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Tampa Bay Rays: Perspective on Evan Longoria’s Two Bad Years

By Robbie Knopf
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He is back here again. There were a few weeks where Evan Longoria was hitting like crazy, but his latest slump brought him down to a .266/.327/.411 line in 2015 entering today. That amounts to a 106 OPS+ (6% above league average), far below his 128 career mark and identical to his 106 mark from last season. He has gone one of the best players in baseball to a good–but decidedly not great–starting third baseman. Though not everything is bad as he is healthy and has shown better defense than last year, the Tampa Bay Rays needed him to lead their offense and he has been unable to do so.

In the short-term, there are a few comments we can make about Longoria’s play. The first is that we shouldn’t judge Longoria at the nadir of his current slump. If he continues playing poorly, then the Rays will be in serious trouble, but if he rebounds like most struggling players tend to do, his 2015 numbers will be better than last season’s. Longoria has a month and a day to get back on track and finish with more respectable numbers. He needed a big September just to finish with his lackluster 2014 stats, and a similar season-ending performance would make him look much better than that for this year.

From a more overarching perspective, though, we can talk about the career paths of third baseman as good as Evan Longoria. According to JAWS, which is a statistic that values players’ production by weighting their career Wins Above Replacement and their best seven seasons according to WAR, Longoria is the 28th-best third baseman of all time. The beginning of his career was so incredible that he was able to make plenty of headway on that list before he turned 30. The question, though, is how much farther he will get before his career concludes.

The top of the list is filled with players who either never declined or didn’t slip until extremely late in their careers–Mike Schmidt, George Brett, and Chipper Jones are probably the best examples. 16 of the 27 players ahead of Longoria were not at that echelon and did have points in their careers where they could no longer maintain the same level of production. That doesn’t mean that they necessarily turned into non-entities, but they at least went from stars to average third base starters, just like we have seen from Longoria the last two years.

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Before we lump Longoria in that group, though, there is something big to realize. If Longoria never regains his early-career form, we will look back and say that his decline began in 2014, when he was 28 years of age. None of the other 16 players declined that early, and we can also add in David Wright to make it 17. Wright didn’t begin to struggle until he was 31 years old. Of the 17, just two declined before age 30, both at age 29 and both from the early 20th century–John McGraw and Home Run Baker. Especially given how strange it is to compare Longoria to those two guys (for instance, because McGraw was only 5’7″, 155), it would be unprecedented for a third baseman of his caliber to slip off this early.

Either Longoria is experiencing a historic decline or something else entirely is going on. The other possibility prompts much more optimism–Longoria is going through a mid-career hiccup that he will overcome. The precedent for that isn’t as large, but we can also say this: when we are dealing with third basemen of this caliber, the players who have struggled for both age 28 and age 29 have tended to do much better the rest of their careers.

The player that immediately comes to mind as an example of that is current Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre. We know that he hit 48 home runs with the Dodgers before disappearing from sight for his five years with the Mariners. It would be great if Longoria played like Beltre from ages 31 to 35, but the comparison doesn’t work particularly well. Beltre did have that monster year in Los Angeles, but he was a mediocre hitter on the whole with the Dodgers (108 OPS+) and was certainly far from Longoria-caliber. Beltre is a better example of a player with a delayed peak than one who had a few rough years in the middle of his career.

The players that Longoria will actually hope to emulate are Paul Molitor, Bob Elliott, and Darrell Evans. Molitor delivered a .297/.353/.424 line (117 OPS+) in his first five seasons before slipping to a Longoria-esque 107 mark for his next four seasons. Then he proceeded to be a monster for the next eight years, delivering a .323/.393/.485 line (140 OPS+) on his way to the Hall of Fame. Molitor did move to designated hitter in that stretch and it will be interesting to see if and when Longoria does the same. Given that Longoria is a much better defender than Molitor was, though, expect any such shift to happen later on.

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If you don’t want to compare Longoria to a Hall of Famer, Elliott and Evans are two players who weren’t quite that good but were still strong hitters for a while after a few poor years. Elliott delivered a 123 OPS+ in his first five-plus seasons that jumped to 130 in the last three of those years. Then he fell to a 108 mark at ages 28 and 29, concerning the Pirates enough about his future that they dealt him to the Boston Braves. That immediately looked foolish as Elliott was the NL MVP the following year. Overall, Elliott delivered a .295/.398/.485 line (139 OPS+) over the following five seasons before declining at age 35.

Evans, meanwhile, hit to a .258/.382/.460 line through age 27 before having three inconsistent years afterwards, managing just a 101 OPS+ and also getting traded. He got right back on track from there, delivering a .253/.361/.442 line from 31 years of age all the way to 40. It wasn’t until age 42 that he finally called it quits. Yes, even a player who ended up with extreme longevity had to endure three tough years before he even got on the wrong side of 30.

The big thing to remember whether Evan Longoria plays better in September or not is that the success that he has delivered thus far in his career makes it unlikely that this is the end of his days as an All-Star for the Tampa Bay Rays. We can’t know what will happen, but it would be a historic collapse if he didn’t recover and there is reason to believe that he still has several successful years ahead of him. There is plenty of reason to be upset about Longoria’s current struggles, but don’t count out as good of a player as him for the future just because of two years that didn’t meet expectations.

Next: Tampa Bay Rays 129: Only Kevin Kiermaier Can Solve Royals

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