The Cleveland Indians did the damn thing and signed Edwin Encarnacion. For the first time since probably Travis Hafner, they have a loud bat that isn’t just aone-yearr "hope for the best" signing, ala Mike Napoli, Brandon Moss, or Mark Reynolds.
He’s a real, actual free agent star slugger, and they got him for the next three seasons. This means Encarnacion’s age 34, 35 and 36 seasons. This is less than ideal, but that’s when players become free agents these days. We all know about aging curves and how Father Time is undefeated and all that, but what kind of expectations should we have of Edwin in his new home?
The optimal situation would be him basically replicating his last three seasons in the next three. From 2014-16 he averaged 38 home runs, a 143 OPS+ and 145 games played. Basic premier MLB slugger type of stuff. But there’s likely to be some drop-off because that’s how the human body works. It gets older and slower, no matter what you do or ingest unless you’re the Highlander. For all his power, Edwin likely isn’t a sword wielding immortal locked in an eternal battle between good and evil.
As far as what to realistically expect, Baseball Reference’s "Similarity Score" tool is a nice starting point. Every player on there has a list of other players that put up similar statistics.Here’s the full explanation courtesy of B-Ref. It’s a neat thing, and really helps to put perspective on how great a player is. For instance, the three players most similar to MIke Trout through age 24 are MIckey Mantle, Ken Griffey Jr. and Hank Aaron. Encarnacion’s five most similar players through his age 33 season are:
1. Jermaine Dye
2. Danny Tartabull
3. Frank Howard
4. Pat Burrell
5. Willie Stargell
Five solid players, one Hall of Famer. Dye being the most similar is perhaps the most worrying, if only because he fell off so hard. At 32 Dye hit 44 home runs with a 1.006 OPS and 151 OPS+. Those numbers dropped to 28, .804 and 105 a year later. At 34 he made a bounce back to 34, .885 and 127, but then was out of baseball by 36.
Tartabull would be the ultimate worst outcome for Encarnacion. At 34 he played three games and was gone from the majors. If that happens to Edwin, it means he fell into another dimension or something.\
The ideal would really be Willie Stargell, a man who carried power and leadership deep into his 30’s with the Pirates, winning an MVP as a 39-year old. Both he and Howard had tremendous power outputs from 30-33, averageing about 40 home runs a season, then dropped to the high 20’s the next year. In Howard’s case the fall continued, and was done playing by the time he was 36. Stargell kept producing, a 148 OPS+ over the three years we’re focusing on, and then continued to roll on towards Cooperstown. But on this list, he's the exception.
This is all a long way of saying, I don’t realistically expect 40+ home run seasons from Encarnacion. That doesn’t mean it won’t happen, especially if the bizarre 90’s-esque home run spike we saw in 2016 continues next year. But it’s totally acceptable to expect an .850 to .900 OPS, 130 or so OPS+ and general brutalization of pitchers. He doesn't need to be otherworldly because the rest of the lineup is so good, but that's just fine. The biggest thing about players his age and type is being able to stay on the field.
On Baseball Reference, there’s the list of players a guy is most similar to for their career, and most similar to through their current age. There’s some difference between the two. Using the Trout example from earlier, his most similar player career-to-career is Paul Goldschmidt, since both have only been around a handful of years with incredible offensive output. The number one most similar player to Encarnacion is Jose Bautista, which is funny. He’s a year older than Encarnacion too, with a very similar approach and power level. Other players on that list include Jay Buhner, David Justice and Danny Tartabull. In digging through these guys, one consistent thing popped out - injury and missing time after 33. We saw Bautista sapped of power, only playing 116 games with a 117 OPS+. Buhner, famously rocket armed and traded for Ken Phelps, averaged 72 games a year from 34 to the end of his career. David Justice played 111 and 118 games at 35 and 36 before retiring. Again, this is all a long way of saying, health is paramount to this signing working out. Not groundbreaking, but just straightforward and true. Whether his game will age well is the real question, but he doesn't rely on speed, just power. David Ortiz showed us this past year that the long ball can hang around, even as the legs fade. If he can avoid freak injuries, Encarnacion could be a great Indian.
No two players are actually the same person, regardless of how their numbers line up. Encarnacion has been excellent for several years and is just the type of player fans have pined after for years. We don’t know how he takes care of himself, and can't see to the future as to whether this will be a Stargell type mid to late career or if he’ll turn out like so many of those players he’s compared to. He doesn’t need to carry the team, but if Encarnacion can just take the field consistently and bash for a couple seasons, that’s all we can ask of him.