The Cleveland Indians used very specific game plans in the postseason to attack Toronto Blue Jays and Chicago Cubs hitters. Part of those plans was heavy breaking ball usage because that’s what the data told them was the best plan and it just so happened that what was left of their rotation had breaking balls.
One of those players in particular was then Blue Jays hitter Edwin Encarnacion.
Encarnacion saw 22 curveballs from the Indians in the ALCS and swung and miss 18% of the time. He also swung and missed on 21% of the 19 sliders. Interestingly in the 2016 season overall, Encarnacion only whiffed at 9.93% of 222 curveballs, but 16.23% of 493 sliders.
The Indians clearly saw a weakness to exploit and it worked. He had just one extra base hit against the Indians in the ALCS and it was a double. Now that Encarnacion is an Indian, have other teams started to take notice of their strategy to get him out in the 2016 ALCS?
With the obvious caveat that the Indians have played 11 games and things can fluctuate quickly based on sample sizes. But early on, there appears to be some differences in the way pitchers are attacking Encarnacion.
Courtesy of BrooksBaseball.net, Encarnacion is seeing 20% first pitch breaking balls from left handers and 52% from right handers. He’s also seeing a big, even spread of stuff when pitchers get ahead of him and right handers are going with breaking balls 41% of the time when they get ahead. Left handers are throwing more offspeed pitches to him overall, and right handers are going to the breaking ball more on the first pitch and when ahead so far.
Below are the same data Encarnacion saw in 2016.
In 2016, Encarnacion saw overwhelmingly more first pitch fastball’s from both right and left handers. Now, this is over the course of a full season and Encarnacion has just 49 plate appearances in 2017 but if you compare the charts, so far, Encarnacion is seeing an increase in breaking balls when pitchers get ahead of him.
Is it possible teams are pitching him a little different? Let’s also not forget that as hitters adjust to pitching and are using tools and data like launch angle, pitchers are responding and making adjustments. Pitchers are more tempted to pitch up in the zone because it’s harder for players to achieve an optimal launch angle in pitchers near the upper tiers of the strike zone.
Another trend to look at is his whiff rate.
Again courtesy of BrooksBaseball.net you can see above is 2012 (when Encarnacion had his breakout season in Toronto) through 2015 his outcomes through then. Take a look at the whiff rates and compare them to the numbers below in 2016. In 2016, Encarnacion struck out a career high 138 times, so of course his whiff rate on everything is going to be slightly higher. But that’s not insignificant to look at because he’s 34 and bat speed can be an issue as power hitters age.
Some good stuff
It’s not all doom and gloom with Encarnacion early on. There are some trends and signs that this isn’t going to continue for the high priced slugger.
45.5%: Encarnacion’s hard hit rate this season. Again, we’re 49 plate appearances in, so batted ball data isn’t exactly stable at this point. But 45.5% would be the highest of his career here. His soft contact rate is barely up over last year overall but his medium hit rate is down so far. In March/April 2016, Encarnacion’s hit rates were: 15.5% (soft), 48.6% (medium, and this is his career rate), and 36.8% (hard, above his career rate). So April is a bit up and down for Edwin.
4.51: Pitches per plate appearance for Edwin this year to date. Last year, Edwin saw 4.13 pitches per plate appearance. He’s been in the low-mid 4’s since his 2012 breakout. So the fact that’s he’s still working the count (and his 15.9% walk rate (SSS alert 49 PA)) is a good sign.
24.8%: Edwin’s out of zone chase percentage by Pitch f/x (I’m not sure how to feel about some Pitch f/x stats for some data since baseball has switched a lot of data recording to Trackman, but here it is). Last year by the same measure, he swung at pitches out of the zone 23.9% of the time, so the change is a little negligible, so far.
83.7%: Contact rate in the strike zone. In 2016, it was 85.5%. So, it’s down slightly thus far but not an alarming amount so far.
What is alarming thus far is his 13.4% swinging strike rate, which is a career high by far (10.6 as a rookie is second).
Overall, there are some signs that Encarnacion is going to be just fine, but there are some signs that it’s possible a natural age related decline could be starting to set in. At 34 and coming off a career high in strikeouts, this shouldn’t have been entirely unexpected. Add in a new team, high expectations and pressure of a new contract and a team with high expectations, it’s enough to make any ballplayer press.
But let’s be clear about this: Encarnacion is not Nick Swisher. That’s a lazy, lazy narrative without any statistical or logical evidence to make that comparison.
Swisher came from the Yankees hitting second or in the lower third of the lineup most of the time. His role in some very productive lineups was to work the count, take walks, provide some occasional pop and fill a role in the lineup. He wasn’t “the guy” in New York, Oakland and certainly not Chicago. In 2013, he was a cleanup hitter out of his usual role with a big contract and in a lineup that was nowhere near as good as New York. To be fair, knee injuries played a huge part in Swisher’s decline, whether you want to see that or not. He was still 90% of usual Swisher in 2013 but not after.
Encarnacion had been hitting in the middle of the Blue Jays lineup for five seasons and putting up monster numbers that Swisher could only dream about. Is the Indians lineup as good as the ones in his Blue Jays career that included Jose Bautista and Josh Donaldson? Perhaps not, but as we saw on Saturday and in 2016, it’s pretty darn good. He’s expected to fill the same role in Cleveland as he was in Toronto – a middle of the order basher.
Unless there’s some underlying injury, players like Encarnacion don’t just go from a career high in homers, RBI, and walks and all of the sudden just bottom out. He’s going to be hitting in a few less hitter friendly parks than the AL East features (although a much less talented division overall) and again, an age related decline isn’t impossible at this point. But unless there is an injury, talents like this don’t just fall apart in one offseason.
Also, in this small sample size so far, if pitchers are indeed pitching to Encarnacion slightly differently than in years past and people like me notice this (again, in small sample sizes!) then the team would know, the hitting coaches would and Encarnacion would know as well and he’ll make adjustments.