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Rays season review: Evan Longoria

What went wrong for the Rays' best player?

Brian Blanco

As Evan Longoria goes, so go the Rays. Last year, he was the tenth best third baseman in baseball by fWAR, and that will never do if the Rays are going to be competitive. What went wrong?

PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ BB% K% ISO BABIP
Career 4119 0.271 0.351 0.494 0.361 130 9.8% 20.5% 0.191 0.291
2013 693 0.269 0.343 0.498 0.360 133 10.1% 23.4% 0.230 0.312
2014 700 0.253 0.320 0.404 0.316 107 8.1% 19.0% 0.151 0.285

Well, the only thing that improved was Longoria's strikeout rate. He cut that dramatically from 2013 levels. At the same time, though, he walked less often, and hit the ball dramatically less hard. There was a sense, coming from the Sun Sports broadcast booth, that Longoria was holding back on his swing, trying to shoot the ball to opposite field, but that towards the end of the season he once more began to cut loose on pitches on the inner half of the plate. Sure enough, his highest month for isolated power was September, but the mark Longo posted -- .207 -- was still less than his ISO for the entire 2013 season. What gives?

First off, let's look at where Longoria is hitting the ball. Here are the percentages section of the field.

Pull% Center% Opposite%
Career 40.1 33.9 26.1
2013 38.2 33.7 28.2
2014 41.3 33.4 25.2

Well, that's odd. In 2014, when Longoria was supposedly focusing on shooting the ball the other way, he actually pulled it more. What about results. What was his isolated power to each section of the field?

Pull Center Opposite
Career 0.395 0.212 0.196
2013 0.319 0.26 0.373
2014 0.309 0.104 0.076

Oof. Now here's where it gets ugly. Longoria hit the ball to his pull side with similar authority in 2014 than he did in 2013, but whenever he hit it anywhere else, the result was much worse. Let's try to put this into a visual.


Source: FanGraphs

And:


Source: FanGraphs

The composition is similar. Ground balls and line drives (more of them in 2014) to the pull side, fly balls everywhere else. The biggest difference is in those fly balls. In 2013, Longoria had power to all fields, but this past year, he did not. When he went the other way, the stadium held him. There were a lot of fly outs at the right-center wall.

Now that we know what the results were -- fewer balls to the opposite field, less power to everywhere but the pull side -- let's try to dig into the process a bit more. My favorite tool is Jeff Zimmerman's swing/take heat map, because it lets you compare one year to another of the same player. In these heat maps, comparing Longoria's 2014 with his 2013, a warm color means that he swung more often at a pitch in that location this year than he did the year previous. A cool location means that he swung less often. It's not showing his overall approach. It shows how he changed. All graphs are from the catcher's perspective

First up, fastballs from left-handed pitchers:

Fastballs from right-handed pitchers:

It's pretty clear that Longoria started taking more pitches on the outside edge, while jumping on them in the inner third. Against lefties, these were pitches in his wheelhouse, but against righties, he tended to stray in off the plate, offering at fastballs that were probably difficult to get to.

According to the pitch-type values available at FanGraphs, this was Longoria's worst season hitting the fastball, so I wouldn't say that last year's approach was one he should look to replicate.

Changeups from left-handed pitchers:

Changeups from right-handed pitchers:

How does a changeup move? Down and to the arm side of the pitcher. So the first graph here shows that Longoria was swinging more often at the changeups at the bottom-outside of the zone that were moving below and off the plate. Those are pitchers' pitches. They're exactly where an opposite-handed changeup thrower wants to put them. Bad process, bad result (once more, the worst of his career).

The ones from righties that Longoria swung at more often are also at the bottom and the edge (this time on the inside) of the plate, dropping below it and moving off it. It's likely that these, too, are pitchers' pitches. It's also very likely that if Longoria made contact on these pitches, he pulled the ball. Longo was fooled more often by changeups in 2014, and the result was hits sent to the left side of the diamond and weak fly balls the other way.

Breaking balls from left-handed pitchers:

Breaking balls from right-handed pitchers:

The results on this are a little bit more difficult to interpret. These graphs include both sliders and curves, and if I were to separate them, you would see that Longoria's trends on each are very similar. His results were not. He posted the worst year of his career against sliders (-1.84 runs per hundred pitches), and the best year of his career against curves (3.67 runs per hundred pitches). You can explain it if you'd like, or you can chalk it up to small sample size. I'm not sure quite what to make of it, if anything, but know that the discrepancy is there.

Still, the process is consistent with what we've seen in the earlier graphs, particularly the ones of the fastball. Longoria was not protecting the outside of the plate, where lefties generally mix fastballs and back-door breaking balls. We already know he swung at those fastballs less often, and he also was more likely to take the back-door breaker, both for balls off the plate and for strikes on it. He was more likely to offer at the back-foot breaking ball from a lefty, which is where pitchers go when they want a swinging strike.

Against righties, it was a different story, and one more similar to the changeup graphs. A breaking ball up and in starts out looking like a ball but drops in for a strike. Longoria took those. He offered more, though, at the breaking ball down and away that moves off the plate. Just like the changeups from lefties, this pitch from righties is a pitchers' pitch. If the batter swings, the result is most likely a whiff or a weak ball in play to opposite field. If Longoria made contact, as his low strikeout rate suggests he did, then good for him, but this isn't a pitch he can do much with.

Conclusion

On the whole, Evan Longoria's 2014 was a major disappointment. Despite some discussion to the contrary, he pulled the ball more often than he had in the past, and when he did hit it to center field or to right, his results were extremely poor.

There could be many reasons for this. I'm not capable of breaking down a hitter's mechanics through video, but I'd very much like to read an examination of Longoria by someone who is. What I can tell by looking at changes in Longoria's tendencies is that he was ignoring the pitches most easily hit the other way with authority (fastballs on the outside and back-door breaking balls), and concentrating more on the pitches more likely to be pulled (fastballs inside). At the same time, he was more often fooled into swinging at the pitches most difficult for a right-handed hitter to do anything with (lefty changeups and righty breaking balls down and away). If the goal is power to all fields, 2014 did not feature a process with much hope of achieving it.