At the conclusion of the 2016 season, Edwin Encarnación (“EE”) entered Free Agency and David Ortiz retired. It had been rumored for months prior that EE was going to head to Boston to try and replicate his countryman’s success. Dave Dombrowski ultimately decided that Hanley Ramirez was a liability at first base and Boston moved him to DH while signing Mitch Moreland on a one-year deal. Out of nowhere, the salary conservative Cleveland Indians swooped in and signed EE to a short year and high AAV deal. Going into the final year of that deal Encarnación was shipped off to Seattle. Cleveland thought the production did not match the cost and traded EE for the cheaper Jake Bauers. After spending a short amount of time in Seattle, he has now ended up with the New York Yankees – a circle of sorts. Now, the question is, will Encarnación continue being the presence for the Yankees that he was in Toronto, or the one Cleveland let go of at the end of last season?
When I was looking at Encarnacion’s past seasons, I noticed that in Cleveland his slugging percentage is lower than it is now, as well as in his last two seasons in Toronto. Even though Cleveland isn’t as good a hitter’s park as Toronto, you could argue that the pitchers in the AL East are better than those in the AL Central so there shouldn’t have been such a dramatic downturn in production – particularly last year. I then decided to look at some of the home runs he has hit since 2015, where I noticed some small changes at the moment of impact.
2016 AL Wild Card Game
2017, First of Two Home Runs against Boston
2018, 30th Home Run
2019, April 9th
First Homer with the Yankees
Second Homer with the Yankees
Third Homer with the Yankees
Through all the photos his physical state has not changed with respect to his swing. His front leg glides toward the plate, then he plants it to create a tight-coil ‘rubber band’ effect before unleashing at the ball. It’s hard to spot, but there is a subtle difference. Look at his feet. In the first two pictures, where he is in Toronto, you can see his back foot directly behind the front foot at the moment of impact. This tells us that he is able to not only hit, but drive any of the pitches in the strike zone, maybe even slightly off the plate given his reach – like his most recent home run pictured. This comes from getting backspin on the ball, as the position of his feet allow him to stay directly behind the ball rather than pulling off, where you are more likely to get side-spin with respect to the direction of the hit.
In Cleveland, you can see that his front foot is slightly down the third base line, and not directly behind the baseball, speaking to the undesired side spin.
Now, back to this season. In his home runs shown with Seattle, and now in his short time with the Yankees to date, we can see the alignment of his feet is just like what it was in Toronto. We can compare his 30th home run of the 2017 season with the second home run in a Yankees uniform. They are both four-seam fastballs with roughly the same pitch location – they also ended up being hit to left as well. Despite the similarity in results, the moment of impact for both shows that he’s more closed off now than with Cleveland.
After this revelation, you are probably wondering why his feet are suddenly in different positions than they were in previous seasons. If you take a look at his stances, pay attention to his feet once again.
In Toronto, the toe of his front foot is in line with the arch of his back foot. In Cleveland, that same toe is now about an inch behind the heel of the back foot. Even though it is a matter of inches, there is no way that Edwin hits his most recent home run if he is not closed off at the moment of impact with his current stance.
This seems like something he’s most likely talked to a hitting coach about or has seen through video himself, though I have not read anything in the news regarding a mechanical change. Either way, the results speak for themselves.
To fully understand what his impact will be, I want to acknowledge what he has done to date against certain pitches.
Encarnación is hitting fastballs harder than he ever has, dating back to 2015. Yet, his xwOBA is lower than it has been at any point during the same time period. There is an explanation for this. His xwOBA is great against four-seam fastballs from right-handed pitchers – which has been fairly consistent as shown in the table. However, against the same pitch from left-handed pitchers, his xwOBA has been absolutely terrible at .225 – easily the lowest in the table.
He’s been fairly putrid against sliders, with a sub-.300 xwOBA, which he also had last season – a drop off from his 2015-2017 stretch where the number was in the mid to upper .300’s. Here, from righties, his xwOBA against the pitch is below .300, seemingly kryptonite for him when facing the same-handed pitcher. Contrarily from lefties, his xwOBA against the pitch is .519 – that’s incredibly good.
Against curveballs, he’s been absolutely mashing them to the tune of a .523 xwOBA. From righties, he has an xwOBA of .460 against the pitch. Even better against lefties, where the xwOBA is .721. This could be attributed to his improved swing mechanics, whereby keeping himself closed at the moment of impact, he’s been able to keep his hands through the zone for longer, thus being able to stay on the curveball and drive it.
Finally, let’s see why this all matters.
The Yankees are expected to play the Red Sox and Rays, 14 and 10 more times this season, respectively. Of those games, 10 are at Fenway Park and six are at Tropicana Field. When talking about ballpark factors, EE has been a notorious pull hitter throughout his career, pulling the ball at about 50% of the time. I know what you’re thinking. He was made for Fenway Park. And yes, the Yankees got him because they were scared of Boston at the time, who were only 5 games back in the division. Not sure if Boston can actually make it back in the division, but it makes me smile no end that Brian Cashman is now frightened of Boston. Looks like the shoe is now on the other foot. Tropicana Field does not have a very large left field either, with a very low fence where Evan Longoria snuck his famous 2011 Game 162 walk-off home run over.
More importantly, let’s talk about the respective pitching staffs. Both Tampa Bay’s and Boston’s pitchers have similar pitch usage patterns. They are both bottom 10 in the league in throwing fastballs and sliders, while both being in the top 10 in throwing curveballs. The issue with the fastball stat is that there is no differentiation between four-seam and two-seam fastballs, but considering Boston has Chris Sale, David Price, and Eduardo Rodriguez, while Tampa Bay has Charlie Morton and Blake Snell, you would certainly expect to see a majority of those fastballs being four-seamers, in an attempt to tunnel with the curveballs breaking down in the zone.
Then again, let’s not forget about sliders, particularly this one from Sale.
His matchups against Boston and Tampa Bay are definitely something to keep an eye on down the stretch. We will have to see whether Edwin conquers his ineptitude against four-seamers from lefties and if the Red Sox and Rays decide to step away from their convention, getting their pitchers to throw more sliders against him.
The Stretch Run
For being as successful as Edwin Encarnación has been in his career, that first title still remains elusive. This year’s Yankees team gives Edwin arguably the best opportunity of his career to win a title. The Yankees have now solidified their lineup, gaining insurance to deal with situations like Giancarlo Stanton’s recent placement on the IL due to a sprained knee. EE should not have an issue with playing time now as only Aaron Judge will need some DH days for rest purposes. In addition, Encarnación should be able to now bat cleanup with Stanton out, slightly boosting his plate appearances and opportunities with runners in scoring position.
As we are now officially into the second half of the season and the Yankees playing a historic series at London Stadium against the Red Sox, let’s just see what Encarnación can do under the brightest lights of his superb career.
(Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire)
I mean, Cashman called the Sawx the “Golden State Warriors,” in the ’16/’17 offseason, so this isn’t exactly new. GM’s on either side of that rivalry would be stupid to ignore the strengths of the other team.