Is it possible to be disappointed in Evan Longoria? He's one of the best young hitters and defenders in all of baseball, he's improved his game every year in the majors, and he's signed to a contract that will keep him here through 2016. He has been the savior of our franchise and yet, at the end of the 2010 season, I found myself feeling like he'd come up short.
I fully admit that this is an odd feeling. No matter what statistic you look at - old school or new school - Longoria had a heck of a year in 2010. He had over 100 runs batted in and a .294 batting average; he improved his walk rate to a career high while lowering his strikeout rate for the third year in a row; he hit more line drives and fewer groundballs, cutting down on the number of double plays he hit into; he had 46 doubles and five triples, both career highs; and as always, his fielding was superb. If Wins Above Replacement is a stat you like, he had anywhere from a 6.9 WAR (FanGraphs) to a 7.7 WAR (Baseball-Reference) - making him a justifiable candidate for the best player in the American League*.
*For reference, Josh Hamilton clocked in at 8.0 WAR (FanGraphs) and 6.0 WAR (Baseball-Reference). The differences stem from the way both sites calculate defensive value.
And yet, despite all this, I'm baffled by Longoria's power production this season. When every other aspect of his game improved, Longoria's power decreased for the third season in a row. Again, no matter if you prefer old or new statistics, the results look the same:
It's good to remember that even though his power has decreased, a .507 slugging percentage and a .213 isolated power are still incredible. He was the 32nd most powerful hitter in the majors this season - hitting a total of 73 extra base hits - so if this is the one thing we can critique about him, then we've brought nitpicking to a whole new level.
That said, should we be worried about Longoria's drop in homerun production this season? He hit 33 homeruns in 2009, and yet only reached 22 homeruns this season in an equal number of plate appearances. Why are we seeing this drop in power?
The first place I decided to check was Longoria's homerun spray chart. Has something noticeably changed between 2009 and 2010? Is he hitting balls in different locations? Did he hit lots of lucky, short homeruns in 2009?
According to Hit Tracker, Longoria's homeruns in 2009 averaged 395 feet, while his homeruns this past season averaged 405 feet. He also hit his homeruns harder this year, with them coming off the bat at a higher initial velocity (104.5 MPH to 103.3 MPH). Longoria did seem to get "lucky" in 2009 - with multiple homeruns sneaking in down the left field line - but at the same time, he displayed more power to all fields than he did this season.
The homerun chart is interesting, but I couldn't draw many conclusions from it all by itself. Did Longoria hit fewer balls hard in 2010? Does his spray chart show less total power to centerfield and rightfield as well?
That's really tough to read. My impression - although feel free to draw your own from those images - is that in 2010, Longoria hit less deep balls to rightfield and (slightly less) to centerfield. At the same time, he still peppered the outfield with hits and sprayed his hits all over the field; he's still a very balanced hitter.
Where does this leave us?
Since the spray charts didn't tell us much - except that Longoria didn't hit as many short homeruns down the left field line and he hit with less power to center and right - I have a hypothesis. Looking at the pitch types that Longoria saw this season, pitchers were throwing him more fastballs and sliders than they have in the past. It wasn't a large increase - only a percentage point or two - but if pitchers found Longoria's weaknesses, then maybe they executed their plan better and limited his power.
I think we all know what Longoria's money pitch is: a fastball in under the hands. Longo drops his bat on inside pitches and can crush them to left field, and it looks like pitchers have all but stopped throwing Longoria inside. Instead, they're attacking him away, especially with fastballs high in the zone and with sliders down and away. He has a tough time laying off of either pitch - look at the location of his swinging strikes in comparison with his homeruns - and he's not good at driving them.
This hypothesis could be a load of crock - evaluating pitching is notoriously tough - but it seems reasonably plausible to me. If Longoria wants to increase his power production, he should spend time this off-season working on driving pitches on the outside part of the plate - preferably to rightfield. It's unlikely that pitchers are going to start pitching him inside again, so it's up to him to adjust his swing.
Remember, though: we have such high expectations for Longoria, and he's already met and exceeded nearly every single one. Don't let his one relative "weak" spot make him less of a player in your eyes. He's still our superstar.