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July 13, 2012

What You Need to Know

Friday, July 13

by Daniel Rathman

The All-Star Break Takeaway
Less than 14 months ago, the Blue Jays were “struggling to find a place for Edwin Encarnacion, his wounded psyche, and his glaring deficiencies.” Now, the 29-year-old has inked a three-year, $29 million extension that could keep him in Toronto through at least the 2015 season, with a club option worth $10 million for 2016.

R.J. Anderson analyzed the deal itself here, so let’s instead look at what prompted the Jays to buy three more years of a player whose flaws nearly bumped him from manager John Farrell’s lineup last spring.

A member of the Reds organization for more than eight years, Encarnacion crossed the border at the 2009 trade deadline, together with righties Zach Stewart and Josh Roenicke, in exchange for third baseman Scott Rolen. Encarnacion was hitting just .209/.333/.374 at the time, and his awful defense at the hot corner—which led to one of the league’s best nicknames, “E5”—made him a poor fit for a National League team working its way toward contention.

E5 went on to hit 21 home runs in just 332 at-bats for the Blue Jays in 2010, but his overall value that season was only 1.6 WARP, dragged down by shoddy glove work and a .306 OBP. Fantasy owners were salivating, but, in real-life terms, Encarnacion was merely on the verge of becoming an average regular.

Then, roughly one year ago, something clicked. Encarnacion hit 11 homers in 234 at-bats after the 2011 All-Star break, but that was not a new skill. What changed was his walk rate, and with it, over the last 64 games of the 2011 season, his OBP rose to .382.

From last year’s All-Star break to this year’s All-Star break, Encarnacion hit .293 with 34 homers, 31 doubles, and 66 unintentional walks. He has been relegated to first-base and designated-hitter duty, but a .295/.382/.565 triple slash and .336 TAv are valuable anywhere, and with only one “E5” on his stat sheet, Encarnacion has been worth 2.5 WARP to date.

Looking at Encarnacion’s hitter profile, unveiled by Dan Brooks and Harry Pavlidis earlier this week, the most noticeable improvement has been in his ability to hit outside pitches for power. Previously a dead-pull hitter—both during his career-best 26-homer campaign in Cincinnati in 2008 and in Toronto last year—Encarnacion has shown much greater plate coverage in 2012, which has unlocked his power to center and left-center field. (Spray charts below are from TexasLeaguers.com—notice the rightward shift in home run landing spots.)

The Blue Jays are counting on Encarnacion sustaining both this improvement in plate coverage and his increase in walks, though their investment is small enough that even if one of those newfound skills proves fluky, the excess cost of buying high is unlikely be crippling.

By keeping Encarnacion in Toronto, the Blue Jays have also closed the door on being full-scale sellers at the upcoming deadline. Any moves general manager Alex Anthopoulos makes from here will be geared toward 2013-2015—the years his lineup cornerstones, Encarnacion and Jose Bautista, are contractually certain to be around.

What to Watch for This Weekend

  • The Marlins have reached a critical point in what was supposed to be a resurgent season, after spending the All-Star break at 41-44, nine games behind the division-leading Nationals and four games out of the second wild card spot. Their path back to contention will not get any easier with Giancarlo Stanton out 4-6 weeks following knee surgery, but with those first-place Nats coming to Miami this weekend, as Woody Harrelson’s character, Tallahassee, said in Zombieland (2009), “It’s time to nut up or shut up” (Friday, 7:10 p.m. ET).
  • On Saturday, the Brewers sent their ace, Zack Greinke, to the mound against the Astros, and he threw four pitches before spiking the ball and getting ejected by first-base umpire Sam Holbrook. On Sunday, Greinke was granted a second chance, only to watch the Astros bat around in the first inning and chase him after three. The righty will look to make a better impression against the first-place Pirates and their ace, James McDonald, with only four starts remaining before general manager Doug Melvin must render a verdict on his future in Milwaukee. When Greinke takes the mound tonight, he’ll become the first pitcher to start three consecutive games for his team since Red Faber did it for the White Sox in 1917 (Friday, 8:10 p.m. ET).
  • When Ian Kinsler went deep off John Danks in the Rangers’ Opening Day victory over the White Sox, and then added three more homers in his next seven games, he seemed well on his way to matching last year’s career-high output of 32. But since April 14, Kinsler has homered only five more times in 76 games, and his walk rate has declined while his strikeout rate has climbed compared to last season’s clips. The Rangers were expecting better things when they inked their second baseman to a five-year, $75 million extension in April, and Kinsler will look to start the second half off on a high note, as Texas travels to Seattle with a four-game lead over the Angels (Friday, 10:10 p.m. ET).
  • With their pitching depth wearing thin, the Braves are set to turn to their seventh starter of the season, Ben Sheets, who will be making his first major-league appearance since July 19, 2010. The 33-year-old righty started twice for Double-A Mississippi, logging a 10-to-1 K/BB ratio over 10 2/3 innings, and he could supplant either Randall Delgado or Mike Minor in the rotation down the stretch. Sheets will take on Johan Santana in the series finale of a potentially pivotal battle with the Mets at Turner Field (Sunday, 1:35 p.m. ET).
  • Thirty-two days after throwing the first perfect game in Giants history, All-Star Game starter Matt Cain will once again face the Astros at AT&T Park, this time in the series finale. The Giants have lost each of Cain’s last three starts, on the heels of an eight-game winning streak that spanned from May 12 to June 18, and his ERA has risen from 2.18 to 2.62 since the night of the perfecto. Right fielder Gregor Blanco—who saved Cain’s perfect game with this catch in the top of the seventh inning—will be equally happy to see the Astros back in town, as he is just 14-for-73 (.192 average) with no home runs since that night (Sunday, 4:05 p.m. ET).
  • Johnny Cueto hinted that his All-Star Game snub was related to an August, 2010 brawl with the Cardinals and manager Tony La Russa, so it’s fitting that the righty will have a chance to exact revenge on the Reds’ rivals in his first start after the break. The 26-year-old has taken a no-decision in both of his 2012 meetings with the Cardinals—which came back-to-back on April 11 and April 17—and his career K/BB in 15 starts versus St. Louis is only 39-to-28. He will look for better results on this week’s Sunday Night Baseball telecast from Great American Ball Park (Sunday, 8:00 p.m. ET).

Daniel Rathman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Daniel's other articles. You can contact Daniel by clicking here

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