When the Indians acquired Jay Bruce and his 28 homers on Wednesday night it caused a lot of people to think about Edwin Encarnacion’s homer run total which was 22 at the time (23 after his solo shot on Friday night) and how the Indians gave him $60 million in the offseason. Many have pointed his production with runners in scoring position (.762 OPS vs. .854 for his career) and saying he hasn’t been worth it. I’m not going to waste words on hitting with runners in scoring position as we know it is a cyclical and often fluky issue. But with regards to Encarnacion’s 23 parrot trots and some other numbers people are disappointed about – the Indians are getting exactly what they paid for in Encarnacion and the shouldn’t be disappointed.
Encarnacion turned 34 in January and was coming off of a year where he set a career high in strikeouts in 2016 (138). The year before that, his age 32 season, he struck out 98 times, a career high at that time. Now, the strikeout (and all three-true outcomes; HRs-BBs-Ks) are becoming more prevalent these days but in sluggers, we know that strikeouts are often going to happen but a spike in any player can be a sign in an age related decline.
Father time is undefeated all time and may not have 100% KO’s in all cases, but he’s never beaten.
Age and Power
Six players last year age 34 and up hit 30 homers. Only one hit more than 40 (Nelson Cruz). While we are out of the steroid era, we are in a juiced ball era (even if Major League Baseball won’t admit this, there’s been plenty of independent testing to prove this). This year among hitters 34 and older, Encarnacion is second in HRs (23) and it looks like only four players ages 34 and up have a realistic chance to hit 30 homers
The Indians Knew What They Were Getting
Major League teams have all the data we have access too and then some and probably more easily searchable and sortable at that.
The Indians knew that Encarnacion’s strikeout rate climbed from 15.7% to 19.7% from 2015 to 2016. They knew that his swinging strike rate went from 6.3% in 2013 and then increased to over 9% in 2015 and 2016. His contact rate peaked at 84.4% in 2013 and has been below 80% every year and dropped from that each year since. These are all easily identifiable indicators of hitters entering an age related decline. Factor in Encarnacion’s age and skills and it was easy to see that he was a player likely on the downside of his career. Combine that with the fact he’s already on the lowest end of the defensive spectrum (DH and occasionally first base), the only reason the Indians ever got involved and wound up with him was because of the years they had to commit to (three) and the money, which were all in their comfort zone given the window of contention with the current roster.
A few other things to look at in relation to age and decline are this: loss of bat speed and the ability to pickup spin. Eye-sight plays an irreversible role in the aging process for anyone, not just athletes, but in this case more so. Good major league hitters have to be able to pick up the spin of the baseball and we know they have just fractions of seconds to do so before they can identify what they’re swinging at or what they shouldn’t swing at.
Some identifiers for Encarnacion’s possible loss of bat speed?: His estimated average swing speed according to BaseballSavant.MLB.com is 60.9 mph, which ranks 41st in all of baseball among batters with more than 250 results. He was also 41st last year but at 62.2 mph. A loss of 1.3 mph on swing speed may not seem like much but that’s more than enough to make a difference in connecting on a 95 mph fastball or completely swinging and missing.
More evidence of issue with loss of bat speed and potential loss in ability to pick up spin from Fangraphs are his contact and swinging strike rates vs. fastballs and breaking balls from his career and 2017.
|Pitch Type||2016 Swinging Strike %||2016 Contact %||2017 Swinging Strike %||2017 Contact %||Career Swinging Strike %||Career Contact %|
|Sinker (Two Seam)||5.6%||87.3%||9.7%||80.2%||5%||88.8%|
Keep in mind Encarnacion didn’t breakout until 2012, while he played over 130 games in three seasons before then, he hit his stride in 2012. He’s swinging and missing at the four and two-seam (sinker) fastballs more often in 2017 than in 2016 and his career overall. He is making more slider contact this year but a raw, no-data guess suggests that the drop in bat speed has him hitting more sliders because he’s behind on where his bat speed would normally be thus the term “slider bat speed.”
To back this up with a little more basic, results based data: Encarnacion has a career OPS of .771 vs. what Baseball-Reference defines as a “power pitcher” (pitchers are in the top third of the league in strikeouts plus walks) which we can probably assume are pitchers with upper-level velocity. In 2017 his OPS is .666 vs. them.
The other type of classification Baseball-Reference has for pitchers is “finesse” (bottom third of the league in strikeouts plus walks). His career OPS vs. them is .904 and it’s .920 this year. Baseball-Reference also has a category which is “average” between finesse and power. For his career vs. “average” strikeouts plus walks pitchers, his OPS is .828. This year it’s .702.
Now, while this all may seem like I’m saying Encarnacion has been a bust, I’m arguing the opposite because the Indians knew exactly what they were getting when they signed Encarnacion and this is it.
What Was the Alternative?
Mike Napoli was one of those six players in 2016 who his 30 homers or more at the age of 24. However, those home runs were a bit “empty” as he finished with a wRC+ of 113, which ranked 13th among all qualified first basemen (remember 100 is league average in terms of run production for wRC+).. And he’s really the comparison here for the most part. The Indians went into the offseason after the 2016 season hoping to re-sign Napoli after helping take the club to World Series and having a bit of a career resurgence offensively. Then the market on Encarnacion didn’t develop the way he and his agent expected to after turning down four years and $85 million from the Toronto Blue Jays. That allowed the Indians to get involved which it turn lessened their interest in Napoli knowing Encarnacion was the superior hitter. Even in Encarnacion’s struggles in 2017, he’s much better than Napoli was in 2016 and far and away better than Napoli in 2017.
|Stat||Encarnacion 2017||Napoli 2016||Napoli 2017|
Napoli barely out-slugged Encarnacion in his 2016 compared to Encarnacion in 2017 thus far. But in all other numbers, Encarnacion has Napoli blown away production wise. He’s drawing more walks, striking out less and his wOBA (weighted on-base average, which stops all on-base events from being evaluated equally because while a walk and a single are equal in value, a single and a double are not) is immensely better.
I realize this is a comparison in a bit of a vacuum here but, Encarnacion is 34, Napoli is 35 and the Indians are trying to win in 2017. Who is the better player in 2017 out of the DH/1B options the Indians were going to choose from this past offseason? It’s Encarnacion and it’s not even close. As I wrote when it appeared the Indians were close to signing him, they were always paying for his past production and hoped he’d age gracefully enough to help them win a World Series at some point during his contract.
You are not paying for future production, you are paying based on the value or what they previously did. This is especially true for any free agent contract. with a player over the age of 30. There is a reason why people use the term “wrong side of 30” for free agents.
This is why.
While Encarnacion is certainly showing signs of age-related decline aside from still possessing a lower chase rate (24.8% this year which is below his career average of 25.6% and better than his rates above 26% in 2014 and 2015) which is allowing him to draw walks at a career high, he is giving the Indians exactly what they paid for – an aging slugger who was once elite and is still more than capable of giving them the production necessary to contend for a World Series title at least in 2017. The rest of the contact remains to be seen but when you compare Encarnacion to the alternative (Napoli) and the signs he showed at age 33 in 2016, he’s doing exactly what the Indians paid for him to do in 2017.