If you are reading this website, you are well aware of Evan Longoria. The former AL Rookie of the Year and esteemed 11-year veteran not only holds all of the Tampa Bay Rays franchise records, but he is one of the most respected veteran players in the game. Over the course of his 11-year career, he has been as consistent as they come. Aside from his rookie season when he was a mid-season call-up, he has played more than 150 games in every season except one in which he played 133. One look down his baseball reference page and you see a guy who has been consistently productive on both offense and defense for over a decade. Is he a star? No. But his veteran presence and consistent production make him a valuable asset for just about any team in the league.
Despite suiting up and manning the hot corner just about every night for ten seasons, there is one startling number in his offensive profile that seems to have cropped up when he came to San Francisco. Evan Longoria doesn’t walk anymore. I don’t just mean that his BB% is down a few points from his career average. In that case, I would probably chalk it up to a small sample size. No, this is different. Do you know how I know its different? Because he said it himself.
In an interview he did with MLB Network Radio on June 13th, he was asked about his curiously low walk total to start the year. Rather than sidestepping the question or conjuring up a reasonable explanation, Longoria said the following:
“Why is everybody making such a big deal about walks? Who cares about walks, Does anyone care about walks except for the analytics people.”
The answer to that last question, Evan, is yes. People care about walks. The next time its movie night in the Longoria household, I would strongly suggest Moneyball. Not only is it very entertaining, but it could help elucidate a concept that should be common knowledge for an 11 year MLB veteran.
Before I go any further, I should probably clarify just how rare it has been for Longoria to draw a walk this season. Through Thursday, June 12th, Longoria has drawn a walk in just 3.6% of his plate appearances, which ranks 10th worst in baseball. Of the nine players who walk fewer than he does, only Javy Baez has an above league average slugging percentage. In other words, Longoria is walking as much as eight guys who cannot draw walks because pitchers know the worst damage they can do is a single and Javy Baez, who is probably the freest swinger in baseball.
Would the Giants win more games if Longoria drew a few more walks? Sure. But my main point in writing this article is to try and figure out why Evan adopted such a sudden change in his approach after a full decade of maintaining a 9.0% walk rate. The first place I looked in trying to uncover this mysterious aversion to walking was Longoria’s plate discipline statistics. Perhaps Longoria’s chase rate on pitches out of the zone had spiked or pitchers first strike rate against him had gone up significantly. These explanations would help to explain his walk rate plummeting. Unfortunately for me, however, there were no answers to be found.
In fact, Longoria was actually swinging less, chasing less, and seeing fewer pitches in the zone compared to his career averages. If anything, my inquiry had got me further away from an answer.
With the peripheral data doing nothing to provide evidence for Longoria’s sudden decline in walks, I began considering more non-quantifiable theories.
For example, when a batter hits in the fourth or fifth spot in a lineup, traditional wisdom says that they are your team’s “RBI guy”. Now advanced metrics would disregard this archaic sentiment, but for the sake of argument, let’s say every team’s fourth and fifth hitters had the sole intention of driving in runs, while disregarding all other forms of productive hitting.
This narrative fits in Longoria’s case as the third baseman has hit 5th in the majority of his games this season. After all, we can’t be totally sure that Longoria doesn’t actually have this mindset. It was just a few weeks ago that Albert Pujols said his “only job was to drive in runs”, and as shortsighted of a statement that is, I am not ruling out Longoria having a similar thought process, but I digress.
Of course, just because Bruce Bochy pencils Longoria in as the 5-hitter, this does not mean he will always be hitting in a situation with runners in scoring position. If this were the case, then maybe his refusal to walk would be permissible, but it’s not.
In reality, out of Longoria’s 256 at-bats this season, only 71 of them have come with runners in scoring position. Perhaps most surprising about those 71 at-bats, is that four of his ten walks have come in those situations. In other words, in situations where a hyper-aggressive approach is permissable, Longoria walks 5.6% of the time. In situations when there are no runners on or just a runner on first, Longoria is walking just 3.1% of the time. In sum, he walks when a walk does very little towards producing runs and doesn’t walk when the walk would be the most beneficial.
