Edwin Encarnacion is used to dealing with expectations. He's been playing baseball professionally since he was 17, when the Rangers drafted him out of Puerto Rico as a ninth-rounder in the 2000 MLB amateur draft. By 2005, when Encarnacion was 22, he was a top-50 prospect according to Baseball America, and was thrust into the majors in June. Since then, Encarnacion has shown flashes, but until 2012 -- when many had given up on him ever becoming much more than a decent bat -- he didn't break out into the force at the plate many believed he could be. The Blue Jays are the fourth organization the 29-year-old has been a part of, but he has a bit of security for the first time, signing a three-year deal worth $27 million.
To understand what's changed with Encarnacion this year, you need to look back at what the rest of his career has been like. From 2005 through 2011, Encarnacion hit .260/.336/.453, showing power (.193 Isolated Power), but also a propensity for low batting averages on balls in play. He's never been much of a strikeout guy, despite what the low batting averages and power might lead you to believe about him: Since his first full campaign, Encarnacion has topped out at 19.8 percent punch outs, but averages just 17 percent for his career. That's more than reasonable, especially for someone who has walked around nine percent of the time, as Encarnacion has.
Those BABIP, though, have long been problematic. Just because the average hitter is around the .290-.300 mark for BABIP doesn't mean that everyone is. It's an average for a reason, and Encarnacion has plenty of seasons where he's well below it. His career BABIP might be .284, but it's been far more all over the map:
Some of that can be attributed to luck, but it's also partially because of the kind of hitter Encarnacion is. He's an extreme fly ball hitter, and while sometimes those leave the park, they're also the lowest source of BABIP out there among the three main batted-ball types. Fly-ball emphasis can make a hitter boom or bust -- Jays fans already know this after watching Aaron Hill practice his loft-heavy craft -- and those two words perfectly describe much of Encarnacion's output over the years.
There's also the matter of how often -- and at what -- Encarnacion was swinging. He knew how to draw a walk, and had the bat speed and plate coverage to get his bat on far more than he couldn't, but that worked against him sometimes. Since PITCHf/x started to record this data in 2007, Encarnacion has had seasons where he swung at roughly one-third of pitches outside of the zone, and he made contact with two-thirds or more of those swings. Making contact isn't always a good thing, though, especially on pitches outside of the zone: Look no further than Encarnacion's low batting averages and low BABIP for evidence of that in his own game. Simply making contact isn't necessarily better than whiffing through a pitch if that contact isn't square enough to drive the ball.
Encarnacion has been better about that as of late, though. In 2010, his first season with the Jays, Encarnacion swung at 30 percent of pitches outside of the zone, making contact with 67 percent of those, and he hit just .244 in the process. He showed more power than than he ever had, though, posting a career-high .238 ISO, and 21 homers in 367 plate appearances. If that seems like a lot of homers, that's because it is -- the 2012 season that has everyone so excited about Encarnacion features 23 long balls in 356 plate appearances, or, just two more homers in 11 fewer trips to the plate.
The same power wasn't there in 2011, but something else was, as Encarnacion cut his swings out of the zone down to 25.7 percent, and increased contact on them slightly to 70 percent. His pitches per plate appearance climbed from 3.8 to 4.1, and his BABIP and batting average climbed in the process. He didn't draw more walks, but he did wait for pitches he could do something with more often, and left alone a few more that he couldn't.
The 2012 season is both of these seasons combined into one. Encarnacion's impressive power is here once more, as he has a new career-high ISO as of now at .269. His walk rate is up over 10 percent, the first time it's been there since 2009, and his BABIP is stable and average for the second year in a row. Not coincidentally, he's swinging at even fewer pitches out of the zone, also retaining that 70 percent contact rate on the pitches he does swing at, and is sitting at 4.2 pitches per plate appearance on the year.
This improvement in patience isn't just a 2012 thing, and it isn't just about drawing walks. Encarnacion has learned to wait for a pitch he can do something with, and it's resulted in higher batting averages, on-base percentages less reliant on fluke BABIP seasons, and power befitting Encarnacion's former prospect pedigree. That's as significant a part of plate discipline, if not more so, than the ability to draw walks, and it's the reason Encarnacion has been able to thrive even when behind in the count in 2012.
This might be his career year, but there's been slow and steady growth in his game ever since he moved north of the border. The Blue Jays are set to pay him a very moderate salary to keep him around until he's approaching his mid-30s, and that's likely something we'll commend them for when the deal has ended.