As the Cleveland Indians enter the third week of April in last place in their division, many issues vex those that follow the team.
Corey Kluber hasn't been as effective as we last remember him. Yan Gomes seems to have been replaced by a teenager that just experienced a two-foot growth spurt and has no control over his movements at the plate. And the big money man, Edwin Encarnacion, has been hitting like a utility infielder. Surely, it's nothing to get worked up over. Right?
It's probably wrong to expect Encarnacion to have matched his home run total for 2016 already, and early season struggles are just something that happens to lots of people. Last year through 12 games Mike Trout had a .705 OPS. Chase Headley leads baseball in offensive WAR right now. It's an odd time. All the same, it'd be nice to see something out of Edwin, at least the markers of future success amid the struggles. And they are there, FanGraphs has his hard hit ball rate at 50% of batted balls, and judging from the below chart, his launch angle is in line with his 2016 season:
As we're increasingly learning, the fly ball can lead to a lot of damage. He's got the right angle, somewhere in the low 20s with high 90s exit velocity, he just needs all conditions to improve.
The home runs will come, and the ball is getting hammered already, but there are some problems. For instance, his fly ball rate is only 38.1 percent and his line drive rate 19.1 percent, both below 2016 and career rates. He is not going to be successful as a ground ball hitter. That's exactly what pitchers want him to be. He's also striking out 34 percent of the time so far. Edwin has always been a bit of a slow starter, as TJ Zuppe detailed here:
Encarnacion through 12 G:— T.J. Zuppe (@TJZuppe) April 17, 2017
The strikeout rate is troubling though, especially if you think to hard about it as I have. Last year even as he scuffled through April, he struck out 24 percent of the time. In 2015 that number was 20.6 percent. Strikeouts are always a worrying thing to see out of hitters on the other side of the aging curve, since age saps players' ability to get after certain pitches. That could be an issue with Encarnacion.
However, pitchers are attacking him a bit differently:
There's just nothing in the zone that he can hit, and yet he continues to swing at them. Here is where Encarnacion did the most damage a year ago, by Isolated Slugging, a good measure of extra bases earned:
As the prior graphic shows, last year he saw more pitches up there than he has so far this year, so his power is being mitigated by not getting pitches where he smashes. Okay, let's look at one more graphic, showing his swing rate for the month of April 2016 vs. so far this year.
Seems to me, he's swinging out of the zone more, while being a bit more tentative when the ball is hittable. From this I can't help but infer that he is pressing a bit, perhaps trying to do too much, to live up to the contract all in one month and simply get his team off to a good start. After all, he joined the Indians to win games and championships, not just for money.
It's hard to call it a slump since the whole team has been bad offensively and it's the middle of April, but he does have an above-average BABIP, just no flashy numbers to show for it. It could just be a rhythm or comfort thing too, since he’s swinging where he usually doesn’t and isn’t where he usually does. Regardless of who you are or your job, a change of scenery can be a bit unsettling.
No, it is not time at all to worry about Encarnacion. Just in case you were wondering. He's being pitched very tough and wants to make a good impression with his new team, and that can lead to some mental strain, which can then lead on to pressing too much. He's still walking a career high 15.1 percent of the time, and if that holds and the power returns then suddenly it's his best year ever. Which would be nice. Plus, this means (assuming 45 dingers) more home runs compressed into less time.
A sudden outburst would be electrifying, and help him earn that attendance bonus. So look forward to that.