Going into the 2012 season, Edwin Encarnacion was a 29-year-old third baseman with a decidedly unremarkable career.
Seven-plus seasons later, that career is anything but ordinary. In fact, given the way he continues to rake for the Mariners in 2019, Encarnacion just might end up as the best late-blooming slugger in baseball history.
His 18 home runs this year give him 398 total. Sometime soon, he will launch No. 400, becoming only the 56th player in Major League history to reach that mark, and the third active player after Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera.
It wasn’t so long ago that such accomplishments would have seemed impossible. In seven MLB seasons for the Reds and Blue Jays through 2011, Encarnacion had accrued a modest 104 OPS+ (just above league average) and 117 home runs, tied for 77th-most in that span. He’d been traded, designated for assignment, outrighted to the Minors, claimed off waivers and non-tendered.
But in 2012, Encarnacion remade himself from a struggling third baseman into a first baseman/designated hitter with the powerful bat to match. Since that year, nobody has hit more home runs (281) than Encarnacion, who has 30 or more in seven straight seasons. No other player has more than five such seasons in that span. That's a lot of trips around the bases for the parrot.
Here is how Encarnacion’s credentials as a late bloomer stack up against the 55 existing members of the 400-homer club:
• The average 400-homer hitter collected 220 of those before his age-29 season. Encarnacion hit just 117, more than only Jason Giambi (106).
• The average 400-homer hitter went deep 238 times between ages 29-36. Encarnacion’s 281 (and counting) already ranks 12th in that group, with Manny Ramirez (291) and none other than Hank Aaron (294) in sight.
• The average 400-homer hitter gets only about 57% of his career total after age 28. Encarnacion is at 70.6% -- a number that will continue to climb -- currently behind only Rafael Palmeiro (the high man at 76.8%), David Ortiz, Giambi, Willie Stargell, Darrell Evans and Barry Bonds.
• Should Encarnacion remain on pace and reach 30 homers for the eighth straight season, he would become only the seventh player to hit 30 or more eight times beginning in his age-29 season. Bonds, Palmeiro, Aaron, Ortiz, Babe Ruth, Mike Schmidt and Jim Thome are the others, with only Bonds and Schmidt doing it every year from 29-36.
Of course, Encarnacion isn’t the first player to make up for lost time when it comes to launching dingers. Here are five other notable late-blooming sluggers:
José Bautista: When the Blue Jays reached the postseason in 2015-16, after a drought of more than 20 years, they did so behind a trio of late bloomers. There was Encarnacion. There was Josh Donaldson, who didn’t play his first full season until age 27 in ‘13. And then there was Bautista, who brought an unimpressive track record and lengthy transaction log to Toronto. Beginning with a monstrous 54-homer campaign in 2010, when he was 29, Bautista bashed 285 big flies (83% of his career total), and topped 40 three times.
Nelson Cruz: Just before the 2008 season, during which Cruz would turn 28, the Rangers designated him for assignment, then outrighted him to Triple-A. It was an understandable move. To that point, Cruz had batted just .231/.282/.385 in nearly 500 plate appearances over parts of three MLB seasons. Fortunately for the Rangers, they retained Cruz and gave him another shot toward the end of that year. Cruz hasn’t looked back, and his 348 home runs since the start of the next season (2009) are the most in MLB. His 37 big flies last year made him the third player in history -- after Ruth and Palmeiro -- to go deep at least 35 times each season from ages 33-37.
Raul Ibanez: He beat the odds by just making it to the Majors as a 36th-round Draft pick, but for a while, it didn’t appear that Ibanez’s career was headed much of anywhere. It wasn’t until 2002, when Ibanez was already 30, that he played anything close to a full season, with the Royals. He popped 24 home runs, almost matching his total to that point (27). Ibanez wound up hitting more than 90% of his 305 homers in his 30s and 40s, and is one of three players to hit 15 or more a dozen times in that span.
David Ortiz: The Mariners traded him away before he reached the Majors. The Twins released him after parts of six seasons. The Red Sox picked up the 27-year-old, and the rest is history. Over 14 years in Boston, Ortiz became Big Papi -- a beloved 10-time All-Star, seven-time Silver Slugger Award winner, and three-time World Series champion. Ortiz bashed 483 of his 541 career homers (89%) during that time, the fifth most in history beginning at age 27.
Hank Sauer: Decades before the other players on this list, Sauer produced 288 career home runs, an impressive total for a player who barely played in the Majors before he was 31. Injuries and World War II military service contributed to Sauer’s total of seven homers in 47 career games through his age-30 season in 1947. But over the next seven years with the Reds and Cubs, only Ralph Kiner blasted more big flies than Sauers (225), who took NL MVP honors for Chicago in 1952, when he went deep 37 times. Sauer played until he was 42 and ranks 11th all-time in homers at age 31 and older.