Longoria Losing Power, Patience

For the first six years of his career, Evan Longoria was the best position player in baseball based on WAR (as FanGraphs calculates it). Despite losing over a season’s worth of games to various injuries during that time, his combination of tremendous hitting and elite defense at the hot corner made him a superstar when healthy.

Then 2014 happened. Injuries weren’t the issue, as Longoria played all 162 games for the first time, but his production cratered. He batted .253/.320/.404—well below his career averages of .275/.357/.512 coming into the season. He’d been so good up to that point, though, and he was only 28, so his off year appeared to be nothing more than a fluke. Surely Tampa Bay’s $100-million third baseman would bounce back.

He didn’t. His numbers improved slightly, to .270/.328/.435, but his 2015 was essentially the same as his 2014. Once again he was healthy, appearing in all but two games, making his struggles even more mystifying. That made two down years in a row for Longoria, in what were supposed to be his prime years.

Unless there’s a career-altering injury involved, great athletes typically don’t fall off a cliff in their late 20s. Oftentimes, they get better. They’re still young enough to be at their physical peaks, but also experienced enough to have acclimated to major-league competition. These are supposed to be an athlete’s greatest seasons.

For Longoria, they have been his worst.

Over the last couple years, Longoria has slipped from a great player to a merely good one, declining in all facets of the game. It’s been five years since he won his last Gold Glove, with defensive metrics suggesting he’s now closer to an average fielder than the vacuum cleaner he was previously. His baserunning has also fallen off considerably. Once an asset with his legs, he’s managed just 14 steals and provided negative value on the basepaths over the past five years.

Defense and speed peak early, however, so it’s not surprising that Longoria lost some of both as he approached 30. What’s concerning is how he’s become a league-average hitter after previously producing like David Ortiz.

A major red flag is Longoria’s plummeting walk rate, which has declined every year since 2011. Once a very patient hitter, he’s now drawing free passes at a league-average rate. Longoria’s chasing, and hitting, more pitches outside the zone than ever before, which explains both his eroding walk rates and hard-hit frequencies. When batters expand the strike zone, their swings become longer and generate weaker contact. After swinging at just a quarter of pitches outside the strike zone in 2013–tied for 20th out of 140 qualified batters–he’s chased over 31 percent of non-strikes each of the last two years, falling back to the pack in this department.

It’s no secret that older players become more aggressive to compensate for diminished bat speed, as they have to guess more often and start their swing earlier to catch up with fastballs. It could also be that Longoria is responding to an increase in first-pitch strikes. Whereas his first-pitch-strike percentage was below the league average every year from 2009-2013, he’s seen more first-pitch strikes than average over the past two seasons combined. When batters fall behind early, they can’t afford to be patient and are at the pitcher’s mercy. In 2015 the league hit just .225/.265/.344 after going down 0-1. Longoria isn’t much better, batting .234/.277/.388 for his career after first-pitch strikes. Since he’s seeing more of those, it follows that his numbers have nosedived. As for why Longoria’s seeing more first-pitch strikes, the larger strike zone is likely to blame, but pitchers also appear to be challenging him more often.

What’s really troubling, though, is Longoria’s evaporating power. After averaging 33 home runs per 162 games with a .237 ISO through his first six seasons, he’s averaged just 22 long balls with a .158 ISO over the past two. His doubles were down too, from 41 per 162 games to 31, so it’s not like he was just getting unlucky with his HR/FB rates (though he did post the lowest one of his career–10.8 percent–in both 2014 and 2015). He’s not trading contact for power, either, as his strikeout rates and contact rates have held steady.

The reason for Longoria’s diminished power is simple and one I alluded to earlier; he’s not hitting the ball as hard as he used to. After reaching a high of 41.5 percent in 2013, his hard-hit rate crashed to 32.1 percent in 2014 and 30.6 percent last year. Meanwhile, his soft-contact rate nearly doubled from 2013 to 2015. This data, along with his rising infield-fly rates (he popped up as often as he homered last year) and shrinking fly-ball distances, suggests he’s not squaring up the ball as well as he used to. That’s a side effect of hacking, to be sure, but also reflects his waning bat speed and exit velocity.

Recent studies have shown that position players are peaking earlier than they used to, closer to age 26, and it appears that’s what happened with Longoria. His seemingly premature decline has likely been accelerated by injuries suffered early in his career as well as the rigors of playing a demanding defensive position. On that note,  his career seems to be following the same path as David Wright’s. Both peaked early and were at their best in their mid-20s, looking like future Hall of Famers. Then their performance started suffering in their late 20s, because of injuries with Wright and the reasons outlined above with Longoria (both were hurt by their home parks as well). Wright has yet to recapture the consistent greatness he exhibited through his first five seasons and, should Longoria continue on his current trajectory, neither will he.

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Tyler is a market research analyst by day and a baseball blogger by night. You can read more of his work at Tyler's Think Tank.

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Excellent write-up. I’ve been a Longoria fan since he came into the league and I’ve finally had to start abandoning him and his consistent ~30 HRs, 100 RBIs from my teams. Good post