Raise your hand if you thought, by the end of the first week of May — nearly a fifth of the way through the season — the Twins would be in first place in the AL Central.
/sees Joe Mauer’s hand raised
Yup, that’s what I thought. The Central was supposed to be the Indians’ to lose — in our preseason staff poll, all 22 of our writers picked Cleveland to grab the division crown. Thus far, the Tribe has underwhelmed, with a 15-13 record that’s allowed Minnesota to take center stage.
After the Indians came up short in last year’s postseason, they didn’t stand pat. With Mike Napoli leaving in free agency, the team brought in someone even better to replace him: Blue Jays slugger Edwin Encarnacion. During his final five years in Toronto, he mashed his way to a .272/.367/.544 batting line; his 146 wRC+ ranked seventh in the majors among qualified hitters.
But EE has stumbled out of the gate to start his three-year contract. His .210/.339/.380 triple-slash and 104 wRC+ are a far cry from his Blue Jays standards. That weak hitting is a big reason the Indians are looking up at the Twins, instead of down on them (as is the natural order of things). Can Encarnacion turn his season around?
Early-season hiccups are nothing new for Encarnacion. Through the first two months of the 2016 season, he hit .240/.313/.447 for a 102 wRC+. That was actually a slight improvement from the year before, when his .216/.300/.437 April and May triple-slash gave him a 99 wRC+. As a power hitter, he’s naturally prone to dry spells, when his fly balls land on the warning track instead of the bleachers.
On that note: One element of his slump — namely, the power — should turn around soon. Encarnacion has made hard contact on a clean 50.0 percent of his balls in play this year; that ranks fifth in the major leagues. His exit velocity isn’t quite as impressive — with an average of 91.2 mph, he places 26th among 217 hitters with 50 balls tracked by Statcast — but it’s still clear that he’s making solid contact. His current ISO of .170 should return to the .272 he posted north of the border.
With that said, there’s another area where he’s really stuggling — strikeouts. Encarnacion has gone down on strikes in 32 percent of his plate appearances, which is unprecedented for him:
Since he broke out in 2012, his strikeout rate had never reached 30 percent over this many games. Is this something we really need to worry about?
In mid-April, my BtBS colleague Merritt Rohlfing took a look at Encarnacion’s early-season problems. Writing for Let’s Go Tribe, he noted that pitchers weren’t giving him as many pitches to hit, which remains the case a few weeks later:
The strikeouts aren’t really a location issue, though. Encarnacion’s whiff rate is higher across the board, on pitches outside the strike zone as well as those within it. Another variable seems to be at play here, and it’s more complicated than it seems.
As a Blue Jay, Encarnacion faced a lot of fastballs. That’s held true this year, but to a lesser extent:
From 2012 to 2016, fastballs made up 63.0 percent of the pitches Encarnacion saw. Thus far in 2017, that’s dipped to 57.1 percent. Without as many fastballs to feast on, the thinking might go, Encarnacion has hit a wall.
That hypothesis is a little faulty, given his whiff rate breakdown. Encarnacion has floundered against fastballs this season:
On offspeed pitches, Encarnacion’s whiff rate is in line with his career norm. On breaking balls, his whiff rate matches the standard he set over the last three years (which, admittedly, is higher than what came before it). It’s the heat that’s given EE the most trouble to this point.
So what do we make of all this? Encarnacion is 34; his bat speed could be waning, which would make it harder for him to catch up with fastballs. Once pitchers get the memo, they may reverse the aforementioned trend and start pounding him with more fastballs. Hitting the ball hard should help his batting line, but unless he can cut down on his whiffs against the heat, he’ll remain a middling hitter.
It’s still early, and as noted above, Encarnacion is no stranger to early-season lulls. He could go on a hot streak today, putting the ball in play every time he steps to the plate and erasing all this doubt. The strikeouts remain a cause for concern, though, given his age and his trouble with fastballs in particular. If Encarnacion can’t right the ship, the Twins might be able to pull off the upset.