Author Daniel Alarcón probably wasn’t thinking about baseball when he wrote in “At Night We Walk in Circles“:
“That morning, he was afraid of becoming old, and it was a very specific kind of old age he feared, one which had nothing to do with the number of years since your birth. He feared the premature old age of missed opportunities.”
That’s a noble thought, but I use it as a contrast to say this article is exactly about the number of years since birth in regards to the Cleveland’s newest slugger, Edwin Encarnacion.
To his credit and despite a late start to his productive baseball career (his first truly above average year came at age 29 for his fourth organization (pronounced organEYEzation in Canada)), Encarnacion has not missed many opportunities to excel from that first season of excellence in 2012 right up through last season in Toronto. Over those five seasons, he’s slashed .272/.367/.544 while averaging 39 home runs per season, 110 RBI while posting a 146 OPS+, meaning he’s been roughly 46% better than the league’s average hitter.
But Encarnacion just celebrated his 34th birthday on January 7th, and somehow on nearly that exact date, I happened across a reference to Jim Thome in a book about the Pittsburgh Pirates. In “Big Data Baseball”, author Travis Sawchick (who incidentally hailed from Northeast Ohio before becoming the Pirates beat writer) expounds on how Pittsburgh’s early research into Sabermetric ideas like pitch framing and defensive shifting helped them overcome 20 years of losing in their 2013 Wild Card season. In the book, regarding Pittsburgh’s limits in free agency, Sawchick says:
“Using the software, the Indians made key decisions, such as when they elected not to sign aging star Jim Thome to an extension after the 2002 season, in part because of the database, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported. DiamondView revealed Barry Bonds was the only hitter in the prior twenty-two seasons who produced at an elite level after the age of thirty-five, and Thome was seeking a six-year deal that would take him through age thirty-seven.The Indians balked at signing Thome to a deal that took him beyond his thirty-fifth birthday, so instead he signed a six-year deal with Philadelphia and began a swift decline phase at thirty-four.
Sawchick’s book is fantastic, but I do take some issue with this minor detail regarding Jim Thome‘s decline at age 34. His first two seasons in Philadelphia were vintage Thome, hitting a combined 89 home runs with a 149 OPS+. His age 34 season was indeed ruined by injury and he hit just seven home runs in 59 games with an 85 OPS+. Thome bounced back strongly in Chicago at 35, however, with his last All-Star season. He would go on to produce an above average OPS+ through age 41 but it’s his excellent age 35 and 36 seasons (77 combined home runs and 153 OPS+) that intrigued me the most since age 36 is the max length that the Indians have committed to Edwin Encarnacion.
We can visualize the difference below by graphing each players’ weighted on base average, or wOBA, which is a useful tool to measure a player’s total offensive value by more accurately measuring how the player contributes to run scoring. Weighted on base average is adjusted to track OBP, so the league average wOBA was .312 last season while Encarnacion was at .373.
Thome clearly continues to have several above average seasons after age 35. It’s important to note, though, how different Encarnacion has been from Thome thus far throughout their careers. The blue line of Encarnacion only once has almost equaled Thome’s black line when each player was 29. In other terms, Thome had already accrued 55.2 Wins Above Replacement by age 33. Encarnacion has accrued 27.5 WAR through age 33. Edwin has been quite literally half the player that Jim Thome was through the same age.
Source: FanGraphs — Jim Thome, Edwin Encarnacion
If the Indians were willing to break an organization rule to sign Encarnacion, or least an organization rule from 2002, what is it about Encarnacion that makes him a good bet? The length of the contract is shorter, sure, but the Indians are still committing big dollars to ages 34, 35 and 36 of a slugging first baseman.
Encarnacion’s Best Comps
To further drill down our analysis, it’s going to be helpful to find better player comps for Mr. Encarnacion. I’m thinking the big, strong and slightly lumbering type. Preferably a first baseman or corner outfielder.
Fortunately, Baseball-Reference.com has a handy feature called “Most Similar by Ages” that attempts to plot the path of a current player against retired players at the same age in their careers. I think that this is a good tool for our use since Encarnacion’s best comparable is not Jim Thome, who was already on a Hall of Fame path by age 34. Encarnacions’ most consistent comp over the past three consecutive seasons, in fact, has been Jermaine Dye. Encarnacion’s other best comps that we’ll examine are, in order, Danny Tartabull, Frank Howard, Pat Burrell, and Willie Stargell.
