Evan Longoria was drafted third overall in the 2006 MLB Draft, and spent only three years in the minor leagues before being called up to the majors. He took the league by storm, being selected as an All-Star in each of his first three seasons. Even with minor derailments by injuries in the next few years, Longoria has established himself as one of the best players in the league.
Relative to his previous performance, Longoria had a disappointing season in 2014. Despite playing in all 162 games, he managed only 22 home runs, and posted a .253/.320/.404 slash line. His .253 batting average was the second lowest of his career, while his slugging and on base percentage were both career lows. According to Baseball Reference and Fangraphs, he totaled just half as much WAR in 2014 than he did in 2013 - putting him behind players like Marlins outfielder Marcell Ozuna and Twins third baseman Trevor Plouffe.
However, his WAR in 2014 is misleading. Much of the cause for the decrease is due to a drop in his dWAR, the defensive component of WAR. According to B-Ref, his dWAR was -0.2 in 2014, where he'd routinely accrued more than 2.0 dWAR in past seasons. Likewise, Fangraphs scored Longoria's defense as a 1.2 on their scale, when he'd notched above 14 in all but his injured 2012 season. At age 29, an erosion of defensive skills wouldn't be expected this early. Metrics should see his defense return in 2015.
Longoria was interviewed on MLB Now last November, and was optimistic about the potential for the Rays to have a bounce-back season in 2015. However, can Longoria himself rebound next season? Looking at his 2014 performance, I believe that a rebound back to his All-Star form is unlikely.
Throughout his career, Longoria has shown a great batting eye and knowledge of the strike zone. His K-rate has routinely been better than league average, and he chases pitches at a below-league average rate as well.
However, Longoria appeared to change his approach at the plate in 2014, and became more aggressive. He started swinging more often, and as a result, started swinging more at pitches that were outside of the strike zone.
While we'd like to think that Longoria could make solid contact on pitches outside the strike zone, the numbers suggest otherwise. His contact rate on these pitches has been below average for his career.
This approach has clear consequences. Swinging and missing more often puts Longoria in more unfavorable counts. He fell behind 0-2 on 21.7% of his plate appearances last year, which was the most since his rookie season. These counts are obviously advantageous for the pitcher, and make it much harder for Longoria to be successful.
Fly Ball Distance
Longoria's home run total fell from 32 in 2013 to 22 in 2014, which is alarming when you consider that he is still in the prime of his career. Many things could have caused this drop - injury, being unlucky, or a change in his approach at the plate. However, the data suggests that this was caused by a decrease in his average fly ball distance.
When analyzing fly ball distance data like this, it is important to consider it in conjunction with the player's HR/FB rate. Trends in a player's HR/FB rate should follow that of their average fly ball distance. For example, a player whose fly ball distance is below league average but still manages to have a high HR/FB rate is likely due for regression in the following season.
In Longoria's case, his HR/FB rate trends closely with his average fly ball distance, which is illustrated in the following graph.
This graph has a lot going on, so let's break it down. First, Longoria's average fly ball distance, shown by the solid blue line, has been decreasing over his career. When there were discrepancies between his HR/FB rate and his average fly ball distance, like in 2010, a correction followed in the next year. In 2014, both his HR/FB rate and his average fly ball distance drop down to close to the league averages.
Based on Longoria's trends, I believe that this loss of power for Longoria is here to stay. There was no discrepancy between these two measures in 2014, indicating his low HR/FB rate is legitimate. I think he can still put up at least 20 home runs each season, but it appears that his years of 30+ home runs are gone.
In addition to a decreasing average fly ball distance, Longoria has shown signs of decreasing bat speed, which is a serious concern. Without Hit F/X data, we can't track Longoria's bat speed with concrete values. However, we can use his performance on fastballs above 94 mph as a proxy to estimate his bat speed. First, we can look at whiffs on these fastballs.
This graph shows that the number of times Longoria has swung and missed on this type of pitch has been increasing over the past four years. While it isn't a perfect measure, it seems to suggest that Longoria has been losing the ability to catch up to these especially fast pitches, which may be a result of decreased bat speed.
Additionally, we can look at Longoria's distribution of hits over this same four-year span.
2011 and 2012 Hit Maps
2013 and 2014 Hit Maps
Looking at the hit maps for Longoria on pitches above 94 mph, we see a gradual skew toward the right side of the field.
This suggests to me that his decreased bat speed causes him to be late on the pitches, which results in him hitting them to the right side of the field and not being able to pull the ball to the same degree. While this could be a result of seeing more outside pitches, and hitting them to the opposite field, his heat maps don't support this theory.
A loss of bat speed can be very detrimental to a hitter. As shown above, slower bat speed can cause a hitter to be late on especially fast pitches, and end up swinging and missing.
Simple physics also tells us that a slower bat speed will exert less force on the ball, resulting in less force acting on the ball in the opposite direction. This may be the difference between a line drive that a shortstop snags at shoulder height, and a line drive into left field for a hit.
Lastly, decreased bat speed can prevent batters from pulling the ball. While this may sound trivial, batters have significantly better performance on pitches that they pull, compared to those that they hit to the opposite field. This table shows the difference between the two directions in 2014.
What does this all mean?
Overall, I believe that Longoria should experience positive regression in the field, but I'm not convinced it will be enough to make up for his worsening plate discipline, loss of fly ball distance, and possible loss of bat speed. However, that is not to say that Longoria will become a replacement-level or mediocre third baseman. The Rays are committed to pay Longoria close to $122 million through 2022, and should expect a great value in return.
I believe that Longoria can still rack up close to 4.0 or 5.0 WAR over the next few seasons, and continue to be a solid producer for the Rays. While I really hope I'm wrong, I think that Longoria's days of 7.0 WAR and All-Star production are most likely behind him.
Statistics used in this article are from Fangraphs, Baseball Reference, Baseballsavant.com and Baseballheatmaps.com.