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Examining Edwin Encarnacion’s eccentricities

The Tribe slugger has certain quirks and starkly consistent ebbs and flows. Let’s look deeper.

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Minnesota Twins Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Edwin Encarnacion is a great hitter. Since 2010 when he joined the Blue Jays, nobody has hit more home runs in Major League Baseball. He hasn’t posted a wRC+ under 132 since 2012, and is ninth in baseball in that mark over that span. He hits some of the highest pop-ups you’ve ever seen, and blasted some of the most majestic home runs in baseball history. He’s also a bit odd. He smells his bat when he fouls a ball off sometimes, probably because of that neat burning scent. He does the whole parrot thing. Sometimes he squints at the pitcher like he’s a 70-year old man trying to see who those kids on his lawn are. And in terms of baseball, he’s got two quite salient qualities. He’s a noted late starter, often waiting till June or so to get going. He also beat the hell out of the ball at Target Field.

This past weekend both these strange little quirks of his game were on display as he went 5-for-11 in three June games in Minneapolis. It’s odd that he’s this way. Is there any reason at all?

Let’s explore that whole “slow start” thing first. Like some kind of big ol’ bear, it’s like Encarnacion needs a couple months to shake off the snow and get the kinks out from his hibernation. The numbers to speak to this:

Encarnacion splits

Pre-June 1 .247 .323 .488 119 9.52% 19.64%
Post-June 1 .279 .379 .544 148 13.31% 14.34%

It’s just… it’s quite incredible how stark the difference is. He makes the leap from the 2017 version of Travis Shaw to Nelson Cruz with the flip of a calendar. We’ve seen players have hot months here and there before, but rarely with such consistency. Jason Kipnis had a thing for a couple years there where he was amazing in May and June and buoyed his numbers, but Edwin has been doing this for almost a decade. It could just be “one of those things”. Baseball is so often a game of feel and comfort, maybe it just takes a while and he doesn’t play as well when it’s cool or rainy. Which makes one wonder about his decision to come to the Midwest for four years and about 120 or so games each season.

But with Statcast, we can at least look at whether things are going differently for him in terms of raw batted ball data. It doesn’t capture the whole stretch – we can only reach back as far as 2015 when the radar systems were installed – but it’s a nice set of sample. Basically a whole season’s worth of Aprils and Mays, and a ton of time post- that. The raw data, with “Before” being before June 1, and after being the rest:

Encarnacion Statcast splits

Year Exit Velo Before Exit Velo After Launch Anglle Before Launch Angle After
Year Exit Velo Before Exit Velo After Launch Anglle Before Launch Angle After
2015 89.3 mph 90.8 mph 11.4 degrees 19.5 degrees
2016 89.4 mph 90.9 mph 17.5 degrees 14.9 degrees
2017 90.6 mph 89.0 mph 13.1 degrees 18.2 degrees
2018 90.0 mph 93.5 mph 17.9 degrees 14.5 degrees

The post-June for this year contains all of ten batted balls, all in Minnesota, so it’s what you might call skewed. But for the most part, he does seem to drive the ball a bit further, though the launch angles don’t quite move in a similar direction. If you take his 2016 exit velocity leap though, that’s the basically the difference between Tyler Flowers and Manny Machado. So a seemingly small change can make a big difference.

Again, it could be just comfort and getting back in the swing of things, sample size, the weather, or just getting to face more worse pitching in the middle of the season. That last actually could carry more weight than we care to think about. Pitchers do get ground down, and generally staffs are less healthy later in the season. So perhaps Edwin is just feasting on worse pitching the later in the season we go. He does hit the ball harder, enough perhaps to mean the difference between a ball off or over the wall and a warning track can of corn.

One little oddity of all this, Encarnacion’s best season by wRC+ since 2010 is actually April 2012, when he posted a 176. That said, five of his last eight Aprils have been below average, so maybe it is just knocking off rust like an old timey player used to do. Which does potentially portend trouble down the line. If his athleticism does decline with age and he isn’t able to knock the rust off as easily as possible, his decline years could be as stark as his May to June switch. Things look good so far this season though. The man is a bit strange in his mannerisms, but in this one strangeness, he’s at least incredibly predictable.

What’s the deal with his beating the hell out of the Twins?

Now let’s look at another outlying aspect to Edwin, which was also on display this past weekend, his consistent, utter brutalization of the Twins at Target Field. Someone in the Twin Cities must have offended him.

