Edwin Encarnacion Is Not Your Typical Slugger

Hank Aaron. Barry Bonds. Albert Pujols. Edwin Encarnacion.

If one of those names doesn’t seem to fit, perhaps you haven’t been paying close enough attention in 2013. (And you probably didn’t read Dave Cameron’s trade value column.) The fact that Encarnacion is third in the majors in home runs and fourth in runs batted in doesn’t put him in elite company in historic terms, though.

No, it’s something Encarnacion is not doing that makes him unique.

Encarnacion is just not striking out.

At least, not by typical slugger standards. Through 202 games and 444 plate appearances, Encarnacion has struck out just 46 times, an obscenely low rate for a power hitter. No other player in the top-10 for home runs this year even sniffs his 10.5% K-rate and Adrian Beltre is the only one who tops him in the top-68.

The list of boppers with low raw strikeout rates is thin and elite, though there are an abundance of examples. However, Encarnacion is playing at the height of strikeouts in terms of league era. So when we consider league context and create K%+, a shorthand that shows how far above or below league average someone was with respect to strikeouts, what Encarnacion is accomplishing stands out.

The table below shows the lowest K%+ rates since 1961 for players with a home run per plate appearance (HR/PA) rate of 6% or greater. That 6% mark has been hit 425 times in that span, or about eight times per year, thus denoting players among the power-hitting elite.

Season Name Team Age PA HR wRC+ K% K+ hr/pa
2004 Barry Bonds Giants 39 617 45 233 6.60% 39.1 7.29%
2004 Albert Pujols Cardinals 24 692 46 171 7.50% 44.4 6.65%
2002 Barry Bonds Giants 37 612 46 244 7.70% 45.8 7.52%
2006 Albert Pujols Cardinals 26 634 49 174 7.90% 47.0 7.73%
1969 Hank Aaron Braves 35 639 44 170 7.40% 48.7 6.89%
2009 Albert Pujols Cardinals 29 700 47 180 9.10% 50.6 6.71%
1993 Frank Thomas White Sox 25 676 41 171 8.00% 53.0 6.07%
2013 Edwin Encarnacion Blue Jays 30 439 28 149 10.50% 53.3 6.38%
2000 Todd Helton Rockies 26 697 42 162 8.80% 53.3 6.03%
2011 Adrian Beltre Rangers 32 525 32 134 10.10% 54.3 6.10%

Elite company, indeed. It appears Encarnacion has become one of the masters of hitting home runs without striking out, an appreciable trait. After all, strikeouts aren’t necessarily bad but fewer strikeouts means more balls in play, potential fly balls, thus producing more opportunity for home runs (and sacrifice flies, hits, etc).

Encarnacion’s drop in strikeout rate hasn’t come from being more passive, though, as passivity could detract from a power-hitting approach. Instead, Encarnacion has a swing rate a little below his career average the past two years and has instead been selectively aggressive with pitches outside the zone, displaying a major spike in O-Contact%.

Year 2B HR XBH 150-gm Pace K% O-Contact% SwStr%
2005 16 9 25 54 25.6% 44.8% 10.6%
2006 33 15 49 63 16.7% 48.3% 8.7%
2007 25 16 42 45 15.4% 57.0% 9.8%
2008 29 26 56 58 17.5% 62.0% 8.7%
2009 11 13 26 46 19.8% 64.0% 7.9%
2010 16 21 37 58 16.3% 68.2% 8.3%
2011 36 17 53 59 14.5% 74.0% 7.1%
2012 24 42 66 66 14.6% 72.4% 7.2%
2013 20 28 49 73 10.4% 77.1% 6.0%

Once again Edwin is tops among 2013’s home run leaders, leading the way in O-Contact% and SwStr%. Beltre is close again and teammate Jose Bautista isn’t far off, but Encarnacion rules the roost for those with 20-plus homers.

There’s one other thing you may have caught as you perused these numbers – Encarnacion has more extra base hits (49) than strikeouts (46). This alone isn’t that rare, with 567 players having done it since 1961. But it’s more rare for sluggers, as only about two players a season, on average, hit 30 home runs and have more extra base hits than strikeouts. If we want to get really specific, he’d be just the 69th player with 30HR and more extra base hits and more walks than strikeouts.

With all of that said, this is more just an interesting case than anything of inherent value (e.g. there was no connection between K%+ and wRC+). It’s certainly not a bad thing, and it might also be an additional signal that Encarnacion’s improvements at the plate are real and tangible. Perhaps most importantly, it’s a good sign for his continued power output – fewer strikeouts means more balls in play, and for Encarnacion that means more fly balls, letting his top-20 HR/FB rate go to work.

Blake Murphy is a freelance sportswriter based out of Toronto. Formerly of the Score, he's the managing editor at Raptors Republic and frequently pops up at Sportsnet, Vice, and around here. Follow him on Twitter @BlakeMurphyODC.

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9 years ago

I would have thought there would be credit given to 2013 David Ortiz stats too.

He’s only played in 86 games with 319 AB but just 46 Ks, 47 BBs and 20 HRs (13th in AL).

9 years ago
Reply to  Dukefrukem

I presume this is something we’ll never know, but it’d be fascinating to know the story behind how Ortiz ended up cutting his strikeout rate so much. Was it purely a player decision?

Or did the managers/coaches/front office step in and say something like “You know David, in the past we’ve said that we don’t care about strikeouts, because a good approach that produces walks and dingers will likely be accompanied by copious strikeouts. But we think you’re a special breed — a good enough hitter who can drastically cut his strikeouts while maintaining excellent power production and OBP. So here’s your challenge for the year 2011: try to make more contact on 2-strike counts and see where you end up for the season.”

Admittedly, I wondered the same about Prince Fielder’s massive K% drop last year, and that hasn’t exactly held up.