In baseball, we hear all about the dreaded “Sophomore Slump.” As Rays fans, we even saw Wade Davis go through it in 2011, leading to his demotion to the bullpen in 2012. But for some reason, Evan Longoria was unaffected by it.
In 2008, Evan Longoria posted a .272/.343/.531 line (.874 OPS, 127 OPS+) with 31 doubles, 27 homers, and 85 RBI as he was unanimously awarded the American League Rookie of the Year Award. In 2009, Longoria upped his line to .281/.364/.526 line (.889 OPS, 133 OPS+) with 44 doubles, 33 homers, and 113 RBI as he won Gold Glove and Silver Slugger Awards. That’s not a poor year by any measure. The next season, he posted a .294/.372.507 line (.879 OPS, 143 OPS+) with 46 doubles, 22 homers, and 104 RBI. His power dropped, but he still put up outstanding numbers and finished a career-best 6th in the AL MVP voting. Then came 2011.
Longoria’s 2011 numbers were by no means bad. He posted a .244/.355/.495 line (.850 OPS, 139 OPS+) with 26 doubles, 31 homers, and 99 RBI. His OPS+ was pretty darn good (he was 39% better than the league average adjusted to ballpark), but his numbers didn’t wow observers like they had in the past. There were reasons for his struggles- he suffered through oblique and ankle injuries- but his overall numbers slumped nonetheless. It was the first time in Longoria’s career that his overall numbers weren’t up to the arbitrary expectations that we’ve set for him. After Longoria proved resistant to the Sophomore Slump, maybe his 2011 season compensated for that.
What causes a Sophomore Slump? Taking a sample of the 10 position players including Longoria who earned AL Rookie of the Year votes from Longoria’s rookie year of 2008 to 2010, 4 of them had a clear Sophomore Slump: Mike Aviles, Gordon Beckham, Austin Jackson, and John Jaso. Of those four, Aviles (elbow) and Jaso (oblique) suffered injuries that clearly led to their deterioration, while Beckham and Jackson just slumped. Danny Valencia and Elvis Andrus are players whose Slumps are debatable. Valencia’s OPS shot down from .799 to .677 from 2010 to 2011 but he jumped from 18 doubles, 7 homers, and 40 RBI to 28 doubles, 15 homers, and 72 RBI. In any event, he was healthy in 2011. Andrus was also healthy in 2011, but his OPS dropped from .702 to .643 while most of his other stats remained the same. We’re going to have to wait a few years for these guys, but thus far Aviles and Beckham are clearly not the same players even in the years after their slumps. Longoria, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brennan Boesch and Denard Span were able to avoid Sophomore Slumps entirely. But Longoria, Ellsbury (ribs) and Span (concussion) all suffered injury riddled-off years, with Longoria’s being by far the least severe (in fact, it was much better than Boesch’s fine year in 2011). We saw with Ellsbury how coming off a disaster of a season in 2010, he was downright unbelievable in 2011, posting a ridiculous .928 OPS (146 OPS+) with 46 doubles, 32 homers, and 105 RBI as he finished 2nd in the AL MVP voting. Could Longoria be primed for a similar type of season?
Let’s expand our sample size to also include the 19 position players who received ROY votes in the NL over the same span. Of those 19, 10 had clear Sophomore Slumps: Geovany Soto, Jay Bruce, Chris Coghlan, Everth Cabrera, Gerardo Parra, Neil Walker, Ike Davis, Jason Heyward, and Buster Posey. For Bruce (depression), Coghlan (knee), Cabrera (hamstring), Davis (ankle), Heyward (shoulder), and Posey (ankle) their slumps were due to injuries. Cabrera, Soto, and thus far Coghlan have never recovered from their Slumps while Bruce has been much better in the two years since. Among the rest of the players, Kosuke Fukudome, Casey McGeehee, and Colby Rasmus also suffered down years later in their careers. Only Rasmus was able to recover among that group.
Based on our total sample size, 21 of 29 players suffered a clear down year at some point in their career after receiving a ROY vote from 2008 to 2010. Of those players, 7 have completely faltered in the years since, 4 have recovered to their previous form, 2 have broken out (Ellsbury and Bruce), and for 8 it’s too early to tell (including Longo). Basically we need a couple more years to really understand the data that we have here. But we’re forgetting about a different key factor: the age 25-26 slump for third basemen.
