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Is White Sox Slugger Edwin Encarnacion Losing His Feathers?

Whether Edwin Encarnacion is just off to a slow start or Father Time is catching up to him, the White Sox need to keep a close eye on the 37-year-old slugger.

The start of the 2020 season has been a tough one offensively for our White Sox. I don’t think anyone was expecting that coming into the season given the focus the organization displayed towards lengthening its lineup.

One of the new additions, 37-year-old DH/1B Edwin Encarnacion, is having a hard time getting acclimated during this pandemic-shortened season. Through 13 games and 50 plate appearances, Encarnacion is slashing a paltry .149/.184/.277 with two home runs and three RBIs. Encarnacion was expected to provide middle-of-the-order thunder to a Sox team that many, myself included, expected to be a top offensive club in the American League.

Edwin Encarnacion White Sox
Photo: AP Photo/Gregory Bull

There was always a tremendous amount of risk in bringing a player of Encarnacion’s age, however. For every Nelson Cruz that defies father time even into his forties, there are countless big leaguers, even legends like Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera, that simply hit a steep decline in their mid-30s. I’m not pronouncing an end to Edwin Encarnacion as a useful player, however, his struggles to begin the season are in need of close scrutiny in the coming weeks for a White Sox team that has aspirations of reaching the watered-down 2020 postseason.

Slow Start by the Numbers

If you are a social media user, you’ve seen Sox fans turn their ire towards Encarnacion in recent days. A common retort among many is that he is a typically slow starer and this is normal, thus not a reason to sound the alarms. So I did a little bit of digging into Edwin’s performance through 13 games over the last five seasons and found some interesting data.

YearPASlash
202050.149/.184/.277
201963.300/.429/.540
201852.136/.255/.341
201758.204/.316/.286
201655.314/.345/.471

As you can see, it’s really been a mixed bag for Encarnacion early in the season. So given some of the struggles highlighted above, it could be fairly easy to dismiss what we’ve seen to this point as something that just happens to Edwin. However, if you continue to dig a little deeper, you see some troubling data.

YearBB%K%
20202.0%38.0%
201915.9%14.3%
20189.6%28.8%
201713.8%34.5%
20165.5%25.5%

The erosion of Encarnacion’s plate discipline thus far is the most glaring difference from past early-season struggles. For a player that has an 11.1% BB rate for the entirety of his career, a dismal 2.0% is cause for concern, particularly coupled with the high K rate. In past seasons when Edwin was struggling to get going with the bat, he was still able to get on base via the walk and lengthening plate appearances — something we have not seen to this point.

So that begs the next question, what does Encarnacion’s swing profile look like?

YearSwing%Contact%Z-Contact%
202047.7%66.7%71.6%
201939.6%75.3%78.1%
201846.7%75.0%87.9%
201742.2%65.1%77.0%
201648.6%71.0%79.7%

One number really jumps out to me from the table above, and that would be Edwin’s Z-Contact % (contact percentage on pitches in the strike zone). His overall contact rate is one of the lowest for an early-season period, but it is being further exacerbated by the fact that when he is swinging at pitches within the strike zone he is connecting far less than in any other season. This number could prove to be significant as opposing pitchers may not have any fear of pitching to the slugger in the strike zone going forward.

So, there are some troubling pieces of information relating to Edwin’s plate discipline and swing profile. But what is happening when he makes contact?

YearExit Velocity (MPH)Launch Angle (in degrees)GB%
202080.715.742.3
201986.019.233.0
201888.516.537.9
201789.511.941.4
201688.912.528.9

The moral of this story is, he’s not making quality contact. The average exit velocity is well below where Edwin has been throughout the course of his career and he is hitting ground balls at a staggering rate (much like the rest of the White Sox). Is this symptomatic of a player that has seen a rapid decline in bat speed? It’s entirely possible, but it is still too early to tell.

Photo: Raj Mehta/USA TODAY Sports

Again, I’m not saying it’s time to take Edwin Encarnacion out of the lineup. However, if these trends don’t reverse course by the time the calendar flips to September, this team will have no choice but to begin rationing his PAs to other players on the roster as they look to push for playoff positioning. This could absolutely be a blip on the radar and Edwin could snap out of it at any moment, but it certainly needs to be monitored.

Similar Slugger Struggles

Players at Encarnacion’s age can lose it and lose it quickly, unfortunately. As Sox fans, we don’t have to look too far to find an example of a once-prominent slugger losing the thunder in his bat and compromising a team’s playoff chances.

In the first half of 2012, franchise icon Paul Konerko looked like he discovered the fountain of youth as he slashed .329/.404/.528. When the team returned from the All-Star break, Konerko’s rapid decline began and he was one of the leading contributors to the team’s inability to hold off the Detroit Tigers in the last season of meaningful baseball at 35th/Shields. From the All-Star break in 2012 until the end of his career in 2014, PK slashed .240/.305/.367 over his final 1,025 PA.

Photo: WhiteSox/Twitter

Konerko’s rapid decline was accelerated by a declining walk rate and elevated strikeout rate, which is why the disparity in Encarnacion’s numbers is a major cause for concern. If the Sox hope to not only make the postseason in 2020 but also make a little noise, they need Edwin to not fall off a cliff offensively the way The Captain did in 2012.

Listen, it’s entirely possible that the Parrot Man will take off in short order as he has in previous seasons. However, we need to be mindful of his age and some of the underlying issues that are causing his slow start in 2020. If he is unable to right the ship, he will make the decision on his 2021 option a rather easy one for the club. I know one thing, Encarnacion finding the power in his bat would go a long way towards this offense clicking the way we all assumed it would.


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Former scrub JUCO pitcher

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