The Rays lineup and even the entire Rays team revolves around Evan Longoria. After Longoria went down with an oblique injury in early April of 2011, the Rays lineup was absolutely execrable, leading to a 1-8 start to the season before Sam Fuld‘s superhuman run began. When Longoria returned but wasn’t at full strength in May, the Rays were just one game over .500, but when he began playing better they improved as a team in June. But a sub-par month by Longoria in July after suffering an ankle injury led to sub-.500 month in July. However, with Longoria at full strength in August and September, hitting 17 home runs, including two on the season’s final day, as the Rays rallied to go 35-20 in the final two months to overtake the Red Sox and make the postseason. Can Longoria be the outstanding middle of the lineup presence that the Rays need to consistently win games?
Longoria’s final numbers in 2011 were good, but not up to the high standards Longoria has set for himself. In 133 games, Longoria posted a .244/.355/.495 line with 26 doubles, 31 homers, 99 RBI, 78 runs, and just 3 stolen bases. The previous three seasons, Longoria averaged 143 games played, a .283/.361/.521 line, 40 doubles, 27 homers, 101 RBI, 88 runs, and 10 stolen bases per season. We see that Longoria hit for more homers than he usually does in 2011, but otherwise he was worse all the way around. Can Longoria get back to at least his previous levels?
We know that Longoria was slowed down by oblique and ankle injuries in 2011. But how did those injuries manifest themselves statistically? The obvious measure was that it decreased his batting average. According to Baseball-Reference, just 16% of Longoria’s batted balls were line drives compared to his previous career average of 21%. Basically what happened was that when Longoria got a mistake pitch, he was still able to drive the ball and hit for great power, but he didn’t have the strength to muscle better pitches for line drives. The other factor that brought Longoria’s batting average down was speed. We saw that Longoria stole just 3 stolen bases in 2011 after averaging 10 steals per season every other season of his career. Speed also manifests itself in terms of batting average. The faster you are, the more infield singles you are able to beat out. The past few seasons, the league BAbip (batting average on balls in play) on groundballs was around .240. For Longoria in his career, his BAbip is a somewhat lower at .228. (Somewhat surprisingly, the Rays had just a .226 BAbip on groundballs in 2011 despite so many speedy players, an indication of bad luck because between their speed and the fact that a lot of groundballs are well-placed and go through to the outfield even if they’re not hit very hard.) In any event, we would expect Longoria to at least have a BAbip on groundballs somewhere near his career BAbip on groundballs of .228. But we see that because of his injuries, Longoria could not run out as many grounders and ended up with a .190 BAbip on grounders. With Longoria healthy, that’s something that should change as we know he’ll be hustling out every grounder like every player on the Rays does.
But it wasn’t just the grounders. In 2011, Longoria posted just a .239 BAbip, well below the MLB average of .294 and his previous career average of .321. A lower line drive accounted for a lot of that, but there were more factors at work here. We see that Longoria’s BAbip on groundballs was lower than usual. The MLB BAbip on flyballs was .137 in 2011 while the BAbip on flyballs was .713. For Longoria in his career, his BAbip on flyballs is .123 while his BAbip on line drives is .773. In 2011 for Longoria, his BAbip on flyballs was just .085, one of the lowest marks in the AL, while his BAbip on line drive was .730, not up to par with his career averages. But this isn’t luck. Sure, Longoria may have hit a couple too many bullet line drives right at a fielder or have an outfielder make a tremendous play on a few of his hard-hit flyballs, but this once again stems from Longoria’s injuries. Longoria simply could not hit the ball as hard as consistently. With Longoria healthy for 2012, we can expect that to change.
The entire season in 2011, Longoria never had a month where he hit .300, topping out a .289 in September. The previous three seasons, Longoria had at least two months where he hit .300 each year. Longoria may not be quite a .300 hitter, considering he has topped out at the .294 mark he hit in 2010, but he’s certainly a better pure hitter than the .244 mark he put up in 2011 and we have to expect him to get back to at least .270. In 2011, Longoria actually posted the highest walk rate (13.9% of his plate appearances) and lowest strikeout rate of his career (16.2% of his PA’s), and that was a positive sign (although when he put the ball into play he couldn’t go as much with it as he normally could), but even if he reverts back to his usual rates, his OBP should still be at least .360. And then there’s the matter of slugging percentage, where Longoria seems primed for the highest mark of his career after hitting 31 homers, the second-most of any season in his career, despite his injury problems, and he could finally hit 35 blasts for the first time in his career in 2012. I would also expect him to return to the 40 doubles he averages from 2008-2010 after hitting just 26 in 2011. If Longoria can set a career-high in homers and get back to his average doubles rate, he’ll most certainly put up the highest slugging percentage of his career, possibly as high as .540.
I’m projecting a .285/.370/.540 line for Longoria in 2012 with 40 doubles, 35 homers, 120 RBI, and 10 stolen bases. Factor in Longoria’s always-sparkling defense (even in 2011) and Evan Longoria is one heck of a baseball player. Longoria is always a presence in the middle of the Rays lineup, but when he’s wrecking havoc, the entire team surges. It’s a simple formula: Longoria at his best let’s the rest of the Rays lineup relax knowing that even if they make a mistake Longoria will be there to pick them up, and pitchers always like to know that they’ll have run support coming. A big year by Longoria will be a big inclination of an outstanding year by the Rays. Expect not just a big year by Longoria in 2011, but his best all-around season yet. Everyone knows that Evan Longoria is one of the best players in baseball, and this season he’s going to have the numbers to match.