Edwin Encarnacion is a known slow-starter. Maybe he doesn’t like chilly weather. Maybe he needs to get to 1000 or 10000 swings in a season before he works out his kinks. Whatever it may be, having Encarnacion not contribute to his career average levels in the first month of a season is expected. However, he is also 35 years old and warning signs of degradation due to age need to be monitored. Whether his early 2018 slump is due to regular malaise or age-driven regression is worth considering. WFNY will follow along and here is the first peek at his 2018 season. The sample size is still quite small, so a comprehensive deep-dive is not yet warranted. Please consider everything that follows merely something to continue to track.
Over the first 22 games of 2017 Encarnacion hit .205/.344/.372 with four home runs, one double, and 32 strikeouts. Over the first 22 games of 2018, Encarnacion has hit .173/.264/.370 with five home runs, one double, and 26 strikeouts. The glaring difference between the two seasons is the difference in walks (15 in 2017, only seven in 2018) leading to a poor on base percentage in 2018. No longer is he still getting on base for others to hit him in when he isn’t hitting himself.
Another, more subtle, difference has been Encarnacion has not been hitting the ball with nearly as much authority. In mid-April of last season, WFNY took a look at whether to worry about Encarnacion’s start and came to the conclusion he was more unlucky than bad, while noting he was still hitting the ball quite hard overall.
The eye test has worried the ball has not come off Encarnacion’s bat with as much velocity in 2018, but what does the data say?
Exit velocity paired with launch angle
The optimal launch angle for a hitter is somewhere between 12 and 27 degrees depending on the associated exit velocity with direction also factoring in but difficult to discern given the many different defensive configurations teams now utilize. There is a huge discrepancy though with Encarnacion’s data though in this range. There is a huge chunk missing from his exit velocity chart. Compare his 2018 graph with 2017 where he hit the ball with authority no matter what direction it launched off his bat.
In simple terms, when he is hitting the ball in for what should be his best line drives and deep fly balls, Encarnacion isn’t hitting them hard enough to become hits. He is currently relying on balls sneaking through the infield on the ground and clearing the fence on a few really high batted balls (wherein wind and other weather conditions play a bigger factor).
Exit velocity corresponding to the current count
Hitters have different swings and intended outcomes when they are ahead or behind in the count. When a hitter is behind in the count, they will shorten their swing in order to ensure better contact even though doing so decreases how hard they can hit the ball (in most cases). Encarnacion’s 2017 chart shows just that though it appears he remained aggressive in an 0-1 count. Notice though counts most in the hitters favor saw him crushing the baseball.
The troublesome side is his 2018 chart. Not only are his velocities lower across all of the pitcher’s counts, but Encarnacion has only two counts where he bats the ball above 90 miles per hour on average.
Note: Encarnacion has not batted a ball in a 3-0 count. While my personal preference is for a hitter to key in on a particular pitch and look to destroy the baseball should it arrive, it is an understandable baseball philosophy to force the pitcher to throw a strike in that count.
The question becomes why is Encarnacion struggling to make solid contact. Another hint is given through his plate discipline numbers. He is swinging at six percent more pitches outside the strike zone than he has in his previous two seasons, while also swinging at three percent less pitches inside the strike zone. So, while his overall contact rate has remained stable, Encarnacion is swinging at more pitches that will lend themselves to bad contact, while limiting his ability to draw a walk.
Here is where the first worries Encarnacion’s age come into play as Fangraphs has shown a hitter tend to swing at more pitches out of the zone as they age though it is far too early in the season to draw a conclusive conclusion.
Spray map plotted
Upon first glance, one might assume Encarnacion has a better profile in 2018 on his plot map of where his hits wind up given that it is a more evenly distributed allotment. The issue here is that when he is hitting at his best, he is hitting inside pitches early and with authority, so he trends with a heavy pull indication. Seeing that he is not doing so in 2018 is just further evidence he is not hitting the ball on the barrel at the proper time during his swing.
Once again, it is too early in the season to draw conclusions. Encarnacion might just be going through his standard April blues that are a bit extra punctuated by the more extreme cold weather the state has had to endure. When things warm up, so might his bat. However, there are indicators that what the Indians are seeing from Encarnacion in 2018 run deeper than a mere slump and that age might be catching up to the slugger. Items to track for now, but if they don’t improve, then the Tribe will have a troublesome spot right in the middle of their order.