Bret Sayre takes a closer look at 2012 breakout star Edwin Encarnacion and very much likes what he sees.
Many of you who drafted Encarnacion with a late round pick in 2012 were treated to playoff trips, and possibly even championships. It's true that one player can only make so much of a difference, but when a player taken outside the top-200 becomes a top-10 overall player (#7 to be exact), you feel that in the standings. Encarnacion finished the 2012 season with 42 HR and 110 RBI (numbers that dwarf his previous season highs of 26 and 76), and on top of that, he put up a .280 average and 13 SB. He was a stud at a position that started off shallow and thinned out even more due to injuries. So give yourself a big pat on the back for having the extraordinary foresight to draft him and let's move on to what happens next.
The first big ticket item which will affect Encarnacion's value in 2013 and beyond, is his eligibility. The 3B eligibility was great while it lasted, but it's over now, as he only logged 1 appearance at the position in 2012. That means he's relegated to 1B duties going forward. And this isn't a blip on the positional radar, he's not getting this eligibility back. It's unfortunate, as Encarnacion would have been even more of a sought after commodity if he hung onto the 3B eligibility. However, with this potential bad news comes good news. With E5 now relegated to 1B/DH duties, he has a much better chance of staying healthy -- something which had been an issue for him in his recent past.
The second big ticket item is how much we're buying his breakout. I'll give you a hint: I'm buying his breakout. It's easy to compare this situation to what happened with teammate Jose Bautista, but there are some important nuances between the two. One is the pedigree. Encarnacion was the #2 prospect in the Reds system, #6 prospect in the International League and #56 prospect in baseball - all according to Baseball America in 2005. Jose Bautista was the #5 prospect in the Pirates system in 2006, but was nowhere to be found in any other lists (though he was named best power hitter in the Pirates system that year). Essentially, E5′s breakout didn't really come out of nowhere -- it was just a confluence of health and performance which he hadn't been able to put on display up to this point in his career. The other important distinction between them is that Bautista's career high in HR before he broke out was 16. Encarnacion hit at least 16 HR in 4 of the 6 seasons in which he received more than 250 plate appearances.
The other great thing to look at with Encarnacion is that he improved as a hitter as the season went on. Yes, the biggest power outburst came in April and May, when he hit 17 HR, but it's not like he was a singles hitter the rest of the way (25 HR since June 1, cough, cough). The most important thing, which will be a huge help in every other category is that his plate discipline greatly improved as the season progressed. Here are some numbers:
E5's strikeout rates by month, starting with April: 16.8%, 16.0%, 17.5%, 11.8%, 12.7%, 12.9%.
E5's walk rates by month, starting with April: 6.9%, 9.2%, 11.7%, 20.6%, 12.7%, 17.8%.
His career best walk rate and very nearly career best strikeout rate also means that his .279 average came in spite of a .263 BABIP (which is below his career BABIP of .279). It's easy to just say that the success Encarnacion had was partially due to the fact that he became much more selective at the plate, but the difference is almost startling. In 2012, he not only produced the lowest swing rate of his career, but it was nearly 5% lower than his career rate (41.6% vs 46.0%).
In the once-he-puts-the-ball-into-play category, there's both some good news and some bad news. Unfortunately, it is likely that some of the HR from this season may turn into regular old fly balls next season -- he is unlikely to sustain the 18.7% HR/FB rate he put up in 2012 (his career rate is below 14%). A reasonable expectation for E5's power in 2013 would be within the 30-35 range. But on the bright side, the batting average is not only sustainable, but even improvable. While his .280 average was 16 points above his career rate (and the highest he's posted since 2007), it was accompanied by a .266 BABIP -- which is 14 points BELOW his career BABIP of .280 and 38 points below his xBABIP of .304. What does all that mean? It means if Encarnacion is the same hitter next year as he was this year, he could approach .300. Throw in 13 steals, which was third behind Paul Goldschmidt (18) and Eric Hosmer (16), and you get a deceivingly well-rounded player.
So even though losing 3B eligibility will hurt his value going forward, there's certainly a ton of value in a potential .280-30-100-10 player at 1B, with upside to boot. The list of first basemen I'd want over Encarnacion for 2013 only consists of three guys named Pujols, Votto and Fielder. And while I believe those three are late first rounders, Encarnacion should be a good value around picks 25-30 in your draft. And if the owner in your keeper/dynasty league doesn't believe in E5, take advantage. Another 8 HR April and the window will have closed.