Intent, Execution, and Edwin Encarnacion by Jeff Sullivan May 30, 2014 Thursday afternoon, I wrote something up regarding Edwin Encarnacion’s power-hitting hot streak. Within a few hours of publishing, Encarnacion hit another home run, and within an hour or so of that home run, Encarnacion hit another home run. Twice, he went deep against Royals ace James Shields, and though the Blue Jays ultimately lost the contest, Encarnacion further demonstrated that he’s one of the most dangerous hitters in baseball. His April slump isn’t forgotten — I’m referring to it right here — but now it’s the sort of thing we can all laugh about. All of us who are not pitchers. One of Encarnacion’s homers on Thursday came against a fastball, and the other came against a cut fastball. The homers themselves looked like ordinary Edwin Encarnacion homers, as he launched both of them high and out to left. But what caught my attention was something else going on. Something involving Shields and Salvador Perez. The thing we always observe is what a pitch actually is. The thing we don’t always observe is what a pitch was supposed to be. Here are a couple screenshots, showing targets and actual pitch locations. The first of the home runs: Now the second of the home runs: Twice, Perez was set up around the low-away corner. Twice, Shields missed on the other side of the plate, with a little extra elevation. After the fact, Shields said he made three bad pitches. All three were homers, two by Encarnacion and one by Jose Bautista. One thing we know is that the catcher’s glove isn’t always the actual target being pitched to. Sometimes pitchers have their own ideas, and we’re reminded of this time and time again. But in these cases, I’m pretty comfortable asserting that Shields wanted to pitch to where Perez was set up. Those were good spots, and Encarnacion has been hunting pitches inside from the outer third. He likes to pull his home runs, and Shields threw him pullable pitches. Inspired by the Shields examples, I’m trying something experimental. First, here are the pitches Encarnacion has hit out in 2014. Note that this is from the pitcher’s perspective, instead of the customary catcher’s perspective. This is for the sake of consistency with the background screenshots. So Encarnacion would be on the right side instead of the left. You see inside pitches, you see pitches up and over the middle, and you see a couple pitches over the outer third. So, that’s where the pitches went. But where were the pitches supposed to go? I watched each highlight video and decided to plot an estimate of the catcher target. No, the target isn’t always the actual target. Yes, it can be tricky when you have off-center camera angles. But while the following image includes a bunch of approximations, I think it conveys the right idea. A rough plot of the targets: Four pitches in. The rest, low and away. You’ll note that most of Encarnacion’s home runs have not been hit against low-and-away pitches. This is because the pitches missed. Pitches miss a lot, despite the best of intentions. Why so many targets down and away? As Dave just wrote about, it’s generally a good target for any pitcher. And we can look at an Encarnacion-specific heat map. Here’s that, from the start of last season to the present day, once again from the pitcher’s perspective. You’re looking at runs above average per 100 pitches. Encarnacion has been highly productive over the inner third, and of course he’s been good on pitches down the middle. If he’s had a weak spot, it’s down and away, and while he’s still capable of hitting some of those pitches hard, he’s less capable than he is elsewhere in the zone. And you can’t just not ever pitch him in the zone. Your best bet for retiring Encarnacion is staying in the low-away part of the strike zone. Sometimes pitchers have been able to do this, and sometimes they have very much not. As you’ve probably realized, any discussion of home runs is going to be selective for pitches that didn’t quite hit their spots. Pitchers generally try not to pitch to areas where batters can go deep easily, so if a batter does go deep, what’s suggested is that the pitcher put the ball somewhere more hittable. Not all pitches to Encarnacion miss their targets by this much. But the two things worth remembering: pitchers miss pretty often, and Encarnacion is better than the majority of hitters when it comes to cashing in on mistakes. Think about that low-away corner. Say you want to pitch Encarnacion in that low-away corner. Horizontally, it measures something like five or six inches. Vertically, it measures something like seven or eight or nine inches. Hold your hands out in front of you and approximate those dimensions. It’s a very small area, and then consider that pitchers are throwing from 60 feet away. The target area is smaller than an ordinary piece of paper, and if you miss, the pitch might be a ball, or the pitch might be a dinger threat. Pitches fly fast, and they move, and they don’t always move consistently or predictably. Twice on Thursday, James Shields missed his spots, but one has to remember that hitting spots is hard, and Edwin Encarnacion isn’t very forgiving. In some sense, Encarnacion has been a mistake hitter. But for one thing, he’s also hit some non-mistakes, and for another, being a mistake hitter isn’t an insult, because pitchers constantly make mistakes. Because specific pitch targets are difficult to hit all the time. Encarnacion isn’t hopeless against pitches down and away. Yet even if he were, he’d still end up with plenty of pitches to handle, because that’s a small vulnerability. Against Edwin Encarnacion, pitchers and catchers always have a good-enough plan. Men make a lot of good-enough plans.