Sometimes there is no “why” to something. Sometimes a batter just as absurd numbers because of silly little things. It’s usually blamed on luck – often in the shape of BABIP – and sample size. These insane rate numbers come against a pitcher or team it’s because they hit like three home runs in the ten total at-bats against them. It’s the stats we cast aside as silly and pointless when announcers mention them, and why we don’t actually care about batter-pitcher matchup numbers. Most of the time it’s useless, muddling the story if anything. But Edwin has a surprising number of at-bats against the Twins considering he spent most of his career out of their division. Just since 2010 when he really broke out, he’s faced a Minnesota pitcher 296 times. That’s nearly half a season. In general he’s done very well against them, as he has against everyone, with a .984 OPS in that span. That’s 104 points higher than his total OPS over that span, so he’s certainly enjoyed seeing the Twins in general.

Once he steps into Target Field though, forget about it. That number leaps to 1.027, good for a 172 wRC+. It’s his third highest OPS in any park behind whatever the Rangers is now and Citizen’s Bank in Philadelphia, and he’s played at Target Field twice as much as either of those. He just beats the hell out of the ball there. It’s a pretty decent sample size, which makse you wonder just what is going on here.

Thanks to the Statcast Era, we can see if he actually is doing anything differently with how he strikes the ball in Target Field compared to normal. That’s only 2015 to now, but it’s a good amount of time to judge. So here:

Encarnacion at Target Field and in general

Location Exit Velo Launch Angle Avg. Distance
Location Exit Velo Launch Angle Avg. Distance
Target Field 89.6 mph 20 degrees 209 feet
Everywhere 90.1 mph 16.5 degrees 191 feet

So he’s hitting the ball harder in in the wider world of baseball (which does include his time in Target Field, Baseball Savant doesn’t allow for NOT measuring a specific park) but he’s hitting it at a higher angle at Target Field, and a further distance on average. Adding to that, on 7.2 percent of batted balls at Target Field, he’s reached or surpassed 95 mph of exit velocity, compared to 6.8 in general. A number that, of course, would go down if you removed his Minnesota numbers from the equation.

So is this just a statement about the actual impact of a higher launch angle? Has he been feast or famine more at Target? He hasn’t struck out any more at Target Field, 16.6 percent compared to 16.3 percent since 2010 in general. That can’t be it. He’s been hitting it in a considerably higher direction with a smidge less exit speed, and has been hitting it further. Which makes one wonder maybe it’s a pitch thing. Maybe he’s getting a better offering for him to hit at Target Field than he normally has. Let’s look. His pitches he’s seen since 2010:

Baseball Savant

And the ones the Twins have thrown him:

Baseball Savant

He’s seen just over 650 pitches from Twins pitching at Target Field, and nearly twenty thousand total pitches in that time in general. But it’s hard to see anything of note there. Perhaps he likes hitting sliders, which Minnesota has thrown more of. Perhaps he likes two-seamers (it’s a pitch falling out of fashion, so it could be) and the fact that he’s a good low ball hitter has allowed him to feast on them. It could be something.

The only other piece that came to mind was that quite frankly, Twins pitching hasn’t been good since Johan Santana left. Ervin Santana had a good run, Jose Berrios looks good, but by and large it’s been a long series of tall drinks of water that barely crack ninety on the gun. Since 2010 Twins pitching as a whole owns a 4.51 ERA, compared to 4.02 across baseball in that span, and struck out 17.1 percent of batters when baseball was at 20.1 percent. Their team FIP has been 4.31 when baseball was at 4.02. They’ve been bad at pitching, pure and simple.

So maybe he’s just feasted on bad pitching when he goes there, and happens to enjoy the sightlines. One thing about center and right fields at Target – the two fields Edwin looks at when he bats – they’re pretty empty of distracting stuff because of that weird, high limestone wall in right and the huge batter’s eye. He’s loved it, as Jose Bautista did when he was with the Jays with his 1.184 OPS and 217 wRC+ at Target. And Josh Donaldson for that matter, 1.285 OPS and 244 wRC+. All three big right-handed sluggers. All three made a lot of Minnesotans very sad.

Oh, and in case you’re curious, in games played after June 1st at Target Field, Edwin Encarnacion owns a 1.530 OPS and 276 wRC+ in 71 plate appearances. Which is just absurd.