Over the past couple years, Edwin Encarnacion has transformed himself into a legitimate offensive superstar in Major League Baseball. He was the Reds’ top prospect when he made his major-league debut in 2005, but he ultimately wore out his welcome in Cincinnati with poor defense and inconsistent performance. The 30-year-old even scuffled for a couple years in Toronto before busting out in 2012 by launching 42 homers.
Now, he has become a mainstay atop the home run leaderboards. Since the beginning of the 2012 season, only two sluggers have compiled as many home runs as Edwin Encarnacion.
|3||Edwin Encarnacion||Blue Jays||78|
|4||Adam Dunn||White Sox||75|
And if we consider the second half of 2011, he jumps up a spot to second place. He had 11 homers in the second half of 2011, while Chris Davis only had two. No matter if he’s second or third, it’s relatively easy to see that we’re talking about elite power production.
Our own Blake Murphy highlighted many of the important questions surrounding Encarnacion’s fantasy profile a couple weeks ago, focusing on his wrist injury, his increased stolen base numbers and his improved batting average. I encourage you to check out Blake’s article for answers to those questions.
Instead of focusing on those fantasy questions, I wanted to make the argument that Edwin Encarnacion has become an elite all-around hitter and has a real chance to be an MVP candidate in 2014 — and I’m not talking about the second-division MVP behind Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout, either.
The most abrupt change for Encarnacion over the last two seasons wasn’t the increased power production. He’s always possessed massive raw power. It was simply an issue of consistently tapping into that power. He made some mechanical adjustments to shorten his swing — and they’ve been well-publicized — but perhaps the most intriguing aspect of his meteoric rise the past two seasons has been his incredible improvement in his plate discipline.
His walk rate jumped dramatically to 13.0% in 2012 and remained consistent at 13.2% this past season. Simultaneously, his strikeout rate decreased and he was one of only four qualified hitters to walk more than he struck out in 2013. What makes Encarnacion unique is that he’s the only one in that group who can be considered a power hitter. Norichika Aoki, Marco Scutaro and Alberto Callaspo don’t even cumulatively come close to Encarnacion’s home run total this year (20 to 36, respectively).
The closest players to walking more than they struck out with at least a .200 ISO? Miguel Cabrera (0.96 BB/K), David Ortiz (0.86), Jose Bautista (0.82) and Mike Trout (0.81). Again, we’re talking elite company, but we’re talking elite company that isn’t even coming close to Encarnacion’s 1.32 walk-to-strikeout ratio.
His transformation at the plate can further be seen in the percentage of pitches outside the zone at which he swings. Obviously, a lower number is more desirable, and it’s readily apparent that Encarnacion has taken a massive jump forward the last two seasons.
Furthermore, it appears correlated with a higher overall wOBA, which shouldn’t be shocking whatsoever. Fewer swings at bad pitches, more walks and fewer strikeouts isn’t normally the profile of an elite power hitter, but that’s precisely what makes Edwin Encarnacion special.
Two specific points have held him back from being a legitimate MVP candidate the past couple years: (1) poor defense, and (2) middling batting averages. I’m not going to put too much stock into his defensive woes. If his batting average increases and he hits 40+ home runs with a 13.0% walk rate, his poor defense won’t matter much in the large scheme of things. Yes, that’s precisely the Miguel Cabrera argument. Cabrera is so special at the plate that they overcome his defensive shortcomings — now, whether they overcome them enough to be MVP over Mike Trout this year is another conversation that’s not meant to be hashed out in this space.
Instead, I wanted to touch on the batting average for Encarnacion. A batting average hovering between .270-.280 is certainly valuable enough when one considers the massive power and the high walk rate, but if his batting average could eclipse the .300 mark, he would almost certainly catapult himself into the MVP talk next year (assuming his other numbers remained consistent). The culprit appears to be a low BABIP the past couple seasons, sitting at .266 and .247, respectively.
One would normally expect those BABIP to simply jump nearer to the league average, but Encarnacion has posted a below-average BABIP for the vast majority of his career. His career BABIP is .275, and in four of the past five seasons, it’s been well below that mark. So should we seriously expect his BABIP to approach .300 next season? For fantasy purposes, that would be huge if his BABIP could increase and make him a .300+ hitter with 35+ homers and a handful of stolen bases.
I’m not convinced a .300 BABIP is out of the realm of possibility, and I’m not just talking about random variance or luck. Edwin Encarnacion doesn’t appear to have any legitimate reason why his BABIP must necessarily be low. His batted ball profile is solid, and his infield pop-ups have dramatically decreased each of the last two seasons. More significantly, ESPN calculates the WHAV statistic, which stands for Well-Hit Average. Encarnacion had the second-highest WHAV in 2013, behind only Miguel Cabrera. It doesn’t appear he’s lacking line drives, pounding the baseball on the ground too much or even popping it up too often. I don’t see any reason to suggest that his BABIP necessarily has to be sub-.275, which it has been four out of the last five seasons.
And again, for fantasy owners, a higher BABIP makes him an all-around stud. He’d produce in every category, even throwing in a few stolen bases, and owners in OBP leagues would only see him become even more valuable in that category. Furthermore, to drive the point home, if Edwin Encarnacion’s improved plate discipline can remain consistent and he sees a BABIP increase that pushes his batting average over the .300 mark, he possesses a real chance to be an MVP candidate in 2014.
Edwin Encarnacion should be a prime target for fantasy owners next spring. His power is obviously legitimate and his overall fantasy profile is rock-solid. What makes him exciting is that he’s one of the rare top-30 fantasy players who possesses upside heading into the upcoming season, and those are my favorite players to target in auctions and in rounds two and three of snake drafts.
J.P. Breen is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. For analysis on the Brewers and fantasy baseball, you can follow him on Twitter (@JP_Breen).