On May 20th, Edwin Encarnacion suffered through an 0-for-4 night at the plate against the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park. His 2017 slash line dropped to .199/.333/.356 that evening, his wRC+ to just 89, and the concerned whispers of Cleveland fans turned into a near-deafening chorus of negativity. The Tribe, it appeared, had gotten a lemon when it gave out the largest contract in franchise history.
Perhaps some of those naysayers were reacting out of the baseball fan equivalent of PTSD. After all, the previous most lucrative contract had gone to Nick Swisher in 2013, and we all know how that turned out. (Poorly.)
But those ready to discard Encarnacion in the same manner as the former “Governor of Brohio” were ignoring the fact that the 34-year old slugger is a notorious slow starter, and that his bat tends to heat up right along with the temperatures on summer nights at the ballpark.
"He's okay," manager Terry Francona said. "He really is. He knows what's going on and what he's supposed to do and all that. Our radar is always up. He's OK and he's going to be OK. It's just not been the best six weeks. He knows that and he'll get it."
Again, it’s not as if Encarnacion’s putrid start to the season was anything new. His slash line in April this year was .200/.343/.353 with a wRC+ of 92. Here’s a look at his stats in April over the course of the previous three seasons:
2014: .250/.333/.413, 112 wRC+
2015: .205/.258/.352, 63 wRC+
2016: .250/.298/.396, 84 wRC+
For his career, Encarnacion has slashed .243/.324/.433 with a 102 wRC+ in the season’s first month. What made this past April significant were jumps to career-highs in K rate at 33 percent and walk rate at 16 percent, and a lack of consistent contact. His 47.1 percent hard contact rate and .277 BABIP suggest some tough luck may also have been involved, but it was easy to imagine a real, age-based decline driving his struggles.
Now, the negativity that surrounded Cleveland’s fanbase regarding Encarnacion is noticeably absent, as that night in May has proven to be the nadir of his season. The question now is how high the zenith will be.
Since May 21st, Encarnacion is raking at a .355/.453/.682 clip with a 195 wRC+. His K rate during this time time period is under 16 percent, while his walk rate has stayed relatively consistent at just 15 percent.
“It’s just nice to see Edwin this aggressive,” Francona said, his patience being rewarded. “He’s pretty ferocious right now. Earlier, there were times when he’d swing hard, but it was like he was trying to generate (power). Now he sees it and he’s going after it.”
So what’s changed?
According to the data, it appears the answer has to do with pitch selection and contact. Specifically, there’s been a steep decline in the number of swings and misses Encarnacion is generating. Here’s a look at the progression of both his swing and whiff percentages over the course of the season:
Since May 21st, Encarnacion is swinging at more fastballs and whiffing much less often, hitting more fly balls, making less soft contact, and seeing his BABIP climb to a healthy .359. He seems to be recognizing pitches better, pulling the trigger more often on fastballs and identifying breaking and offspeed pitches early enough to make solid contact nonetheless.
The torrid streak Encarnacion has been on over the past month won’t carry on forever, of course, but it has put his rest of season projections in line with what one would traditionally expect. According to Steamer’s RoS projection, Encarnacion is on pace to finish 2017 with a line of .259/.369/.492 and a wRC+ of 131.
“His track record is too good,” Francona said. “When you’re as hot as he is, it’s fun to watch. You start winning some games that maybe you wouldn’t normally win, just because of one guy.”
For a Cleveland ballclub plagued by inconsistency since opening day, Encarnacion putting the team on his back for a few such wins could prove to be the difference between returning to play in the postseason and watching it on television from home.
All data current through Saturday, June 24th.
Ben Martens is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @wbennomartens.