From his debut season in 2008 until the middle of the 2014 season, there was no player in baseball who had accumulated more fWAR than Evan Longoria. Combining a decent average and strong power with Gold Glove winning defense, Longo was seen not only as the face of the Tampa Bay Rays, but also one of the pillars of the sport. His community work (volunteering, opening local restaurants), his play, and his propensity for coming through in clutch moments (any Red Sox fans remember 2011?) made him easy to love, and he seemed destined for greatness, as helped the team become a bookies favourite.
But for whatever reason, Longoria’s production started dipping in 2014. He went from an elite level to, while still very good, obviously a step down. His power numbers slipped heavily as his isolated slugging marks dropped from the .230s to the .150s – from great to average. A large part of why he lost his power was his inability to turn on inside pitches, as well as a decline in bat speed. I wrote more at length about this, but the gist of it has already been covered; without the bat speed he had in his early 20s, he’s gone from one of the game’s most dangerous hitters to simply average.
Enter 2016, and you would have no clue Longoria is coming off a couple of down seasons, by his standards. His wRC+ is up to 137 on the season, right in line with his career bests, and he’s coming in hot off an AL Player of the Week where he homered in four straight games and slugged over 1.000. Almost every facet of his game on the surface resembles where he was when he was a consistent top third baseman in the league. So let’s look deeper and found out if this is legit.
Driving his issues earlier were potential bat speed and mechanics issues, and looking at his slugging percentage heatmaps it appears he’s quelling any concern about getting around on the inside pitch. Take a look for yourself:
Don’t focus so much on color as the sample size disparity messes with it, but look instead at the numbers on the inside third (the left side). He’s doing better inside the zone, but is flat-out crushing inside pitches out of the zone too.
While he’s crushing the ball like his younger self, how he’s doing so is a little different. After posting fly ball percentages of 40% three out of the last four seasons, and always staying low 40s in the others, he’s skyrocketed up to 48% this season. He’s hitting just 30% on the ground, which is a great sign that his profiles here are balanced and have staying power, instead of small sample bias. He’s not the same player he was when he was younger where he could hit less into the air and still maintain his elite power, now he needs to be keeping a higher trajectory angle to stay at this level.
Looking into his discipline numbers and we see another area where he’s evolving. He’s whiffing and striking out at career high rates, 13.6% and 23.6% respectively. This seems counterintuitive at first to be making less contact and having a career year, but looking into it a little more we can paint a picture that starts to make a little more sense. He’s making a more concentrated effort to put balls into the air and swing harder, which makes sense that he’s missing more. And the new approach is working since he’s at a three year high on hard contact percentage at 40.8%, compared to the last two years at 32.1% and 30.8%. In fact, this year is the second best he’s ever had, only behind his 41.3% in 2013 where he smashed 32 dingers.
“Kind of one of those moments when you realize something you did earlier in your career isn’t going to work the whole time,” he said. “I widened out my swing a little bit, and it enabled me to see the ball a little better. It took place gradually. And now I feel like I’m in a really good spot.”
The player’s story matches the numbers, and both put him in a great spot to be successful not only for the rest of this season, but going forward the next few years. Evan Longoria is a fantastic hitter who has adjusted to the league and age. Be sure to buy high on him now because he’s showing his true ability and there is great reason to believe that he’s going to keep this up. Once again, Longo is among the top in the league; not just at third base, but in the majors.
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