Right away, this seems like a better group of comparable players. All were big, slugging types who were reasonably effective into their early 30’s. Stargell is probably the outlier here as the only Hall of Famer, but look closely at his age 29-33 seasons, and it’s very close to Encarnacion – 160 OPS+, 35 HR and 104 RBI per season along with a triple slash of .290/.372/.564 (Encarnacion’s was .272/.367/.544 ). So how did they fare after age 33?
Baseball-Reference thinks Dye is the best comp, and I can see similarities. Dye was a little farther up the defensive spectrum in right field, but Dye wasn’t particularly good in the field with a career -103 UZR for his career. Dye had a 14 year career with the Braves, Royals, A’s and White Sox which was highlighted by the 2005 World Series MVP award. He hit .274/.338/.488 at a 111 OPS+ for his career while averaging 30 home runs over 162 games played.
If we look at the wOBA graph of Encarnacion and Dye’s careers, what immediately jumps out is that Dye only played two seasons after age 33. What happened? Well, after a great age-34 season with Chicago, Dye came back with a strong first half in 2009 and then an abysmal second half. He hit .302/.375/.567 in the first half of ’09, but then plumetted to .179/.293/.590 after the break. As this Hardball Times article explains, Dye chose to retire when he didn’t receive any interest around the league after his swift downturn. Not a promising start.
The Other Comps
Here’s a graph looking at the five best comps. If you can see through the confetti, you may notice that only Stargell played three seasons beyond age 33. Dye retired after his age 35 season. Tartabull had 11 plate appearances at age 34 and then hung them up. Burrell played 92 games at age 34 in what was his final season. Frank Howard was an All-Star with the Washington Senators at age 34, but then played less than 200 games over the next two seasons and retired at age 36.
If you want to be optimistic about Encarnacion, you look at Stargell’s late career. After age 33, Stargell not only had another All-Star appearance left in him at age 38 in Pittsburgh, he also won the National League MVP the following season for the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates, a team that beat the Baltimore Orioles in seven games to win the World Series. And while he began to miss more and more time to injury beginning at age 35, he still put up above average rate stats. From age 34-36, Stargell slashed .286/.376/.506 with a 148 OPS+. This is a result that the Indians would have to be thrilled with.
Source: FanGraphs — Jermaine Dye, Pat Burrell, Edwin Encarnacion
Is it appropriate to use Stargell as the most likely outcome for Edwin Encarnacion over the next three seasons? Probably not. He’s only one data point, and no two human beings are exactly alike. All we can do is look at more examples and see what’s happened in the past.
Here’s all ten of the most comparable players according to Baseball-Refence, and the results are not pretty. Over their age 34-36 seasons, these ten players put up on average a total of 3.8 WAR. The OPS+ is down to 113 and while they still put decent power numbers (about 20 home runs per season), they average only about 1 WAR per season, suggesting that their defense and base running had declined to the point that they were merely league average players. Clearly the Indians are committing $60 million over the next three years for more than about 4 WAR and a .467 slugging percentage (Jose Ramirez, for example, slugged .462 last year).
Where does this leave us? Well, as an optimist, perhaps you look at Encarnacion’s consistency over the past five seasons and reason that he’ll continue to carry that forward. You’ll note that some of his comparables had better than average seasons at age 34 and beyond, and Encarnacion may well continue to be a middle-of-the-order hitter through his contract in Cleveland.
The pessimist in you might be worried, however, that Encarnacion’s best-case comparables seem only to be Hall of Famers Jim Thome and Willie Stargell. You may believe that, in general, it seems that players like Encarnacion are prone to steep and sudden declines. You may also begin to notice a downturn last season in Encarnacion’s strike-out rate (up to 19.7% last season), his lowest OPS since 2011, his highest BABIP since 2011, his highest ground ball rate since 2006 and the highest home run per fly ball rate of his career, suggesting he may have actually gotten a little lucky on a few of those home runs last season (but not on the Wild Card game dinger off Ubaldo. That was a bomb).
Only time will tell, and no two players ever age the same way. I’ll leave with one final chart – this time showing every player aged 34 or older in Cleveland franchise history that has resulted in a 100 OPS+ or above (essentially, been at least average) in a full season. It’s happened exactly 25 times in team history, several times by a few players. In fact, according to my own brief analysis, nine of the 25 seasons below were accomplished by Hall of Famers.
Do you think Edwin Encarnacion will crack this list in the next three seasons?