2011

3.5 %

15.1 %

.255

.283

.405

.281

84

Second Half of 2011

12.5 %

14.0 %

291

.382

.504

.305

141

This is a fairly extreme example, and it doesn't prove anything in the scheme of things, but it does show us that Encarnacion's last breakout was foreshadowed by the second half of the previous year. When working with samples like half seasons it is absolutely impossible to say anything definitive, but the signs are encouraging.

Edwin Encarnacion is not exactly on anyone's list of breakout candidates for 2014, but that doesn't mean he can't take his game to another level in the upcoming year. While Father Time is working against Edwin, his underlying numbers suggest that he continues to improve his game at the plate. The 2013 season appeared to be a virtual carbon copy of 2012 for Encarnacion, but he actually made progress by continuing to cut strikeouts and get more walks. Additionally, on the batted ball side of things, Edwin put up an IFFB% below 10% for the first time in his career and recorded his highest line drive rate since his rookie season, where he only had 267 plate appearances. Despite these gains, a very poor BABIP obscured the step up Encarnacion made from 2012, where his overall numbers appeared to be superficially better.

Predicting improvement from players, especially outside the boundaries of a standard aging curve, is a very difficult business. It is very challenging to determine what aspect of a player's performance signifies progress and what are simply good results with no predictive value. However, when a player doubles his BB/K in the second half of a season it is probably worth taking notice. While small sample size risks apply to everything, walks and strikeouts stabilize quickly and are far less luck-driven than most statistics in baseball.

Edwin Encarnacion is coming off two pretty incredible years as a hitter. Given his surprising breakout and All-Star level production it would be difficult to ask for much more. That being said, there is reason to believe that the Blue Jays first basemen can deliver an even better season in 2014. Banking on a 31-year-old bringing his game to another level is not the kind of bet a wise gambler would take, but it is the sort of break the Blue Jays might need to compete this season.

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