Just one year after signing a $135.6 million contract extension, considered a "team friendly" deal, Evan Longoria's performance cratered in a disappointing 2014 season.
Before that season, he had been the picture of consistency, posting at least 128 wRC+ each year since 2008 before dropping to 107 in 2014. Some fans panicked, and felt that the Rays had just committed a large sum of money to an overrated player. Others believed this was a bad stretch, and that Longoria should return to being a superstar in 2015. Either way, this season would be crucial in determining if he could bounce back to his elite levels of production.
During this offseason, I explored possible reasons for the 2014 slump. Based on whiff rates and batted ball distributions on pitches faster than 94 mph, I concluded that Longoria may be losing bat speed, which would be crippling to his offensive production. While I was hopeful for a rebound in 2015, I wasn't too optimistic, and I thought that 2014 was going to be the beginning of the end of Longoria's elite seasons.
Instead of continuing to slide, Longoria has been one of the few bright spots this year on a team with severe offensive woes. His wRC+ climbed back up to 133, and he has boosted his OBP from .320 to .370. While it may look like he has righted the ship, some concerns still remain. Let's look at two possible arguments about what to make of his start to this season.
Arguments for a rebound
Last season Longoria chased more pitches out of the strike zone, raising his O-Swing% from 25.0% to 31.6%. While this didn't lead to more strikeouts, it did contribute to Longoria getting into an 0-2 count on 21.7% of his plate appearances. When a batter reaches an 0-2 count, their batting average drops considerably; hitters are obviously much more likely to strike out, and are also more likely to make defensive swings that result in weaker contact.
However, in 2015 Longoria has brought his chase rate down to 27.1%, and while his strikeout rate has increased, he has found himself in fewer 0-2 counts this year - dropping to 15.3% of his plate appearances. This helps explain the higher batting average this season, and falls in line with his 0-2 count rates during his best seasons.
In addition to better plate discipline, Longoria's hard hit ball rate has increased as well. The chart below shows Longoria's hard hit rates, compared to the league average.
As Jeff Zimmerman points out in a RotoGraphs article, hard hit rates are important in determining BABIP. This makes sense, because a harder hit ball goes for a hit much more often than a weak one. Mark Simon's work with hard hit rates suggests that hard hit balls have a batting average of over .700, which would greatly increase a player's BABIP.
So far, Longoria has increased his BABIP from .285 in 2014 to .327 this season. Since his career BABIP is .302, it's likely that his BABIP this season will regress, but his hard hit rate this season suggests that regression down to last season's rate is unlikely. If he can hold onto some of the increase in BABIP, his batting average will increase (relative to last season) and he will be more productive as a hitter.
In my previous article, I cited a low dWAR as the main cause for his low WAR total last year. His UZR/150 collapsed from 16.2 in 2013 to -0.6 in 2014. At 28 years old, he was far too young for his defensive skills to drop so drastically, so I suggested that his dWAR and UZR numbers would return in 2015.
As of last Friday, Longoria's UZR/150 was 12.0. This has coincided with a 0.4 dWAR, substantially higher than the -0.1 dWAR he posted in 2014. Because of this, his overall WAR total this year should be greater. We can't be certain if this is from a legitimate rebound in defensive skill, or the metrics didn't "like him" last year. Either way, it's encouraging to see that he is still an above average defender.
While his plate discipline and defensive metrics have undoubtedly improved, there are still some aspects that suggest that he hasn't fully returned to form.
Arguments against a rebound
While it isn't often referenced because it can't be measured concretely yet, bat speed is crucial to a hitter's success. It's often only referenced when a hitter is losing bat speed, and fans and analysts start to panic. Losing bat speed could cause more whiffs on fast pitches, and more weak hits to the opposite field.
To check his bat speed, I had previously looked at Longoria's performance on pitches above 94 mph. Over the past four years, his whiff rate on these pitches has been increasing, as shown in the image below. This suggests that Longoria's bat speed has been slowing down, and he can no longer catch up to these pitches.
Here's the same image, with his 2015 rate added.
Longoria is still whiffing on fast pitches more than he did during his days as an All-Star. We can't draw too many conclusions from a seven weeks of data, but so far, it doesn't look good.
In addition to an increasing whiff rate, Longoria's distribution of balls in play on these fast pitches has been more concentrated in right field, indicating that he is late and can't catch up to them. Looking at his distribution in 2015, he doesn't have enough balls in play to draw meaningful conclusions.
However, when lowering the velocity minimum to 92 mph, there is more data, and you can start to get an idea of what's happening.
Even including pitches of a lower velocity, Longoria's spray patterns still look the same.
The line drives hit to left field are encouraging, but the overall trend indicates that there is still a cause for concern. He doesn't appear to be able to drive fast pitches up the middle or into left field as much as he could when he was younger. While hitting more balls to the opposite field may not seem like a problem, balls that are pulled have a significantly higher BABIP and AVG.
Despite Longoria's fast start, my expectations for him haven't changed too much. His defensive metrics as measured in WAR calculations have rebounded to normal levels, and will likely cause him to see an increase in overall WAR this year. Longo has also shown better plate discipline in 2015, which will help him continue to be a solid contributor as he ages.
On the flip side, it will be important to see what comes with that aging. Longoria's spray charts and whiff rates still make me think that he is losing bat speed. This is concerning, and is something to watch as this season progresses.
Regardless, Evan Longoria will still be a solid contributor for the Rays.
Statistics are from FanGraphs, dWAR is from Baseball Reference, spray charts are from Baseball Savant.