In a recent new keeper draft, I took Edwin Encarnacion with my second round pick. In Tommy’s mock draft for Fantasy Squad, he also selected Encarnacion in the second round. On a few of the forums I visit, I’ve seen people post questions asking how good EE is, and whether he’s worth all the love. I thought I’d comfort the worried fantasy managers and show how good I think he’ll be in 2014 and beyond.
Encarnacion always displayed good power, hitting double digit HR in every minors stint except for his first season, when he was 17 in rookie ball. He also had an average to above average BA every year in the minors, with his lowest BA being .270. His highest BA was .314 in 2005, which was likely part of the reason he was called up that year. He also provided speed in the minors, stealing up to 25 bases in one season. As a ninth round pick, he seemed to be a great bargain. Unfortunately, in 2005 he looked a bit overmatched at the plate, with a career-high strikeout rate of 25.6%. During the two seasons after that, he made strides in reducing his K% and upping his BA while managing to hit 15 and 16 HR. It seemed he was on his way to becoming a solid overall producer.
Then in 2008 he lost a 48 points off his BA, primarily due to a very low BABIP compared to the year before — but he exploded for 26 HR. At a corner infield spot, a lower BA is acceptable if there’s legit power potential. With a slow start in the first half of 2009, the Reds traded him to the Blue Jays. Part of his struggles that season can certainly be blamed on his injuries (left knee soreness, fractured wrist), and I’d be willing to bet the wrist affected his BA the next season, too. In 2010 it looked like he might finally be on the mend, with a better BA and decent (but slightly disappointing) power, but the injury bug struck again. He had shoulder issues, which likely explained his dip in SLG and HR/FB (a career low at 9%) from the year before.
Regarding his batting eye, Encarnacion had always been able to take walks. When he switched leagues his BB% dropped, and 2010, his first full year with the Blue Jays, saw his highest swinging percentage out of the zone. It’s possible he was trying to prove himself on his new team, and he pressed too hard. However, since 2010 his BB% has improved every season as he’s learned the AL pitchers and matured even more as a hitter. He also improved his K% after 2010, with his best three years being the last three years, 2011-13.
Encarnacion finally exploded in 2012, and it caught everyone by surprise. However, the signs were there for years: a good walk rate and batting eye, an improved contact rate and fewer swinging strikes since being traded to Toronto, and a recent strong flash of HR/FB (in 2010) between the injuries. He saw an improved BA in 2012 despite his low BABIP by MLB standards. When it came to 2013, most people weren’t prepared to buy into a repeat. Those who looked at his career and noticed that the injuries hid some skills growth took him and reaped the rewards. Once again he posted a good BA despite an even lower BABIP; that decent BA would be due to a career-high LD%. His HR/FB fell by only 1%, indicating the power is here to stay.
Looking to 2014
How do you project Encarnacion for 2014? It’s a bit hard for a few reasons. The most obvious is his health. He had wrist surgery in September, and although he should be “fully healthy” by Opening Day, wrist issues can sometimes linger and affect his swing and power. Plus, even if he starts healthy, it he could probably be labeled injury prone after issues from 2009-11, though it’s certainly nice to see he was mostly healthy in 2012-13. As such, it would be foolish to project more than 500 AB for him — but what he can do in just 500 is hit 35+ HR and net 100 RBI.
Some projections look at his low BABIP and decent BA, and they think, “Well if he can manage to improve his BABIP a little bit, to near league average, he could be a .300 hitter!” I disagree with this line of thought. Normally BA is strongly related to BABIP, but in Encarnacion’s case, one of the reasons his BA has been better lately is because he’s simply hitting more balls out of the park. He doesn’t have much speed, so he doesn’t beat out infield balls. He gets a lot of loft into the balls he hits into the outfield, but many of these can be easily caught. Plus, some years he’s had a very high infield fly ball rate, with three years over 17%. (As some comparison points, Pujols’s career high is 16.3%, and Ryan Braun’s career IFFB% is 9.7%.) Granted that he’s seen three years of improvement on his infield fly ball rate, but the fact remains that the way in which EE hits the ball doesn’t result in a league-average BABIP. A career rate of .275 is well below the MLB average of about .300. There’s no reason to expect him to suddenly have a BABIP of .300, and therefore have a BA of .300.
Encarnacion is going to be 31 in 2014, so he’s not old. He qualifies at 3B for teams who require 10 games the previous season. He doesn’t reach 600 AB but does a lot of damage with 500 AB, and most teams are going to carry an extra CI anyway, so an injury replacement plus EE’s stats will create an elite player line. Lots of other players are consistently injury prone — look at Tulo and CarGo always going in the first round despite their histories — so unless you’re completely injury-averse, I wouldn’t discount him much because of it. With another season of 500 AB, I expect a BA up to .280, 90 R, 100 RBI, a handful of SB, and a minimum of 35 HR. If he manages to reach 550 AB this season, 40-45 HR wouldn’t surprise me. In my points leagues he still managed to be the 10th overall hitter with his missed time in 2013, and in 2012 he was the fifth best batter. It’s safe to say that EE is a solid second round option, and in 18-team or 20-team leagues I’d even consider him at the tail end of the first round. He really is this good, so take him now while others worry about a repeat yet again.