The title of this post serves is a warning, but not an absolute one. There’s a price at which just about any player becomes palatable. If Edwin Encarnacion were available to a team for just $1 this offseason, that team should sign him. For a number of reasons, Edwin Encarnacion will not be available for $1 this offseason. For a number of reasons, Edwin Encarnacion is going to earn much more than that. For a number of reasons, he’s likely to be overpaid for the services he’ll render.
Encarnacion, 33, just finished a season in which he hit 42 home runs and produced four wins above replacement. That matches very well with his last five seasons, during which he has averaged 39 homers and four wins above replacement. A standard decline from that level of production should make Encarnacion a very valuable player in this year’s free-agent class, but there are major warning signs.
In his piece on free-agent landmines, Dave Cameron wrote that Encarnacion was unlikely to be worth $100 million ($90 million in salary plus the value of the draft pick) unless he defies the aging process. How do we estimate Encarnacion’s worth? A couple ways, actually.
Let’s begin with a simple way — namely, by applying a standard aging curve to Encarnacion’s current 2017 projection. Encarnacion has been a steady four-win player for half a decade. If we were to see some decline, we might expect him to produce just a 3.5 WAR next season. Our current projections for Encarnacion estimate that he’ll record only a 2.3 WAR next season, however.
The difference for Encarnacion between losing half a win and losing more than one-and-half wins makes a big difference when attempting to calculate an appropriate free-agent valuation for him. If we were to give Encarnacion that 3.5 WAR projection for next season and then decrease it by half a win per season to account for age, that would place Encarnacion’s value for a four-year deal right at $100 million — assuming the value of a win in free agency is $8.5 million and factoring in 5.0% inflation after that. It makes Encarnacion’s likely deal seem very reasonable. Yet, the projections see his value as much lower, providing an estimated value more like this:
|2017||34||2.3||$8.5 M||$19.5 M|
|2018||35||1.8||$8.9 M||$16.1 M|
|2019||36||1.3||$9.4 M||$12.2 M|
|2020||37||0.8||$9.8 M||$7.9 M|
Value: $8.5M/WAR with 5.0% inflation (for first 5 years)
Aging Curve: +0.25 WAR/yr (18-27), 0 WAR/yr (28-30),-0.5 WAR/yr (31-37),-0.75 WAR/yr (> 37)
So, that’s a pretty big difference. Nearly a $50 million difference. Whichever team ultimately signs Encarnacion is likely to be paying him based on his 2016 stats plus a standard aging curve. The projections suggest that would be a mistake. Thus Cameron’s characterization of Encarnacion as a “landmine.”
What might have led to such a pessimistic projection? A few different factors. We might look at the 42 homers Encarnacion hit in 2016 and and assume Encarnacion was just as powerful in previous years. Actually, though, he was just healthier. Encarnacion recorded 702 plate appearances in 2016; his homer rate per plate appearances was actually higher in both 2014 and 2015. On a rate basis, Encarnacion put up 3.3 WAR per 600 plate appearances in 2016, down from the 4.0 mark he put up the previous four seasons.
It wasn’t just numbers inflated by playing time that are a cause for concern. Encarnacion was slightly less powerful in 2016, as seen by his 14-point drop in ISO, and he struck out 25% more often, experiencing an increase in strikeout rate from 15.7% in 2015 to 19.7% last season. His fly-ball rate declined for the second straight season, and while he made up for that somewhat with the highest rate of home runs per fly ball in his career, that might not be sustainable going forward. In the context of greater offense overall throughout baseball last year, Encarnacion’s offense relative to the rest of baseball actually took a hit, dropping him from a 150 wRC+ in 2015 to a 134 wRC+ last year. His playing time masked the drop in quality.
That still doesn’t completely explain the 2.3 WAR next season, though. For that, let’s look at some similar players.
To do that, I looked for players from the last 50 years who recorded both (a) a WAR within 3.0 of Encarnacion’s 12 WAR from age-31 through age-33, and (b) a wRC+ within 10 points of Encarnacion’s 144 mark, and (c) a defensive figure worse than -10 runs (Encarnacion recorded a -40.5 DEF over that span, largely due to the DH positional adjustment). The players needed to be within 20% of Encarnacion’s 1,868 plate appearances and to have played a full season at age 33, while also recording a wRC+ within 20 points of Encarnacion’s 135 mark from 2016. That search yielded 14 players:
This isn’t that bad, at all. We see quite a few really good players on this list, including five Hall of Famers. While Encarnacion has the highest raw home-run total, all the players put up good-to-great power numbers given their eras. Before we get to the negatives, let’s take a look at a couple positives. Almost all the players in this sample played full seasons as 34-year-olds. Every player exceeded at least 400 plate appearances and the group averaged nearly 600 PA at that age. The second positive is that almost every player hit well. Just one player produced a wRC+ below 100 (Cecil Cooper), 10 of 14 players had a wRC+ above 110, and half had a wRC+ above 120. On the whole, the group averaged a 127 wRC+ at age-34.
The bad news? Despite hitting well, that group still averaged only 2.5 WAR, putting Encarnacion’s 125 wRC+ and 2.3 WAR right in line with these players considered here. It doesn’t get any better as these players age, either. Here are there stats from age 34 through 37, the potential four years of Encarnacion’s next contract.
That 5.9 WAR average over four seasons is even worse than the 6.2 WAR figure at which we arrived before, when applying a standard aging curve to the 2.3 WAR projection. To be worth $100 million over the next four seasons, Encarnacion would need to be produce 11 wins during that span, a number that only two of the 14 players in this sample ever reached. It’s safe to say that Encarnacion isn’t going to limit himself to -21 runs below average on defense like Paul O’Neill did, leaving the Hall of Fame track of Billy Williams as the lone ray of hope. By age 37, four of the players from this group were no longer playing. Of the 11 who did play, only five were even above replacement, with the players totaling 0.9 WAR.
From 2012 to 2015, Encarnacion was a truly great hitter. He fell off a little bit last year; next season, he should fall off a little bit more. After that, even if he retains an above-average bat, his defensive liabilities are likely to render him a below-average player. Hitters with his profile have shown they can still hit, but they are unlikely to make a good contribution. It is good to be skeptical when we see a four-win season halved by projections the following season, but in this case, the projections seem closer to reality on Encarnacion’s future.