Why are you looking at me so blankly? Oh… no one has ever talked about the age 25-26 slump for third baseman. But it exists, and it defines the great and the forgotten. Let me enlighten you.
After a .941 OPS and 36 home runs in his second full season in the big leagues as a 24 year old in 1974, Mike Schmidt had an off-year in 1975, upping his homer count to 38, but dropping in RBI’s from 116 to 95 (very similar to Longoria) and dropping to .890 in OPS. But instead of continuing to decline, Schmidt recovered to post a .936 OPS over the next 12 seasons, averaging 36 home runs per season, as he cemented his place in history. George Brett posted a .905 OPS and 22 home runs in his age 24 season in 1977. But he slipped to a .809 OPS and just 9 home runs in 1978. But Brett rebounded in a big way, posting a .915 OPS over the next 12 years as he also ended his career in Cooperstown. Eddie Mathews posted a .927 OPS and 32 home runs in his age 24 season in 1957. But in 1958, Matthews still hit 31 home runs, but slipped to just a .807 OPS. Mathews also came back, posting a .884 OPS and an average of 32 home runs per season over the next 7 years to finish off his Hall of Fame career. And for a more recent example, Chipper Jones posted a .923 OPS and 30 home runs in 1996 at age 24 before collapsing to a .850 OPS and just 21 home runs in 1997. But we have watched Chipper manage a .953 OPS and an average of 27 home runs per season in the 14 years since.
(For those of you whose hero was Dale Murphy, he also experienced the age 25 slump, slipping from a .858 OPS and 33 home runs in his age 24 season in 1980 to just a .716 OPS and 13 home runs in 1981. Murphy rebounded to win the NL MVP in 1982 and 1983, and post a .913 overall OPS from 1982 to 1987 with an average of 36 homers per season, but expanding that range to 1982-91, his OPS drops to .837 and his homers per season to 30, and that doomed his Hall chances because he didn’t have the body of work pre-age 25 that a player like Mathews had.)
And then there’s the players who didn’t make the cut. Interestingly, they have a slightly different slump connecting them: the age 26 slump. The player to start with here is a familiar name, Adrian Beltre. Beltre broke out at age 25, posting a ridiculous 1.017 OPS as he led the NL with 48 home runs as a 25 year old in 2004. But he slipped to a .716 OPS in 2005 and just a .799 OPS overall since then, making his Hall of Fame chances bleak if not impossible. On the exact opposite edge of the spectrum, we have Bill Bradley. Bradley broke out at age 24 with a .890 OPS in 1902 and followed it up with a .844 OPS in 1903. But he slipped to a .674 mark in 1904 and never recovered. Bill Melton led the NL with 33 home runs as part of a .843 OPS season in his age 25 season of 1971 but fell to .689 as part of an injury-riddled 1972 and he was out of baseball by age 31. Bob Horner posted a .911 OPS and 20 home runs in 1983 before dropping to a .774 OPS in an injury-riddled 1984 and retiring at age 30.
And then there’s the story of Ken Keltner. That name sounds, familiar, doesn’t it? Do you know from where? The answer is that Keltner was the player who robbed Joe DiMaggio of two hits to end his 56-game hitting streak. But Keltner could have been known for much more than that. From 1938 to 1941, Keltner’s age 21 to 24 seasons, Keltner posted a .815 OPS, averaging 19 home runs and 93 RBI per season. He seemed to turn a corner in 1941, posting a .269/.330/.485 line (.815 OPS, 118 OPS+) with 31 doubles, 13 triples, 23 homers, and 84 RBI in 149 games. But Keltner slipped to just a .695 OPS in 1942 and he posted just a .757 OPS over the next 9 years, cementing his place as a trivia question answer, not anywhere near a Hall of Famer. When Keltner was put on the ballot, he received just 0.4% of the vote.
What does all of this have to do with Evan Longoria? It tells us that even great players have off-seasons. But what made those players great was how they persevered through the adversity of that one season and refused to let it define them. Evan Longoria has shown the makings of a legendary major league third baseman. Now let’s see him go out on the field and vehemently refute any claims that he isn’t the player we thought he was as recently as 2010. We saw Longoria step him in August and September of 2011 as he helped lead the Rays into the postseason. Now let’s see him do that over the course of 2012 and throughout seasons to come.
Thanks to Corey Dawkins of Baseball Prospectus for the injury data.