These Two Veteran Third Basemen Are Smashing the Ball

If you pull up the Statcast batting leaderboards and sort by hard hit rate, the number one player won’t surprise you; it’s Giancarlo Stanton with a full two-thirds of his batted balls hit harder than 95 mph this year. But if you set the minimum batted ball filter to 40 events, the third name on the list is quite surprising: Evan Longoria. The 35-year-old third baseman is putting up some of the most encouraging offensive numbers since his heyday in Tampa Bay. And if you look a little further down, another veteran third-baseman shows up: Kyle Seager, who is carrying much of Seattle’s offense on his shoulders. These two veterans are simply crushing the ball right now and are enjoying late-career resurgences to help their respective teams get off to hot starts in April.

Longoria more than Seager has struggled offensively in the recent past. Since being traded to San Francisco prior to the 2018 season, he’s put up a 93 wRC+ in three seasons, accumulating just 3.1 WAR. That’s a significant step back from the peak of his career when he was widely considered to be one of the best, most consistent third basemen in baseball. After three disappointing years in the Bay area, his Statcast batting profile looks completely different this year. He’s posting career highs in average exit velocity, barrel rate, and hard hit rate leading to the highest power output of his career.

Of course, if you’ve been paying attention to the conversations around the changes in the ball introduced this year, you’d know that nearly every batter is seeing higher exit velocities on their hardest hit balls in play. Here’s what Justin Choi wrote in early April:

“The pressing issue, though, is that inflated exit velocities on batted balls force us to view the improvements of hitters with a rather healthy dose of skepticism. So far into the season, many players have surpassed their previous max EV highs; to my knowledge, 19 of them did so by a margin of 2 or more mph. But how can we tell which of those power surges are genuine? Did they make mechanical adjustments, or are they beneficiaries of the new baseball?”

Before we can properly analyze Longoria or Seager’s improvements, we need to understand the batted ball environment we’re dealing with this year. With maximum exit velocity records being shattered — Longoria hit a ball 113 mph on Monday, 2 mph harder than he’s ever hit a tracked ball in the Statcast era — the knock-on issue is that the league wide hard hit rate is significantly elevated.

The league average hard hit rate is up over two points to 39.7% and the league average barrel rate is up nearly one point to 8.5%. To crudely attempt to account for the changing batted ball environment we find ourselves in this year, I’ve taken Longoria’s hard hit rate and his barrel rate and indexed them against the league averages for those two metrics over the last seven years and then scaled the results to 100 like we would for wRC+ or any other plus or minus stat.

Evan Longoria, Contextualized Batted Ball Data
Year Hard Hit% Hard Hit+ Barrel% Barrel+
2015 40.2 118 8.5 163
2016 41.8 120 12.1 198
2017 32.4 97 5.2 84
2018 36.7 103 7.8 116
2019 40.8 111 7.5 103
2020 45.2 120 11.5 151
2021 63.8 161 19.1 225

This simple method of adjusting based on the changing batted ball environment gives us just a little more context that the raw batted ball data might be lacking during this wacky season. For Longoria, that added context doesn’t really matter since he’s making hard contact so much more often this year. Even with all the elevated hard hit rates across the league, his really stands out. Contextualizing hard hit rates like this doesn’t fully explain the weird results we’re witnessing this year, but it does give us one more piece of information to help us understand what’s going on with these hitters.

Beyond just hitting the ball hard more often, there’s one other noticeable change in Longoria’s batted ball data. When you think of power hitters aging, you might expect to see rising pull rates as these batters attempt to compensate for their slowing bodies. Longoria has always found most of his power to left field — his pull rates throughout his career sit above league average, though not extremely so. This year, his pull rate is the lowest it’s ever been and he’s hitting the ball up the middle and to the opposite side far more often. Three of Longoria’s four home runs this year were hit to right field. Prior to this season, he had all of 25 home runs to right field across 13 seasons. When he’s elevated the ball this year, he’s hit it to right field more often than any other season in his career save one.

Longoria has also enjoyed one significant change in his plate approach. His chase rate has fallen from 29.7% to 21.6% this year. The biggest difference has been a complete refusal to swing at offspeed pitches thrown out of the zone — he’s swung at just one of those pitches this year. His overall swing rate is down a bit but his contact rate is basically unchanged. That new measured approach has resulted in a 15.3% walk rate, a career high for him. He had run high walk rates back when he was playing in Tampa but that patience had waned in recent seasons. With both power and patience fueling his success this year, he looks completely rejuvenated.

One possible reason for his resurgence? A new, lighter bat. He explained his success with his new equipment in a recent post-game media session:

“Just being able to put good swings on the ball, find the barrel and create some bat speed and not feel like I have to really generate a lot extra with having a lighter, smaller bat. I think it just goes back to mechanically being in a really good spot — not having to feel like I’ve got to cheat to certain pitches.”

Whether or not the new bat can explain his success is beyond me, but the results speak for themselves.

Like Longoria, Seager is also posting career highs in average exit velocity, barrel rate, and hard hit rate. Here’s what those rates look like in context.

Kyle Seager, Contextualized Batted Ball Data
Year Hard Hit% Hard Hit+ Barrel% Barrel+
2015 35.3 104 7 135
2016 42.1 121 9 148
2017 33.7 101 8.6 139
2018 39.6 112 5.6 84
2019 39.7 108 8.4 115
2020 39.8 106 10.2 134
2021 52 131 16 188

Seager hasn’t smashed his maximum exit velocity record yet, but he is hitting the ball harder much more often this year. That’s led to the second highest power output of his career and it comes with similar changes to his spray chart.

Since defensive shifting came into vogue a few years ago, Seager has seen more shifts than almost any other batter. This year, he’s seen a shift employed against him 91.4% of the time he’s at bat. Last year, he adjusted his approach to try and combat all the shifts he was seeing and ended up hitting the ball up the middle far more often. But as Devan Fink showed yesterday, hitting the ball up the middle into a shifted defense just doesn’t translate into more hits. This year, Seager adjusted his approach again to avoid the middle of the field by pulling the ball and hitting the ball to the opposite field more often. He generates all his home run power to right field, but he’s collected three doubles to left field so far this year.

Unfortunately, Seager’s season isn’t as wholly encouraging as Longoria’s. Last year, Seager posted the highest walk rate of his career, backed by a more patient approach and a career-low chase rate. His plate discipline has swung wildly in the opposite direction so far this year. His swing and chase rate are both the highest they’ve been in his career and they’re accompanied by a six point drop in contact rate. When he is making contact, he’s crushing the ball, but the plate discipline issues are a big concern, especially after such positive gains just a year ago.

Both the Giants and the Mariners are off to surprisingly good starts this April and these veteran third basemen have been big reasons why. For Longoria, a more patient approach has allowed him to hunt for pitches in the zone and hit them with consistent authority. For Seager, his batted ball improvements have hidden some concerning plate discipline trends. But even when you take this year’s wacky batted ball data into context, these two veteran third basemen have absolutely smashed the ball this year.

Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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Seager typically gets off to a slow start, so this is unusual (with the usual SSS caveats). Over at B-Ref his career tOPS+ by month goes 95 for March/April, 111 for May, 95 again for June, 111 again for July, and then 95 and 92 for August and Sept/Oct. So maybe less a slow starter than one of those frustrating, consistently inconsistent guys.