What Has Led to Edwin Encarnacion's Offensive Surge in Recent Years?

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What Has Led to Edwin Encarnacion's Offensive Surge in Recent Years?
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Let's travel back in time to 2011 and ponder what was then known about Edwin Encarnacion.

Having posted a .787 OPS two years in a row and holding a career .789 OPS, the Toronto Blue Jays slugger looked like a good, but not great, hitter. Heck, given Encarnacion's .453 career slugging percentage and 2008 high-water mark of 26 home runs, the term "slugger" barely applied.

Now here we are in 2014, and the term "slugger" fits Encarnacion much better.

Before blasting yet another home run Monday night against the Minnesota Twins, Encarnacion entered the week with a .926 OPS and 97 homers since 2012, the most hit by a player not named Miguel Cabrera in that span. What's more, FanGraphs had Encarnacion tied for seventh in slugging since 2012 at .553.

Now in his age-31 season, Encarnacion isn't slowing down. His .602 slugging percentage is a career best, and his 20 homers put him on pace to top his 2012 career high of 42.

It all makes you want to ask how this has happened. How in the world did Encarnacion go from kinda-sorta-decent hitter to power-crazy nightmare?

Spoiler alert: It hasn't happened by accident. 

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

One change Encarnacion has made has been well documented. As noted by Jack Moore of Sports on Earth in 2013 and FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan, Encarnacion's swing is not what it used to be.

Let's do a comparison of swings featured in videos of Encarnacion hitting a home run in Toronto in September of 2011 and another of him taking James Shields deep in Toronto on May 29. First up, here's how he was set up at the plate then compared to how he's set up at the plate now:

Images courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Encarnacion's hands are lower, and his stance is more open than it used to be.

From this new stance comes a new timing mechanism, which we can see here at the point of release:

Images courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

The biggest difference is in the leg kick. It's become less pronounced than it was in 2011, which is something that can be for the best. Big leg kicks aren't necessarily a bad idea, but they can get out of whack and throw off a hitter's timing and balance.

But the leg kick isn't the only difference. Encarnacion's hands are now closer to his body than they were in 2011. Add that to the smaller leg kick, and you're looking at a hitter who is more coiled up for an explosive attack than the one in 2011.

The last major difference is in Encarnacion's follow-through:

Images courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Where Encarnacion once used a one-handed follow-through, he now uses a two-handed follow-through. And from the way he's standing more upright in the image on the right, it certainly looks like he's able to stay balanced through his swing better than he could before.

John Lott of the National Post reported in 2012 that these changes were the result of offseason work Encarnacion did with former big league outfielder Luis Mercedes. He told Encarnacion his swing was "too long and undisciplined," and Encarnacion picked a good word to sum up how things have changed.

"My swing is more compact," he said. "I can be more inside the ball and be more consistent."

Given what we've looked at and the numbers this swing has produced, yeah, kinda hard to argue.

But we've also only scratched the surface. That Encarnacion has a new swing is important, but also important is how he has a new approach.

Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Since we're discussing a hitter who's taken his power game to the next level, you might think that last sentence would be a lead-in to how Encarnacion has done a better job of spreading his power around.

But nope. Encarnacion was a pull-power guy before, and he's still a pull-power guy.

Here are some figures from FanGraphs:

Edwin Encarnacion's Pull Power
Span Total HR Pulled HR % Pulled HR
Through 2011 117 98 83.8
Since 2012 97 70 72.2

FanGraphs, current through 6/8/2014

True, the righty-hitting Encarnacion has pulled a smaller percentage of his homers to left field in the last couple years. But that's still a lot of pulled home runs, as his 70 pulled homers since 2012 are 10 more than the next guy on the list (Blue Jays teammate Jose Bautista).

And one thing Encarnacion has improved with his pull power is his efficiency. He's been hitting slightly fewer fly balls (FB%) to left field, but more of them over the fence (HR/FB):

Edwin Encarnacion's Pull Power Efficiency
Span Pulled FB% Pulled HR/FB
Through 2011 31.3 28.7
Since 2012 30.2 40.2

FanGraphs, current through 6/8/2014

When Encarnacion hits a ball in the air to his pull side these days, there's a 40 percent chance of it leaving the yard. That's pretty good.

The power Encarnacion is able to generate with his more explosive new swing is a factor there, but another factor is his pitch selection. He's become more selective, and in the right kind of way.

One thing is that Encarnacion is swinging less often. Per FanGraphs, his swing percentage has gone from 47.1 percent through 2011 to 42.0 percent since 2012. That's a pretty big drop in aggressiveness.

But just as important is where that drop in aggressiveness has taken place.

Courtesy of Brooks Baseball, here's a look at where Encarnacion's swings took place between 2007 and 2011 (him being a righty hitter, picture Encarnacion on the left side of the box):

Image courtesy of BrooksBaseball.net (h/t Baseball Prospectus).

Keep this in mind while you check out his swings since 2012:

Image courtesy of BrooksBaseball.net (h/t Baseball Prospectus).

The colors don't make it too obvious, but check out the numbers on the away pitches. They're smaller than they used to be.

Encarnacion is therefore doing what a good pull hitter should do. Rather than offer at pitchers' pitches, he's letting those go more frequently and offering at pitches he can pull instead.

Doing so has been worth his while. According to BaseballSavant.com, 70 of Encarnacion's 97 homers since 2012 have come on pitches on the inner two-thirds of the zone or off the inside edge of the zone.

And when you look at the hit heat map, you won't be surprised where the bulk of these homers have landed:

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

That's a lot of homers to left field. Thus Encarnacion is doing a better job of waiting for pull-able pitches and not missing them when they come.

Jeff Sullivan uncovered how there's more to that story. In looking at Encarnacion's homers in 2014, he found that the majority of them have come on pitches that were supposed to be down and away but missed. Encarnacion's not just laying off pitchers' pitches, but also punishing pitchers who fail to make pitchers' pitches.

Basically: No, there's not much opposing pitchers can do to adapt to the hitter Encarnacion has become.

Keeping pitches away from him is certainly the safe way to go, but less than a foolproof way to get him out given the diminished frequency at which he's offering at outside pitches. And while an order for pitchers to not make mistakes in Encarnacion's danger zone is good advice, mistakes are going to happen. When pitchers make them, they'll just have to hope Encarnacion misses them.

Which is unlikely. With his refined swing and sharpened approach, Encarnacion has made himself into a model of efficiency. He's not just a pull-power guy, but what a pull-power guy should be.

I sort of want to conclude with a "Where there's a will, there's a way" message that suggests any hitter can reinvent himself like Encarnacion has done. But if that was true, we'd presumably see more guys turn into elite sluggers in their late 20s and early 30s. It's not that easy.

All the more reason to appreciate how Encarnacion has done it.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked. 

 

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