By Jack Moore
Edwin Encarnacion was a revelation for Toronto in 2012. He hit eight homers and posted a .678 slugging percentage in April, and he never looked back. He hit at least five home runs every month, and he didn't have a month with a slugging percentage under .500. Encarnacion's 42 home runs marked one of just six 40-homer seasons in 2012 and powered him to an 11th-place MVP finish, the first MVP votes of his career.
For his first seven seasons and 786 major league games prior, however, Encarnacion was a fringe major league player. He posted a decent .789 OPS with Cincinnati and Toronto, but he was far too bad at third base to stay on the field -- he picked up the moniker "E5" -- and he wasn't good enough with the bat to warrant consistent playing time at first base or designated hitter.
So when Encarnacion was hitting .119 on April 14, 11 games into 2013 -- the first season of a three-year, $29 million contract extension he inked last summer -- there might have been concern Encarnacion was reverting to the mediocrity that defined his career for its first seven years.
But Edwin Encarnacion didn't just hit for more power than ever before last season. He made significant adjustments to his swing and his approach at the plate. These changes were the engine behind Encarnacion's explosion last season, and they've put him back on track over the past three weeks. Since April 14, Encarnacion has hit a league-best eight home runs with a sharp .274/.330/.560 batting line in 22 games. This is the Encarnacion the Blue Jays became accustomed to last season, and his mechanical tweaks should ensure it's the one they get throughout 2013.
Of these mechanical changes, the most obvious is his follow-through. Encarnacion now finishes his swing with a two-handed follow-through as opposed to the one-handed helicopter-style finish he used at the beginning of his career.
Encarnacion discussed this aspect of his swing, picked up from former major league outfielder Luis Mercedes over the offseason, with John Lott of Toronto's National Post last April.
"[Mercedes] said my swing would be more short and quick if I used both hands," Encarnacion said. "My swing is more compact. I can be more inside the ball and be more consistent."
Prior to 2012, Encarnacion's swing was often defined by an attempt to reach out and pull the ball past the left field foul pole -- the exact opposite of short and inside the ball. Mike Newman, a prospect analyst for FanGraphs and ROTOscouting.com says this is a trap players at all levels can fall into.
"For anybody who plays baseball or softball, they mentally believe the way to generate power is to attack pitches and yank them out to left," Newman, who also played through college, said. "In actuality, this generates less power because you wind up being off-balance."
The problem wasn't one of raw strength. Encarnacion was one of just 20 players to hit five home runs of 450 feet or further (according to ESPN Hit Tracker) from 2007 through 2012. Encarnacion's 6-foot-2, 230 pound frame provided enough oomph even if his penchant to sell out for what he perceived as power left him with a longer -- and less leveraged and forceful -- swing.
Encarnacion still swings hard. "Without a doubt, he takes a vicious and violent cut," said Bernie Pleskoff, a former scout with the Mariners and Diamondbacks who now writes for MLB.com and Rotowire.com. "He doesn't get cheated. That has not changed. He's the type of guy that hits 'no doubt about it' type homers."
For Encarnacion, it's a matter of getting the most out of that strength and violence. To do that, Encarnacion needed to add patience to his approach, and not just in regards to pitch selection.
"The main difference that I have noticed is his ability to wait longer on the pitch into the zone and let the ball come to him more," Pleskoff said. "He is using more patience on the pitches he swings at, and once the pitch arrives he waits a bit longer before swinging. He isn't 'out front' fouling off good pitches to left field as much as in the past."
The result is an Encarnacion who uses more than just left field. You won't see him pushing home runs to right field, but his power zone has shifted from dead left towards center field. He had just 15 home runs to center field in his career prior to 2011; he has 14 between 2012 and 2013. It takes more power to hit it over the deeper center field fences, but his more direct swing has provided it: Encarnacion's average home run distance has increased from 401 feet pre-2012 to 413 feet since.
"I think if he can continue to be patient and selective, and if he waits for the ball to travel, he will keep putting up big numbers." Pleskoff said. "This is not a fluke."
Players like Encarnacion -- a seven-year veteran with 117 home runs already to his name before 2012's outbreak -- can be loathe to change the mechanics and approach responsible for their major league careers. Encarnacion could have remained stuck in the trap of lunging and selling out for power. He could have felt like his new swing was sapping his power early in the process and scrapped it for the comfort of his familiar, one-handed finish. But he stuck with it, and combined with a more patient approach he turned in the first 40-home runs season of his career -- and earned his first big contract.
Edwin Encarnacion's 51 home runs since Opening Day 2012 leads the majors, one better than Miguel Cabrera. On most of those 51 trots around the bases, you can see Encarnacion holding his right hand -- the one he used to drop off the bat -- up at his shoulder as he circles the bases, serving as the perfect reminder of the adjustment that has breathed new life into his career.
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Jack Moore's sports addiction was a lost cause from the moment his older brother mowed a makeshift baseball diamond into his backyard. Now he writes about sports wherever the web will have him. Right now, you can catch him at CBSSports.com, FanGraphs, Advanced NFL Stats, Bucky's 5th Quarter, DisciplesOfUecker.com, RotoWire.com and on Twitter (@jh_moore).