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Hunting for Edwin Encarnacion’s faded value

Encarnacion’s WAR output is lower than usual. Where’d it go?

MLB: Game One-Cleveland Indians at Detroit Tigers Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

It’s amazing to think that the news that so electrified the Cleveland Indians fanbase this past winter has becoming at best a tertiary story for the Tribe this season. I speak of course of the Edwin Encarnacion signing. The Indians actually spent big money on a powerful right-handed hitter, and he’s become something resembling a role player. And nobody seems to mind. The emergence of Jose Ramirez into true excellence, Lindor, Kluber, the rest of the pitching, all this has taken prominence. It’s a good sign, because it means they’re a great team. Encarnacion has been very good, but I don’t quite understand where all his Value went.

With the capital V in value, we’re talking about WAR. Edwin has seen a sudden drop in his output this year:

Encarnacion fWAR by year

Year fWAR
Year fWAR
2014 3.6
2015 4.5
2016 3.9
2017 2.1 (so far)

While the season is hardly over, it will be difficult for Encarnacion to put together a 1.0-win month. That would be an absurd, Rhys Hoskins/Gary Sanchez last summer type of stretch. While Encarnacion is capable of doing something like that (he had a 1.067 OPS this past June and hit 10 home runs in August) it’s unlikely. Especially if they are cruising toward the end and Francona decides to rest veterans in advance of October. So he’ll end the year a sub-3 WAR player by FanGraphs’ ratings. That would be his lowest total since 2011. He’s been pretty good at the plate, but it’s amazing that baserunning of all things is dragging him down.

This year, FanGraphs rates Encarnacion as being worth -6.2 Baserunning Runs. For his entire career he’s at -5.8. This year has been ugly by the numbers. Watch him run and you see it too, he moves as if he’s stuck in mud. Nobody should be expecting double digit steals, and he does have two of them, but he’s just not taking advantage of other hitters’ hits. This season, Baseball Reference has him taking the extra base when he’s on base only 18 percent of the time. That’s low anyway, since league-wide the average is 39 percent, but it’s by far the lowest of his career. Last season he got the extra base 30 percent of the time, the year before that 39 percent of the time. The phrase “base-clogging” gets thrown around a lot, but this is what it looks like in action. At least he bats behind Jose Ramirez a lot, though - he’s been on first when a double is hit 14 times this year and has scored just one time. He made it to third 12 other times. Further up in the lineup and we’re talking major lost runs. But he bats where he bats, so the baserunning hasn’t crippled the team. Except his offense as slipped a bit, too.

Last season, Encarnacion was worth 27.2 Batting Runs according to FanGraphs enroute to a 3.9 WAR season. This year? He’s been worth only 15.1. Again, he has a whole month to do work still, but it’s looking grim. While his on-base rate is up to .372 this season, his highest in five years, his slugging is unaccountably below .500. It all shakes out — his wOBA is .372, a single point below last year, and his 130 wRC+ is only five points off last year’s rate. A hot September and it’s a negligible issue, especially because he’s walking so much. But there is a power slippage. It could be that this all stems from his moving out of the American League East, where the ball flies. While his 16.6 percent walk rate is a career-high, the 8.8 percent extra-base hit rate is a career-low. This is the most troubling, and makes some sense because he’s hitting more grounders (37.9 percent of batted balls, a career high) and less fly balls (41.6 percent, second lowest after a year ago). The fly ball is his game - they become home runs. His home run rate is 5.6 percent, the lowest since 2011. None of this is good news. But he is an older slugger, perhaps it’s expected.

It’s damn near impossible for a DH to get more than about 5.0 Wins Above Replacement. Last year, David Ortiz was worth 4.5 fWAR and hit .315/.401/.620, good for a 164 wRC+. He was unstoppable. The positional adjustment kills them. Edwin was never going to lead the team in WAR, but being this much “worse” than a year ago is a bit troubling. He needs to be worth nearly three wins a year for his contract to “pay off”, assuming about $8 million per win at market rates. A cold April impaired his ability to get there this year, though a good September might help. Age still looms in the future. It’s not as though he has a backbreaking contract for the Tribe, especially with all the young talent that is on incredibly inexpensive deals, but it’s nice to not be tied up with an albatross. They had that in Swisher, in Bourn, in Hafner. He’s better than any of those guys at the plate. He just needs to age gracefully. And maybe a bit more stretching, get those legs more limber, and stop running like a dead gazelle.

Barring injury though, it shouldn’t be a painful time in Cleveland if this year is any indication.