This year, Evan Longoria hit more homers than he ever had before and ended up the tenth-best third baseman (seventh among third-base only). At 31, his age provides us some easy context to the likelihood he repeats his power at that level. But there’s a lot more context! Like the rest of the league, which changed along with him. So let’s figure out that context. Because if the league stays the same next year — if the ball stays the same, you could say — then maybe this is Longoria’s new power level. Which is to say, the same power level, but just in a more powerful league.
We know that last year saw the second-most home runs of all time, and that it’s possible that the surge was due to a change in the baseball because exit velocity — even after controlling for matchups and talent factors — is up across baseball.
There is some evidence that Statcast itself has had an effect on the game. Check out the research from Bill Petti showing that players are better at avoiding the bad angles (look at zero to minus twenty) in favor of the better launch angles (look at 20-30 in particular).
Though launch angles have been improving as we better understand the physics of the game due to Statcast stats, it’s not enough to explain the homer surge. Alan Nathan found that we’re talking about basically shifting the 2015 spectrum 1.4 degrees to the right, and that’s not a ton. There’s a consensus in the community that there’s little chance that changing launch angles are the driver of the increase in homers.
But we still have that increase in launch angle to consider, because Longoria just put up his best fly ball rate of his career. Along with his best home run total — without his best home run per fly ball rate.
So let’s take a look at his power stats indexed to the league. In each case, 100 is average. Since the league’s average exit velocity went up (77.34 from 76.03) and the league’s launch angle increased (9.98 from 9.03), it’s good to see Longoria clearly.
|Home Runs per Plate Appearance||117||173|
|Ground Balls per Fly Ball||72||53|
|Home Runs per Fly Ball||95||121|
|Barrels per Ball in Play||154||197|
For the most part, we see actual changes here. The league changed their launch angle and hit more fly balls per ground ball, but Longoria’s changes were much more drastic. That smells like a change in approach and mechanics that might shift his production from line drives to power going forward. A good change for a guy with a .271 career average.
Across the board he did things differently… except when it came to exit velocity. He did add a tick of velo, but so did the league. He’s comfortably above average in that regard, but not elite. But if you have above-average exit velo and no legs — he was bottom-fifty in speed score — you probably should hit the ball in the air a bit more. You take advantage of the power better that way. It’s a lesson the league has learned but Longoria learned harder.
Here’s what his mechanics looked like in 2015.
In 2016, it looks like he hit the ball hard, but also with more loft in the swing, perhaps due to spreading out his legs a bit more in his stance:
Speaking of hitting the ball harder, check out those barrel rates. He was elite this year — right between Kris Bryant and Josh Donaldson in terms of barrels among those with at least 190 balls in play, good for 23rd — but he was also good last year.
Maybe we lose sight of a player when we compare this year’s version to last year’s. We had to for this exercise because we only have Statcast numbers for the last two years, but it’s still a thing we do when we try to plan for next year, is look at the last two years. Projections know this is folly, since they take at least the last three years heavily into account.
But if you look at Longoria’s career as a whole, it kind of looks like the last two years before 2016 were the outliers. In those two years, he hit more ground balls then he did in any other years. In those two years, he put up his two worst home run per fly ball rates. And so it’s no surprise that in those two years, he put up his worst home run per plate appearance years of his career.
Could 2016 have just been a return to his past rates? Could health be a factor? Last year, he was hit twice on the left wrist and there’s a note saying that he was battling soreness in that wrist before he was hit there. 2014 doesn’t have much public-facing information about health problems, though, and he’s a workout warrior, with multiple videos showcasing his approach to core strength.
Maybe someone with that sort of workout regimen, who recently changed his mechanics to better take advantage of his natural power, who was already very good at barreling balls and might have been a bit unlucky in 2014 and 2015 — maybe this is the kind of player that can sustain this power level in his early thirties, and maintain this launch angle in the face of what aging curves say about what time does to your ground ball rate.
At least now we have all the context.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.