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Evan Longoria: Baseball's reverse-Samson

Bye-bye beard, hello hits?

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at New York Yankees Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

You know where this article is starting.

After rocking a mighty beard for the first two and a half weeks of the 2017 season, Evan Longoria trimmed down to a casual stubble before Wednesday’s game, a move that many folks read as an attempt to shake things up for the veteran righty, as he was slashing just .200/.308/.345 before Wednesday’s game against Detroit.

Well, like some sort of bizarro-world Samson, Evan Longoria showed (for one night at least) that cutting his (facial) hair was enough to restore his powers as the Rays’ most potent bat. Longoria went 3-for-5 with a double and three RBI in an 8-7 win for the Rays. It was the first multi-hit game of the season for Longoria and his first three-hit game on the season as a whole. Longoria also broke a streak of 13 straight games with a strikeout (basically, the reverse-Mookie Betts).

While it was great to see Longo back to where we expect him for one evening, is it likely to last?

With the necessary small sample size caveat, let’s take a look at some of the metrics bubbling under the surface of a .237/.343/.390 slash line in 2017.

Plate Discipline

As has been covered before, strikeout rate is the first hitter statistic to “stabilize”—with stabilization defined as reaching the point where the observed stat should be about 50% signal and 50% noise—in a young season and walks are the second, so it makes sense to start here.

It’s a little good news/bad news for Longoria on the 2017 plate discipline front. We’ll go bad news first. Longoria’s strikeout rate is higher than it has ever been before, and more troubling, this is the fourth-straight season he has seen his strikeout rate increase per FanGraphs (all data this article from FanGraphs unless stated otherwise).

Evan Longoria Plate Discipline

Year BB% K% O-Swing% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% SwStr%
Year BB% K% O-Swing% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% SwStr%
2014 8.1 19.0 30.6 84.7 77.2 45.3 10.7
2015 7.6 19.7 30.6 84.9 78.4 44.9 10.1
2016 6.1 21.0 33.7 83.2 75.4 45.2 11.9
2017 14.3 31.4 29.7 73.8 68.7 40.7 13.8

Longoria just passed over the stabilization point a few games ago when it comes to strikeout rate, but that obviously doesn’t mean he is locked into that 31.4 percent K rate, it just means we shouldn’t write it off entirely. What is interesting about Longoria is that he has actually bounced back a bit in terms of swinging at pitches out of the zone.

Longoria’s 2016 O-Swing% (percentage of pitches outside of the strike zone that Longoria swung at) was a bit troubling, but that hasn’t been an issue so far in 2017. What has been an issue is his overall contact rate, which can be seen above as well. The chart above only goes back four years, but I can tell you that the 2017 contact rate and swinging strike rate are career worsts, by far. If we head over to Brooks Baseball for some visuals, it becomes more evident what type of pitches Longoria is struggling with:

Longoria’s whiff rate on both hard pitches and breaking pitches are both at career-high levels in 2017. Considering those are the two types of pitches Longoria sees most often (per Brooks Baseball), it’s no surprise his K rate is so high right now. This could certainly be a fluke given we’re not even out of April, but it’s worth keeping an eye on with Longoria past 30 now.

Now for the (brief) good news. Going back to the first chart on Longoria, it’s great to see a bounce back in walk rate from the 31-year-old. Longoria’s walk rate was a troubling 6.1 percent in 2016, and while he still had a great campaign, there were times he was unnecessarily extending the zone and helping pitchers out. It also meant that last season although Longo had his best batting average since 2012, his on-base percentage was actually the worst of his career. Longo’s 2017 OBP (.343) is nearly identical to his career OBP (.344) - a definitive good sign.

Batted Ball Profile

Let’s break this into two parts: what category of contact Longoria is making/how hard Longoria is making that contact. One part trends well for Longoria, the other not so much. This time let’s tackle the good news first.

Longoria is hitting the ball hard in 2017. Longo has a hard hit ball rate of 42.1 percent and a line drive rate of 34.2 percent, both of which would be career highs if they held. We’re very early in the season, but it can’t hurt to be hitting the ball hard. Longo’s line drive rate ranks seventh among qualified hitters this season, and only one of the players listed above him (Miguel Cabrera) has a lower BABIP, so it’s fair to say Longo has gotten a bit unlucky so far this season. However, as one Harvey Dent once said, “I make my own luck.”

Longoria has made a bit of his own bad luck this season, which is the smoothest way I can think to transition into the second part of Longo’s 2017 batted ball profile.

Evan Longoria Batted Ball Profile

Year LD% GB% FB% IFFB% Hard%
Year LD% GB% FB% IFFB% Hard%
2013 18.6 36.9 44.5 4.4 41.3
2014 20.4 39.0 40.6 8.4 32.1
2015 20.6 39.0 40.4 10.8 30.8
2016 21.4 31.9 46.8 11.6 36.3
2017 34.2 39.5 26.3 30.0 42.1

An infield fly ball rate that is higher than his actual fly ball rate. How is that going for you, Longoria?

Longoria’s fly ball rate has plummeted so far this season, a troubling trend for a hitter who is fresh off a 36-homer campaign. Now the part of this news that isn’t quite as bad is that it appears that at least some of those fly balls are being turned over into line drives instead of ground balls. Longoria’s ground ball rate is up a bit from last season, but last season was a bit of an aberration, this current ground ball rate is right about where Longo has been for most of his career. And while the infield fly balls are death to Longo’s current statistics, it would be shocking to see Longoria post a season-long IFFB% of 30.0%. He has never finished above 11.6% before, and no one in baseball has finished above 26.7% over the course of an entire season during this millennium. Longoria has, however, been trending towards a higher and higher infield fly ball rate over the past four seasons (see: chart above), and one to has to wonder whether there is anything fundamentally different about his swing that is leading to this increase in pop-up rate.

Brief Scouting Look

I’m not a baseball scout. That being said, here’s a slow-motion swing from Longoria in 2013 (4.4 percent infield fly ball rate):

Here’s a slow-motion swing from Longoria in 2017 (30.0 percent infield fly ball rate):

This may be confirmation bias, but to the naked eye it looks as though Longoria’s hands are a little lower in the second gif. In the 2013 gif, Longo seems to go out of his way to keep his hands above the “Rays” on his uniform until the very last second. In the 2017 gif, it appears as though they dip slightly earlier.

This could be due to innumerable factors. This is one swing from one season, we’re working in the smallest of samples here. That said, it is four straight seasons of increasing pop ups from Longo, and while Longoria did still manage to have a pretty great season alongside a career-high pop-up rate in 2016, it’s not a trend that can continue much longer if Longoria wants to play into his late 30s.

Conclusion

All things considered, it was great to see Longo have a breakout day on Wednesday since there are certainly some signs (some more legitimate than others) of potential pitfalls for the Rays third baseman. At the same time, we have the tiny sample size caveat lingering over all of this, and Longo does indeed seem to still be hitting the ball as hard as anyone on the Rays. A little luck the other way, and we could be talking about just how great Longo’s 30s could be. Keep an eye on the pop-up rate and the contact rate, but Longo should still be a mighty useful hitter in 2017.