I want to preface this post by acknowledging that my days of delving into the vast abyss of numbers in baseball are just beginning. If you know of any available data that is relevant to this topic or of easier ways to obtain the data that I am working with (hand counted out everything from Gameday), I would appreciate those links.
Ever since June 1, when Juan Encarnacion opened the flood gates in the ninth inning of a 1-1 game against the Astros when he hit a HR to left-center field, I've taken notice of a seemingly altered approach at the plate. If you look closely at this at-bat, you'll see that he started out with a swinging strike and a foul ball. Juan quickly digs himself an 0-2 count... nothing new, right? But then something happens... and somehow... he lays off of three straight pitches low and away. Now, if you are like me... you've often been frustrated with Juan's propensity for swinging through pitches hitting that location. Chad Qualls knew what he was doing in this AB and I'd be he was as perplexed as the rest of us when the batter didn't bite this time. Rather, Encarnacion lived to see another pitch. Not wanting to put the go ahead runner on base to start off the top-half of the 9th in a tied game, Qualls had an unexpected challenge. The next pitch was a fastball in the middle of the plate and the beginning of a seven-run ninth inning was born. Where the hell did this patience and discipline come from? I suddenly had a newfound interest when Juancion stepped up to the plate. What if he was able to institute this same principle each time he entered the box? There will probably be a few digressions, but this post focuses mostly on the approach that opposing pitchers take when Juancion steps up to the plate and whether or not he has been trying something new at the plate.
The scouting report does not appear to be much of a secret as opposing pitchers reliably spot their pitches 2 or 3 inches off the low and outside corner of the plate. It's like Juancion's own personal version of groundhog day. Much like Bill Murray approached his bed every night hoping for a clean slate the next morning, Juan stepped up to the plate with no balls and no strikes, a clean slate if you will, and hoped for different results. Unfortunately, the scouting report alarm would often ring in the opposing pitchers mind and Juancion would bless us with another whiffer from behind in the count with both his bat and chin over his left shoulder. But something seems to be happening differently for Juan lately. Yes, opposing pitchers are still working that outside corner. But the results are not as predictable as they once were. My roommate and I have been discussing how he appears to be laying off this pitch which, in the past, inevitably led to a strikeout. I thought I would check the data available on Gameday.
Since May 31st (day before Juan put the dagger in Houston), 136 pitches have been hurled Juancion's way. During this eight game stretch, Juan has been to the plate 33 times, has seen 136 pitches, 57 of which were balls. That's good for 4.12 pitches per PA as well as 1.68 balls per PA. You may notice that these numbers are not incredibly eye-popping... but when you consider Juan's career numbers (3.59 pitches per PA), it's not so bad. He's only seen 4 pitches per plate appearance once in his career and that was back in 1997 (when he had 32 PAs for the Detroit Tigers). Overall this season, he's been to the plate 85 times, has seen 297 pitches, of which 107 were balls. That's good for 3.49 pitches per PA. What can we make of this? Well, something appears to be allowing our RF to go deeper into counts. Is he merely making more contact and thus fouling more pitches off? Or is he trying to take a different approach to his game in the batter's box..? Could it be, that after ten years in the league, much like Bill Murray in ground hog's day, he's grown tired of rolling out of the batter's box with the same results and has actually made an adjustment?
For the answer to this question, I skimmed through some of the available stats at baseball-reference. For his career, Juan has taken a hack at 50% of the pitches he has seen and 77% of the strikes. Throw him four pitches and he's going to swing at 2 of them. Make the pitches borderline and the probability that Juan is going to take a hack is probably higher For comparison's sake, let's consider a player wide renown for his patience at the plate. Let's go with Billy Beane's pride and joy, Nick Swisher. Thus far in his career, he's seen 4.16 pitches per PA. He only swings at 39% of the pitches he sees and 69% of the strikes. Swisher's putting together his best year yet in 2007. Thus far, he has a .430 OBP which includes 44 BB's... only 4 of which have been intentional. He's only swung at 34% of the pitches he's seen and 63% of the strikes. Now, imagine yourself as the opposing pitcher. Juan Encarnacion moseys into the box and the scouting report alarm resounds in your mind. Are you going to throw this guy a pitch over the plate? I'm sure as hell not. Well, so far this year, Juan has only walked 3 times. But his swinging percentage has dropped ten points to 67%. So, he's clearly swinging less often. Even in 1997 when he was seeing above 4 pitches per PA, he was swinging 76% of the time... which might suggest that he was fouling more pitches off than usual. This year (especially lately) I think he's trying to be more disciplined. Instead of ignoring this flaw in his game and denying an obvious hole in his swing, he's trying to make an adjustment. And, although his results have not been that different... he's still batting .253 with a .282 OBP... he does seem to be taking a better approach. Maybe when Scott Rolen finally decided to make a trip to the video room, he dragged 'ol Juan along for the ride.
As I mentioned earlier, Juan's seen 136 pitches in the past eight games. Of these 136 pitches, 57 were called balls. And, of these 57 balls, 31 of them were low and outside (at least according to Gameday's data). That means 54.39% of called balls have been low and outside when Juan has been at the plate. I think it's safe to say that pitchers are deliberately aiming a few inches off of the plate low and away. But Juan hasn't been chasing lately. He's struck out 4 times in these games. On more than one occassion, the strike out came on a pitch over the middle of the plate that he either watched or completely missed for strike three. In this stretch, he's batting .310 with a .364 OBP. Not bad. His BABIP for this period of time is an unfortunate .231. Over a full season, an average BABIP is said to be between .290 and .300. Therefore, his numbers could actually be a little better and, if he continues this approach at the plate, should improve.
Let's throw away the obvious comment and acknowledge that the present observations have been generated from a small sample size. I have probably felt more apathetic towards Juan Encarnacion than I have towards any other player whose worn the birds on the bat. His numbers do not merit praise nor complaint. I don't think that he has much value on the trade market. Can't see him making that much of a difference on a team that's already a contender. Seems as if our best chance at improving in RF comes with altering the player's approach who's already slated to get the majority of the playing time for the next year and a half.
In short, Juan Encarnacion seems to be making a few adjustments to better his game after ten years in the league. Probably a difficult thing to do as I'm sure his tendency to swing at outside pitches is a well-developed habit by now. But he seems to be getting better pitches to hit lately. And I think his newfound strategy at the plate is serving him (and the team) well. Keep it up, number 43.