Edwin Encarnacion: Power, without the strikeouts

Michael Heiman

Power hitters often pair their long-ball tendencies with a pile of strikeouts. But Edwin Encarnacion is something altogether unique in today's game—a power hitter who rarely strikes out.

Any baseball fan who watched the Toronto Blue Jays in 2013 likely remembers mostly heartbreak and disappointment. The Jays, after all, had very little go right for them en route to a last-place finish in the AL East.

Lost amid the team’s struggles, however, was the tremendous season that Edwin Encarnacion had at the plate. For the second straight year, Toronto’s first baseman/designated hitter was one of the American League’s best hitters, posting a 145 wRC+ and a .272/.370/.534 line in 621 plate appearances. Most impressive, at least in my mind, was the 10.0% strikeout rate that Encarnacion maintained throughout the season. That’s an excellent mark for just about anyone, never mind a player who hit 36 home runs.

In fact, a closer look at 2013’s leaders in strikeout rate reveals that Encarnacion finished with the eight-lowest strikeout percentage in baseball. Considering that conventional wisdom labels power hitters as burly sluggers with (at times extreme) contact issues, Encarnacion seemed to me as something of an outlier. Indeed the strikeout rate leaderboard among hitters from last season is littered with players who are almost polar opposites of Encarnacion. After all, guys like Alberto Callaspo, Erick Aybar, and Alexei Ramirez aren’t exactly known for their abilities to hit baseballs a long way, rather relying on superior contact ability and a far less fly-ball oriented approach.

All of which got me thinking about how rare a player with Encarnacion’s current skillset truly is. Using Baseball Reference’s Play Index, then, I simply searched for all hitters dating back to 2003 who finished the season with a slugging percentage greater than .500 and a strikeout rate lower than 10%.

The results weren’t exactly surprising, but they did reveal a few interesting takeaways:

Rk Player HR SLG SO PA Year Age Tm Lg G AB R H BA OBP OPS Pos
1 Albert Pujols 49 .671 50 634 2006 26 STL NL 143 535 119 177 .331 .431 1.102 *3/H
2 Albert Pujols 47 .658 64 700 2009 29 STL NL 160 568 124 186 .327 .443 1.101 *3/HD
3 Albert Pujols 46 .657 52 692 2004 24 STL NL 154 592 133 196 .331 .415 1.072 *3/DH
4 Barry Bonds 45 .812 41 617 2004 39 SFG NL 147 373 129 135 .362 .609 1.422 *7/HD
5 Albert Pujols 43 .667 65 685 2003 23 STL NL 157 591 137 212 .359 .439 1.106 *73/HD
6 Albert Pujols 41 .609 65 700 2005 25 STL NL 161 591 129 195 .330 .430 1.039 *3/H
7 Gary Sheffield 39 .604 55 678 2003 34 ATL NL 155 576 126 190 .330 .419 1.023 *9/H
8 Aramis Ramirez 38 .561 63 660 2006 28 CHC NL 157 594 93 173 .291 .352 .912 *5/H
9 Albert Pujols 37 .541 58 651 2011 31 STL NL 147 579 105 173 .299 .366 .906 *3/5H
10 Albert Pujols 37 .653 54 641 2008 28 STL NL 148 524 100 187 .357 .462 1.114 *3/HD4
11 Carlos Lee 37 .540 65 695 2006 30 TOT ML 161 624 102 187 .300 .355 .895 *7D/H
12 Edwin Encarnacion 36 .534 62 621 2013 30 TOR AL 142 530 90 144 .272 .370 .904 *3D5
13 Albert Pujols 32 .568 58 679 2007 27 STL NL 158 565 99 185 .327 .429 .997 *3/H
14 Carlos Lee 32 .528 63 697 2007 31 HOU NL 162 627 93 190 .303 .354 .882 *7/DH
15 Vladimir Guerrero 32 .565 48 594 2005 30 LAA AL 141 520 95 165 .317 .394 .959 *9D/H
16 Joe Crede 30 .506 58 586 2006 28 CHW AL 150 544 76 154 .283 .323 .828 *5/H
17 Nomar Garciaparra 28 .524 61 719 2003 29 BOS AL 156 658 120 198 .301 .345 .870 *6/H
18 Vladimir Guerrero 27 .547 62 660 2007 32 LAA AL 150 574 89 186 .324 .403 .950 *9D
19 Luis Gonzalez 26 .532 67 679 2003 35 ARI NL 156 579 92 176 .304 .402 .934 *7/H
20 Robinson Cano 25 .520 63 674 2009 26 NYY AL 161 637 103 204 .320 .352 .871 *4/H
21 Sean Casey 24 .534 36 633 2004 29 CIN NL 146 571 101 185 .324 .381 .915 *3/HD
22 Yadier Molina 22 .501 55 563 2012 29 STL NL 138 505 65 159 .315 .373 .874 *2/H3
23 Nomar Garciaparra 20 .505 30 523 2006 32 LAD NL 122 469 82 142 .303 .367 .872 *3/H
24 Brian Giles 20 .514 58 609 2003 32 TOT NL 134 492 93 147 .299 .427 .941 *78
25 Joe Mauer 13 .507 54 608 2006 23 MIN AL 140 521 86 181 .347 .429 .936 *2D/H
Rk Player HR SLG SO PA Year Age Tm Lg G AB R H BA OBP OPS Pos

First: ALBERT PUJOLS! With how the last two seasons have gone, it’s easy to forget just how great—and peerless—Pujols was for much of his time in St. Louis. Of the 25 seasons in which hitters have slugged over .500 and struck out less than 10% of the time since 2003, Pujols was responsible for eight of them.

For the most part, the rest of the players all seem like they should belong. Hitters like Barry Bonds, Vladimir Guerrero, and Gary Sheffield always paired big-time power with strong contact skills. It was shocking, though, to see Joe Crede’s name on the list, while guys like Sean Casey and Brian Giles also surprised me a bit. Yadier Molina nearly appeared on this list again following his 2013 campaign, but fell just short in both strikeout percentage (10.2%) and slugging (.477).

And the hitter who finished a season with the lowest strikeout rate on this list? It ended up being a tie between Nomar in 2006 and Sean Casey, who both finished with a Scutaro-esque 5.7% strikeout rate during their respective seasons.

So what does this tell us about Encarnacion? The 31-year-old has been a pretty darn good hitter the past two years, pairing power and contact ability in a way we don’t often see in the majors. He has been able to maintain his plus power, moreover, while greatly improving his plate discipline in recent seasons. Just four years ago, in 2009, Encarnacion posted a 19.8% strikeout percentage, a mark he has methodically cut in half during the time span since:

2151_3b_season_full_4_20130930

Throughout his time in Toronto, Encarnacion’s swing percentage has decreased each year, while his contact rate has increased, culminating in what was a career-low 6.3% swinging-strike rate in 2013. Simply put, Encarnacion was able to fine-tune his pitch recognition skills and patience enough to drastically improve his approach at the plate.

It doesn’t happen for most hitters who arrive in the majors with plus power but little patience (Wily Mo Pena’s now playing in Japan, after all). Nevertheless, through some discernable adjustments and likely great coaching in Toronto, Encarnacion has become one of the better power hitters in the game—hitting home runs and making contact in ways not dissimilar to Albert Pujols in his prime.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Reference.

Alex Skillin is a writer and editor at Beyond the Box Score and also works as a Web Editor for SoxProspects.com. He writes, mostly about baseball and basketball, at a few other places across the Internet. You can follow him on Twitter at @AlexSkillin.

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