Evan Longoria has been a good player for a long time. Since debuting with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2008, the 33-year-old third baseman has bashed 289 home runs, been awarded three Gold Gloves, and garnered MVP votes in six separate seasons. A three-time All-Star, he’s been worth 50.4 WAR.
The extent to which his best days are behind him is difficult to determine. Longoria hasn’t been as productive since joining the San Francisco Giants prior to last season, but he’s showing signs of a revival. Going into the All-Star break, he was 10 for his last 25, with a pair of doubles and five home runs.
Longoria sat down to talk hitting prior to a recent game at Petco Park.
David Laurila: A number of hitters have told me they go up to the plate hunting fastballs. Does that describe your approach, as well?
Evan Longoria: “It starts there. I think if you look around the league, the top pitchers have an ability to locate a fastball. Commanding the zone early with a fastball is a big reason they’re successful, so as a hitter it makes sense to stay on that.
“On a very basic level, my approach is … over the course of my career, I’ve had a lot of success hitting the ball from gap to gap. That’s kind of where I start, but then it changes every day based on a few, if not a bunch of, factors. The starting pitcher that day has a lot to do with it. Sometimes it’s the way I’m feeling, both physically and mentally. Where the defense is positioned … sometimes, if you’re feeling really good, you pick your spot to try to beat the shift, or hit a hole.
“Velocity has a lot to do with it, too. Against guys who are in the upper 90s, you really have to look for one pitch; you have to stay on the fastball even more. Against guys with a little less velocity, you can kind of sit on those in-between speeds and make adjustments from there.”
Laurila: Regardless of how good you’re feeling at the plate, controlling where you hit the ball is easier said than done.
Longoria: “It is hard, obviously. If we could all do that, there would be a lot more hits happening in major league baseball right now. The shift percentage for teams is so high — a lot of times, half the field is open — and we’re only able to do it 20-30% of the time.”
Laurila: Do you get shifted a lot?
Longoria: “I get shifted a ton. Most of the time, with less than two strikes, the majority of the infield is on the left side, and the first baseman is kind of over in the four-hole. Sometimes teams will slide back and forth — everybody has different defensive philosophies — but yeah, by and large I’m getting shifted.”
Laurila: What is your approach against the shift? Joey Gallo told me that he basically ignores it.
Longoria: “Joey Gallo can also hit the ball 500 feet. He’s usually just trying to go right through the shift, and over the fence. I read a snippet from what I think was Ken Ravizza’s last book. He had a long conversation with Albert Pujols, and asked him about that. Pujols said he doesn’t even think about the shift. He’s just going to try to hit the ball hard, and if they’re standing there, he can’t affect that. He doesn’t want to change what makes him successful.”
Laurila: From a mental skills perspective, you don’t want to let the other team get you out of your comfort zone…
Longoria: “Hitting really comes down to that. We work so hard on the mechanics. There is all the preparation, with the video and all of the numbers sheets. But really, if you don’t have any confidence when you go to the plate, it’s going to be hard to hit. The more you can build yourself up, and continue to be confident — no matter where you are; if you’re getting results or not — the better off you are. You need to maintain that positive mentality.”
Laurila: As players get older, their physical skills inevitably begin to erode. Are you finding yourself having to make adjustments to counteract that?
Longoria: “The simple answer to that is… I’ve had to make some adjustments to my position in the box, and to what I’m thinking going into an at-bat, to put myself in the best position to hit. As a younger player, there’s a lot more see-and-react. Your raw ability can help you through some situations where you’re maybe a little bit late, or in a little bit of a bad position, when the ball is coming toward you. So yeah, that happens. We all find ways to figure that out.”
Laurila: Have you had to make adjustments based on how pitchers are attacking hitters in general? That’s changed in recent years.
Longoria: “I think that goes back to the shift. Guys are pitching more to get guys to hit into the shift, so there’s definitely some adjustment there.”
Laurila: High fastballs have also become a prominent attack plan.
Longoria: “They have, and if I’m understanding my swing right, my hole is hard up and in. I understand that pitchers want to attack me there. Plan One is to lay off of that pitch, but there’s more that goes into it. You need to get on top of that ball, which means you have to get yourself into a good position to hit it.”
Laurila: A question I’ve asked a lot is whether hitting is more of an art, or more of a science.
Longoria: “There’s not a clear-cut answer to that. Nowadays, there’s a lot more science that goes into hitting. There are a lot more guys who have made adjustments to their swings based on analytics. And that’s helped them. But I think the the art form part of it … when you get in the box, you have to be able to slow the game down and process all of the information you have. You have to understand situations and sequences, and how pitchers are going to pitch you.
“When you get in the box, there’s no algorithm. There’s no perfect swing that is going to get a base hit for you every time. You still have to understand all of the things I’d [categorize] as art. You can have all of the correct information in the world, but you still have to execute. In order to do that, you need to go up there with a clear mind.”
Laurila: What haven’t we covered that’s especially important to you? What is the good question I haven’t asked?
Longoria: “I don’t know if there is one, but I can say that the question we all ask ourselves is, ‘Why is it so hard to hit?’ Why have averages gone down, and strikeouts gone up? There are some answers. For one, the shift makes it harder; there are guys playing in positions they weren’t 10 years ago. It used to be that if you hit a ball up the middle, it was a hit. Well, there are no more hits up the middle of the field. There’s always somebody standing there.”
Laurila: Hitting the ball back through the middle used to be part of Hitting 101.
Longoria: “It did, and I think that’s one of the reasons we’re seeing the younger generation of hitters being pretty successful, pretty quickly. They’ve been playing the current style of baseball coming up through the minor leagues. They better-understand shifts. They’ve also been hitting higher velocity coming up through the minor leagues. Guys are throwing harder than when I came up.
“The game has definitely evolved. Guys are used to seeing multiple pitchers in their first two at-bats. We have openers now. A lot of things have changed, and the younger generation has been a part of those changes. Ten or 15 years ago, you might have seen more young players struggle early on, while today the young players have been groomed to the style of play we’re seeing now. That’s not to say it makes the game easier, but they’re more comfortable.
“When I was in the minor leagues, I never saw video; I never saw a detailed scouting report. I never saw any of that until I got to the big leagues, and even then it was very sparse. There are so many tools in the minor leagues now, and that’s helping players develop more quickly. They’re able to integrate into the game more easily than in the past.”
Earlier “Talks Hitting” interviews can found within these links: Nolan Arenado, Cavan Biggio, Matt Chapman, Paul DeJong, Rick Eckstein, Drew Ferguson, Joey Gallo, Mitch Haniger, Michael Lorenzen, Daniel Murphy, Fernando Tatis Jr., Jesse Winker.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.