One of the best parts of covering the minor leagues is watching players that no one really knows about break out into the prospect conversation, and, if all goes well, put themselves on the road to becoming household names. Today’s prospect definitely took some steps in that direction in 2013. Not only did Kevin Encarnacion have a breakout season, he very quietly put together one of the better seasons in the low minors.
But before we get to the details, let’s recap the purpose of the Prospects Progress series. The goal here is not to re-rank the prospects (that comes next year) or to assess the strengths and weaknesses of farm as a whole (that also comes next year). The goal for this series is to take each prospect individually, study the progress made so far, and see what we can learn about the future for that player.
And now to the statistics.
Kevin Encarnacion, OF (FanGraphs spells his first name Kelvin)
Born: November 23, 1991 in the Dominican Republic
Acquired: Signed by the Cubs in May of 2010.
Encarnacion, a switch hitter, spent three years playing in the Caribbean leagues before finally coming to the United States for 2013. When he did arrive in the States, the Cubs opted to challenge him by sending him directly to the Short-Season A Northwest League. Encarnacion stayed in that league for about two very productive weeks before the Cubs challenged him again with a promotion to Kane County. He got off to a hot start, but eventually fell into a bit of a slump as he was relegated to part time duties. After a month he was returned to Boise to get more regular playing time and to help with the Hawks’ playoff run.
Once again he began pummeling Northwest League pitching and emerged as a key part of the Hawks’ deep run into the postseason.
All in all, he put together some pretty good season numbers.
In Boise over both of his stints (42 G, 188 PA) he posted a slash line of .355/.431/.566 with a wOBA of .466 and a wRC+ of 191. That’s good. In fact, that’s very good.
The numbers from Kane County are not good on the surface, but there are some nice trends when we dig deeper. In 16 games and 70 plate appearances his line read .217/.314/.333 with a wOBA of .306 and a wRC+ of 87. The sample size is not large enough to read too much into those Kane County numbers, particularly given that those numbers include a slump (like it or not, slumps happen to every baseball player), but there is no denying that those are not good numbers. Not on the surface.
So let’s go beneath the surface.
One number stayed remarkably consistent at both Boise and Kane County, and it is a good number. The walk rate in Boise was 11.2%, and in Kane County it was 11.4%. Those are both very strong numbers and they strongly suggest that Encarnacion is both a patient hitter and that he has a good eye at the plate. Those are traits that we like to see in prospects.
Also providing reason for optimism are his strikeout rates. After posting a K% of just 17.6% in Boise, he went on to strike out at just a 20% rate in Kane County, and that is despite the slump. Once again see quite nice numbers that give us plenty of reason to be optimistic about his future.
But those aren’t the best part.
The best part comes when we dig into the splits. Encarnacion is a switch hitter, but as it turns out he has quite a bit of work to do with half of that split. Despite being a switch hitter, his splits against right handed versus left handed pitching are very pronounced. We can see that effect just by looking at his numbers with Boise. Against left handed pitching (batting right handed) he hit just .237/.326/.289 with just one extra base hit. Against right handers, though, he mashed to the tune of a .391/.462/.648 line that features 8 homes runs and 17 extra base hits.
To put it simply, Encarnacion just wasn’t very good as a right handed hitter. As a lefty, though, he was excellent. That trend held in Kane County as well. When you put the two stops together we see a hitter with an ISO of just .043 and a OPS of .585 as a right handed hitter, but with an ISO of .223 and an OPS of .986 as a lefty.
For a farm system loaded with right handed power bats, those numbers as a left handed hitter are a welcome sight. Even if Encarnacion never improves his right handed hitting (much too early to say that) and winds up as a platoon player down the road, he fills the half of the platoon that the Cubs are lacking in the system as a whole.
Encarnacion should return to Kane County to start the 2014 season, and he needs to show that the slump we saw this past season was just that, a slump, and not a sign of deeper issues. Ideally I would like to see a marked improvement in his right handed plate numbers, but so long as he continues to crush as a lefty I won’t be terribly disappointed. Should this outfielder develop into a productive left handed hitter I think the Cubs will be quite happy.
He needs to continue moving up the system quickly, though. Next season will be his age 22 season, and it would be nice if he could finish that season having success in Daytona so as to get him a little in front of the age curve. The three years in the Caribbean left him in a bit of a hole on that front, and while he isn’t exactly too old for his leagues right now, he is inching towards that territory.
Defensively I cannot comment with any great precision, but I suspect the Cubs will play him more regularly in the corner outfield slots, particularly in right, than in center as he moves up that system. That has as much to do with the plethora of center fielders in the Cubs farm system as it does with my expectations that Encarnacion is going to slow down a little as he adds muscle to his 6’0″ 175 lb frame.
He is still raw and has a lot of work to do yet, but I like what I see so far. The walk rate is solid, the strikeout rate is comfortably low, and as a left handed hitter he is already flashing some pretty good power and the promise of more to come. I don’t think he’ll be creeping into many top prospects lists quite yet, not higher than the mid 20s in any event, but I can see the shape of a promising hitter on his horizon. Encarnacion remains on the fringe for now, but he has emerged as a player to keep an eye on.