Evan Longoria Is and Isn’t Back

Over the first eight plus years of his major league career, from 2008 to 2016, Evan Longoria has led position players with 45.1 WAR.  That WAR total is by no means definitive proof that we was truly the most valuable player for those eight plus seasons, but it’s enough to establish the concept that Longoria has been one of the very best players in the league for a substantial length of time.

Longoria is essentially neck and neck with Cabrera (by the time you read this they may have swapped places again), and Mike Trout will likely pass him in career WAR later this year or early in 2017, but we don’t need to be exact in order to appreciate what Longoria has accomplished. He’s 30 years old and is two-thirds of the way to a surefire Hall of Fame induction.

Yet with the rise of Trout, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Kris Bryant, and the zillion other incredible young stars, Longoria has fallen from our collective consciousness. In part, this is because the Rays haven’t won many games over the last couple of years, but it’s also a reflection of a troubling power outage.

Evan Longoria
Years ISO Qualified Rank
2008-2013 .238 16th
2014-2015 .158 61st

While Longoria remained a well-above average player in 2014-2015, it appeared as if his skills were declining and that he was on a downward trajectory. His career wasn’t over, but our minds often insist on seeing decline in one’s late twenties as a new normal rather than decline mixed with outcomes below one’s true talent. In other words, when a player is consistently worse for two seasons on the wrong side of his peak, we think that’s his new performance level because it fits with our understanding of how players are supposed to age.

Longoria is reminding us that the first signs of decline don’t have to be permanent. In fact, through 250 plate appearances in 2016, Longoria’s 134 wRC+ and 2.3 WAR could easily be confused with any of his seasons between 2008 and 2013. On the surface, he looks like the player he was when he was the face of baseball’s future.

But such a resurgence requires a more careful review. Our minds are also easily tricked by small samples of data and we’re only looking at about one-third of a season’s worth of a comeback.

The power difference is quite clear and it’s the main driver in his overall offensive success:

Screenshot 2016-06-09 at 12.42.19 PM

The power went away in 2014 and 2015 and his offense dipped, but now it’s back and things are great. Old Longoria lives! Well, he does and he doesn’t. There are a few key differences between old Longoria and current Longoria.

First, he’s become a fly ball heavy hitter this year to a degree we haven’t seen before.

Screenshot 2016-06-09 at 12.46.35 PM

Second, his swing rate increased starting in 2014, but this year his contact has started to fall off:

Screenshot 2016-06-09 at 12.53.56 PM

He’s also going the other way less often than during any year of his career:

Screenshot 2016-06-09 at 12.56.19 PM

Put it all together and you have less contact and a higher percentage of pulled fly balls. This is exactly what you might expect from someone trying to add power into his game. In this sense, Longoria is not back to his old ways, he’s taking a new path to his old production. Longoria’s game suffered when his power took a hit, and he’s done what he’s needed to do to add it back this season.

It’s also worth noting that if you compare his average exit velocity, both overall and on only fly balls/line drives, he’s hitting the ball with more authority in 2016 than he did in 2015. That doesn’t mean much on it’s own, but it does let us feel a little more confident that this isn’t simply statistical noise.

This is a different path to the same power, but what we want to know is if it’s a sustainable path to that power. Let’s grab the five most recent years (2011-2015) and look at players with fly ball rates above 45%, opposite field rates below 22%, and contact rates below 75% (min. 1000 PA).

2011-2015 with > 45 FB%, < 22 Oppo%, < 75 Contact%
Name PA FB% Oppo% Contact% ISO wRC+
Brandon Moss 1913 48.6 % 21.2 % 71.1 % 0.230 123
Josh Willingham 2013 45.9 % 18.2 % 74.3 % 0.216 121
Chris Carter 1923 49.3 % 21.6 % 64.9 % 0.239 113
Jonny Gomes 1654 48.8 % 20.3 % 73.7 % 0.166 105
Dan Uggla 2137 45.0 % 17.0 % 70.7 % 0.176 95
Mike Zunino 1055 47.5 % 20.1 % 67.6 % 0.160 71
Min. 1000 PA

The cut points are somewhat arbitrary, but capture the kind of hitter Longoria has been during this season. Of course, baseball is never simple and provides us with a list that consists of half good outcomes and half bad outcomes. Moss, Willingham, and Carter all sustained good power and solidly above average production, but Gomes, Uggla, and Zunino offer an alternative theory. Longoria has his defense on which to fall back if he winds up a Gomes rather than a Moss, but there are no great players on this list.

Longoria has played like a 6 WAR player so far this season despite demonstrating an unusual hitting profile that doesn’t seem to attach itself to great players. This isn’t to say Longoria cannot exist as a great player with his current approach, just that recent history offers us no such comparables. The same is essentially true for single seasons during the period in question.

Single Seasons 2011-2015, > 45 FB%, <22 Oppo%, < 75 Contact%
Season Name PA FB% Oppo% Contact% ISO wRC+
2014 Chris Carter 572 51.4 % 21.9 % 65.3 % 0.264 122
2014 Brandon Moss 580 48.7 % 20.6 % 73.3 % 0.204 121
2011 Carlos Pena 606 47.3 % 18.5 % 70.0 % 0.237 121
2011 Mark Reynolds 620 47.8 % 15.2 % 64.9 % 0.262 116
2015 Colby Rasmus 485 51.6 % 20.2 % 70.2 % 0.236 115
2013 Chris Carter 585 46.8 % 18.7 % 65.4 % 0.227 112
2012 Dan Uggla 630 46.4 % 20.1 % 70.1 % 0.164 104
2013 Yoenis Cespedes 574 45.6 % 21.8 % 73.6 % 0.202 102
2013 Josh Willingham 471 45.2 % 16.4 % 72.9 % 0.159 101
2015 Brandon Moss 526 47.1 % 20.1 % 71.9 % 0.181 94
2011 J.P. Arencibia 486 49.8 % 21.1 % 74.0 % 0.219 91
2013 Dan Uggla 537 47.1 % 16.4 % 66.8 % 0.183 91
2014 Mike Zunino 476 49.5 % 19.0 % 66.4 % 0.205 87
Min. 400 PA

Evan Longoria is having a fantastic start to his 2016 and given that his results look an awful lot like old Longoria, it’s easy to believe he’s back to his pre-2014 levels. But if you look a little deeper, you’ll notice that his contact rate, batted ball types, and batted ball direction are different than they were in his heyday. And if you examine the players who have had those batted ball profiles for a season or for several seasons, you won’t find elite players. You can be a quality hitter with Longoria’s current approach, but none of the names are terribly encouraging if you’re chasing MVP-level production.

Perhaps the Rays will be happy with a version of Brandon Moss that plays good defense at third base, given that such a player would be plenty valuable, but if they’re dreaming on this version of Longoria continuing to hit like old Longoria, recent history suggests they’re probably going to be disappointed.

Neil Weinberg is the Site Educator at FanGraphs and can be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44.

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Funny how Trout will likely finish the year as the leader in WAR since 2008. At this time in 2008, Trout was on summer vacation between his junior and senior years of high school.