That question feels strange to type. It's not like Evan Longoria is catching anyone by surprise. His impressive combination of power and contact (good contact% for his high level of power), and his gold glove defense make him an enticing preseason MVP candidate every year. And yet so far this season, Longoria is outproducing all but the most hopeful of expectations. His slash line through 155 plate appearances is .333/.400/.609, good for a .429 wOBA and a 179 wRC+ (fifth best in the majors amongst "qualified batters" per FanGraphs). Longoria's career wRC+ is only (ha!) 138.
Let me get this out of the way right off the bat. The answer is "no, Longoria is not as good as he's looked to start the season." This is a hot streak. All players have them, but if they come at the beginning of the year when there are no other stats to disguise them, we fans notice. Still, there are some intriguing aspects to Longoria's offensive numbers that I think it's worth examining more closely.
First let's talk about sample size. There are two sets of numbers detailing when sample sizes become reliable. Pizza Cutter's study came out a long time ago, and more recently, Russell Carleton (nudge nudge, wink wink) updated the older study with somewhat different methodology. These two studies tell how many plate appearances you need to see before you can start to suppose that observed statistical changes reflect true talent. The number that they give for each stat is the halfway point, where half of the what you see is real, and half is statistical noise.
Note: Someone always says this, so I'll head them off at the pass. Yes, this is an artificial way of looking at stabilization. It would be better to simply regress by the appropriate amounts rather than to look for a point where you can "believe" stats. But do you instantly regress all numbers you see? Because I don't.
Taking a look at Longoria's season to date, there are a few numbers that stand out as immediately discardable:
- Longoria currently has a .374 Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP). His career rate is .306. This stabilizes at well over a season's worth of data. Not real.
- Current average: .333. Career average .279. Average also stabilizes at over a season's worth of data.
- Walk rate and strikeout rate have stabilized by now, but his strikeout rate is nearly identical to his career rate, and his walk rate is a point below his career rate. No improvement there.
- Same deal for HR/FB. Might be stable now, but no improvement.
There is an interesting discrepancy between the two studies, which might matter for Longoria. Pizza cutter found that isolated power stabilized at 550 PAs. But Carleton saw it stabilize at 160 AB. We're not quite to 160 ABs for Evan yet, but we're close (141). If Carleton is right and Pizza Cutter is wrong, it's safe to assume that at least some of Longoria's observed ISO is real, and that would be a good thing for Rays fans. Longoria's career ISO is a very healthy .242, but he's currently ISOing .277 (11th in baseball [among "qualifieds"]).
Any type of improvement is easier to believe when one can point to a change in approach, and that's easy to find with Longoria. Using BIS numbers (PITCHf/x numbers tell a similar story but slightly muted, and a discussion of the difference between them is well beyond my scope here), here are Longoria's Swing% stats. Swing% stabilizes at 50 PAs. I'm not sure how that changes when you break it into zone, but I imagine it's safe to look at now.
Longoria is swinging at fewer pitches overall, but it's not that he's gotten passive. The decrease in Swing-% is almost entirely accounted for by taking pitches outside of the zone. That's great news, and an area where there was room for improvement, as plate discipline has never been Longoria's strong suit. What's more, when Longo does reach for a pitch outside the zone, he's hitting it more often. His O-Contact% is now 69.7% compared with a career 60.6%.
Jason Hanselman (now at Dock of the Rays) observed several years ago that in counts when Longoria made a point of swinging at balls, he was usually pretty good at making contact. This just backs that up even more. Longoria has a better command of the strike zone. He's being fooled less, and when he goes after an outside pitch, it's with a purpose.
Is Longoria really this good? No, not quite. He won't continue this level of hitting. But there's plenty of reason to believe that he really has improved on his already exceptional game. Injury is the only thing likely to stop Longo from being the true franchise player the Rays need.