In 2012, MLB.com’s beat writer for the Rays predicted that Evan Longoria would be an MVP. Instead, injuries curtailed his season as he appeared in only 74 games. Make no mistake, Longoria is the best Rays player, bar none. His injury-riddled 2012 season proved that the Rays struggle when he is not in the lineup. Longoria is one of the best defensive third basemen in baseball. Night in and night out, he plays spectacularly, and his play at third should be required viewing for young players manning the hot corner. Offensively, he leads Rays hitters year in and year out in home runs and RBIs. He also hit one of the most dramatic home runs ever in 2011 when he blasted the Tampa Bay Rays into the playoffs in game 162. Evan Longoria is a very good player. But can he take the next step and put together the numbers to warrant MVP consideration?
MVP is a numbers game and Longoria has yet to put up the big numbers. The standard bearer in the AL is Detroit Tigers’ first baseman, Miguel Cabrera. He won the triple crown in 2012, the first time that has been accomplished in 45 years. In 2013, Cabrera improved his average, on-base, slugging, OPS and walks, all the while, equaling his home run total of 44. No surprise, he won the MVP both years. It is also obvious that MVP voters don’t put too much stock in defense–just ask Mike Trout. Cabrera ranked near the bottom in Fangraph ratings, not that you needed them to know defense is not his strong suit.
Digging into the numbers, the most home runs Longoria has hit in a season is 33. He has never hit .300 in a season. His career percentage of putting balls in play is 63%, thus suggesting a high average is further down the road than we can see. Seven times in his eleven-year career, Miguel Cabrera has driven in more runs than Longoria’s career high of 113. Last year, Longoria struck out 23.4% of the time. While he finally played a near full season, his on-base percentage and slugging were near the bottom of his career. As well, his home run per flyball rate was the second lowest of Longoria’s career, at 15.7%. Also concerning is that his flyball rate checked in at its second-most, at 44.5%. He was hitting more balls in the air, but they weren’t going out. Park factors do figure into this. Tropicana Field is not a hitter’s park. Still, the numbers paint a picture of Evan Longoria being a star but not an MVP candidate.
One can rationalize his numbers last year, however. Longoria went through a period of struggles at the plate. Last season, making contact was Longoria’s biggest issue, as underscored by his 162 strikeouts. Longoria has always struck out, but not like he did last year. His percentage of pop-ups was 4.4%, only his rookie year was lower. He wasn’t over-swinging–he just wasn’t making contact. The biggest reason Longoria should improve is that 2013 was his first fully healthy season since 2010. It is certainly possible that Longoria wore down as the season progressed, and with his health back to normal, he could be primed to sustain more consistent success. Longoria’s final numbers were impressive even though he hit to just a .176/.290/.322 line from June 23rd to August 12th. Longoria is too good to go through another slump like that at the plate.
In addition, Longoria is the cornerstone of the Rays offense but he cannot step into the batter’s box with that mentality. A full season of Wil Myers, though, will take the pressure off. Longoria certainly will not have to do it alone, and now he has legitimate protection in the lineup. Pitching around Longoria will be harder than even in 2014. He will get better pitches to hit, and everyone in the league knows what happens when Evan Longoria gets better pitches to hit.
When you get down to it, Longoria is the Rays MVP, which is a pretty nice award in itself. But for the league award, he faces stiff competition. For now, players like Cabrera and Trout are staking their claim to MVP-level numbers. And it might be that Longoria will not out-hit Cabrera or play greater defense than Trout anytime soon. How can he get there? Take a look at Andrew McCutchen of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who won the NL MVP in 2013. He made his best season at the plate and great defense coincide with the Pirates first trip to the playoffs in…forever. This is the template Evan Longoria could use to win the AL MVP. If he plays the way he is capable of and leads the Rays to the AL East title, the MVP is within his reach. He has the team, the intangibles, and the talent to do so.