The majority of the Cleveland Indians team has been in place for years. Of the 12 most used hitters, 10 were drafted, signed or traded for long before this year. Of the 13 most used pitchers, all but Andrew Miller and Nick Goody were the same. Of course, this essentially how a small market team must build a championship contender. Despite the great drafts (like Francisco Lindor in 2011 and Bradley Zimmer in 2014), steals of trades (like Corey Kluber for Jake Westbrook and Yan Gomes for Esmil Rogers) and international signings (like Danny Salazar and Jose Ramirez), there was still one extremely glaring hole going all the way back to 2012 that seemed impossible to fill.
After the exit of Travis Hafner, the Indians had no obvious option for DH and they had been extremely weak offensively for years as Ryan Garko was the primary starter from 2007 through 2009 and was replaced by the even less exciting Matt LaPorta. Considering 1B and DH should hold a teams greatest offensive performers, this was a huge weakness for a team that was fairly well rounded starting in 2013.
The Indians first made an attempt at a long term solution in 2013 with Nick Swisher, but that attempt really just lasted one year before they were back where they started. While the addition of Gomes allowed Carlos Santana to move to first, DH was still a black hole that may have hit it’s nadir in 2015 with the platoon of Ryan Raburn and David Murphy taking most of the at bats.
With potential World Series contention on the line in 2016, however, the Indians front office knew they had to fill that gap in the lineup, but didn’t want to bet the house. They brought in the cheapest acceptable option in Mike Napoli on a one year, $7M reclamation deal. Once they were proven World Series contenders, ownership opened up their wallets and then some, going for another, more significant long term deal in Edwin Encarnacion for 3 years (plus an option) for $60M guaranteed.
The point of all this is to say that Napoli was the bargain bin option, while Encarnacion was the prime available free agent. The difference in their performances in late 2016 and 2017 this year show why there was a $53M difference in the price tag.
Through 55 games, you might not have noticed. Encarnacion hit that mark on June 7th this year and was hitting .230/.342/.402, had ten home runs, 22 RBI and 31 walks to 61 strike outs. A year before, Napoli hit game 55 on June 10th and was hitting .236/.309/.495 with 14 home runs, 44 RBI and 22 walks to 86 strike outs. The primary difference between these two lines, which are fairly similar with Napoli having greater power numbers and Encarnacion getting on base more often, is that this was Napoli playing at his absolute peak and Encarnacion at his worst.
This wasn’t a random point to start at, but the turning point in Encarnacion’s season. He had just come off five straight games without an extra base hit and was about to put that parrot to work. Over the next two games he went 5 for 8 with two home runs and a double and by the end of a 12 game run he had raised his slugging percent over 100 points to .508. His 7 home runs and 10 extra base hits were more than Napoli ever had in a similar stretch in 2016.
While that slugging percent wouldn’t always stay above .500, it has reached that mark again as of September 22nd with an incredible 13 doubles, 27 home runs and, for those who like them, 76 RBI in his last 94 games. What is more important than that, however, is that he went from that baseline OBP of .342 and 31/61 BB/K rate at his worst, to .396 and 70/68 during that stretch.
If there is one discernible benefit of having post-season experience it is that it gets players used to a longer season. In 2016, many Indians hitters had a rough September, possible because they had never played that long before. Francisco Lindor was one who was obviously affected after being used to a minor league schedule that ends in early September and playing only 99 MLB games in 2015. Napoli had played in the post-season in almost every season of his career, but never had more than 140 regular season games and had played more than 120 just twice, most recently in 2013. In 2016, he hit the 120 game mark on August 27th and kept going to a career high 150 games. That was a lot to ask of a 34 year old former catcher.
From August 12th on, Napoli may have been better off just not playing. He hit .184/.309/.297 over the last month and a half of the regular season and under .200 in each round of the post-season with his only home run coming in the ALCS. That helped raise his SLG to .500 for the ALCS, but otherwise he had an OBP and SLG below .300 in each round as well.
Encarnacion, on the other hand, may be represented by a parrot, but he is a horse. He’s played 140 or more games in five of the last six seasons including three in a row and has added 20 games in the postseason over the past three years. He is conditioned for the long haul and with Santana playing first base instead of DH, he has saved some wear that likely hurt Napoli as well. Encarnacion will play more games this year than Napoli (probably by Sunday), yet from that take time span of August 12th on, he’s hit .273/.402/.606. With three home runs in his last five games, he doesn’t look to be slowing down either.
None of this is meant to disparage Napoli, but it could prove a huge difference maker in the 2017 post-season. In 2016, the Indians were essentially taking an automatic strike out each time the first base spot came up in the order, especially when it mattered most and Napoli struck out 11 times in 24 at bats in the World Series. After seeing him for a year, we know that at his worst, Encarnacion will at least walk enough to make himself useful. At his best, he’s already the Indians most prodigious home run hitter since Travis Hafner in 2006. Given his track record, there’s a good chance that this trend will continue through October and the Indians will be that much better than they were last time around.