While I believe that quantitative analysis is the most effective way to reach a conclusion, it is certainly possible that after playing a decade in Tampa, Longoria is simply pressing at the plate in a new environment, causing him to be more aggressive. When we get too caught up with facts and figures, we tend to forget there is a human with emotions and impulses that we are trying to figure out.
In an interview with SBNation, Longoria gives a candid response for why he thinks his walks are down:
“I’m getting a lot of strikes… I’ve tried multiple different angles going up there to draw a walk and it seems like every time I go up there, it’s ‘Strike one, strike two.’ I’m getting attacked and I’m getting pitches to hit. You know, probably, in the beginning, I could have drawn a few more, I was chasing a bit more than trying to get it going.”
While I respect Longoria’s perception of what is happening in his at-bats, the numbers do not reflect this explanation. This season pitchers Zone% (the number of pitches thrown in the strike zone) is actually slightly down from his career average of 45.6%.
While the overall Zone% is up from a year ago, in order to test Longoria’s assertion, we need to see if he is right about opposing pitchers constantly getting ahead in the count.
We have already established that opposing pitchers have thrown a strike on the first pitch to Longoria at the highest rate in his career at 67.5%, which also ranks 8th in the league. Not only is Longoria getting a ton of first-pitch strikes thrown to him this year, the heatmaps suggest they are not the type of pitches that a batter would want to offer at.
Evan Longoria Heatmap on First Pitch of At-Bat:
It is difficult to blame Longoria for starting off behind in the count when he is getting thrown first-pitch strikes more than all but seven hitters in baseball. Especially considering that those pitches are mostly being spotted on the corner low-and-away. When opposing pitchers are pounding the zone with that type of precision, the hitter has two choices. Either offer at a “pitcher’s pitch” and hit a fourteen-hopper to the right side of the infield or keep the bat on your shoulder and take strike one. This is of course assuming that all hitters dislike the low-and-away pitch. While I believe that to be true for the majority of hitters, it is probably worth looking at how Longoria fares against such pitches before making any further assumptions.
Evan Longoria – Zone Breakdown – Solid Contact / Barrels
What do you know? My assumption I typed out two minutes ago was wrong. Good thing I checked. Admittedly, when conducting a query for the pitch locations on balls that Longoria has either “barrelled” or made “solid contact” on the first pitch of at-bats over the past 365 days, I was hoping the zone breakdwon did not look like this. With this new information, it is clear that Longoria not only gets a very high rate of first pitch strikes, he also gets a high rate of pitches in his happy zone.
Longoria was quoted as saying, “Every time I go up there its like strike one, strike two”, which naturally means we have to find data to see if his feeling is correct. Here is a heat map showing how opposing pitchers approach Longoria once they have the 0-1 advantage.
Evan Longoria Heatmap with a 0-1 Count:
While the pitches in this heatmap are not as tightly clustered as the previous one, it does reflect Longoria’s general sentiment that opposing pitchers are successfully tilting the count in their favor by attacking him on the first two pitches of his at-bats. Of course, these heatmaps also favor Longoria as both show that he regularly receives “his” pitch early in the count. In the quote I used above, Longoria talks about approaching some plate appearances with the intention of drawing a walk, but with opposing pitchers coming right after the location that he has had the most success on, it might be smart for Longo to stop worrying about walks. Obviously, if the situation calls for a walk or he is already way ahead in the count, don’t be foolish and take the free base, but with how pitchers are going after him in the early going, I think it would be wise for him ambush some first pitches.
Of course there are other factors that should be considered when trying to figure out such a precipitous and sudden walk rate, especially when the standard plate discipline metrics remain unchanged.
Another intangible factor that we can speculate on is the simple fact that pitchers are not nearly as scared to challenge Longoria as they used to be. Add in the fact that Longo now plays half of his games at the most pitcher-friendly ballpark in baseball and you have a scenario where pitchers feel unintimidated enough to not have to nibble around the former perennial All-Star.
Whatever the case, Evan Longoria’s slash line is reminiscent of late 2000s Pablo Sandoval where he getting enough base hits to avoid criticism, but hurting his team with his lack of discpline.