Taken immediately after Luke Hochevar and Greg Reynolds, Evan Longoria was the third-overall pick of the 2006 draft. It wouldn’t take long for the then-called Devil Rays to realize they had made a great pick. The third baseman was a top-ten prospect prior to both the 2007 and 2008 seasons. The latter would be his first year in the majors, and he didn’t hesitate to make an impact. He posted an .874 OPS over 122 games and took home the Rookie of the Year award. He also signed one of the most team-friendly deals in baseball history with almost no major-league experience. Longoria quickly became one of the best players in the league and the face of the franchise just as the Rays were entering a period of consistent contention. Heading into the 2016 season, Longoria was an established star who made three All-Star teams and received MVP votes in five of his eight seasons. He also appeared to be on the decline, however. Still just 30 years old, Longoria was coming off two straight years in which he was merely good rather than great. Things took quite the turn in the right direction last season.
What Went Right in 2016
The most obvious area in which Longoria excelled in 2016 was the power department, which makes him very much like the league as a whole. His 36 home runs marked a career high and made 2016 the fourth time he’s broken the 30 home run mark. It wasn’t just the home runs, though. He also hit 41 doubles and five triples, both of which were his highest marks since 2010. All of this contributed to his .248 ISO, which was his highest since 2011 and 18th-highest in all of baseball right in between Daniel Murphy and Miguel Cabrera. Longoria was able to regain his power stroke by changing his swing to put the ball in the air more. He dramatically cut his ground-ball rate and made up for it with flyballs and line drives, finishing with a HR:FB only slightly higher than his career rate.
To a lesser extent, Longoria was also a help in the AVG department. It wasn’t as startling a contribution, but his .273 mark was certainly better than the league-average by a substantial amount and his highest since 2012. Of course, it was only three points better than his AVG in 2015, but better is better. Longoria is able to keep up such a solid average by keeping his strikeout rate right around the league-average while posting solid-to-good BABIPs on a consistent basis. His increase in line drives should only continue to help that trend.
Finally, Longoria continued to stay healthy in 2016. That sounds simple, but few players have been better at this in recent years than the Rays’ star. Despite entering his age-30 season, 2016 was the fourth consecutive year in which he’s played in at least 160 games, and he’s missed just six games over that span. As he continues to get older, we can’t know how long this will last, but he’s as strong a bet to stay healthy as any 30-plus year old player.
What Went Wrong in 2016
Despite it being his best offensive season in three years, it wasn’t all positive for Longoria in 2016. Most alarmingly, his plate approach continued a steady decline. Last year, he walked in only six percent of his plate appearances. This is a player who used to regularly post double-digit walk rates, and is now on his fifth straight year with a rate lower than the previous season’s. Unsurprisingly, this has coincided with a much more aggressive approach, as his swing rate has continued to rise over the years. This is particularly true on pitches out of the zone. As long as he’s making the kind of contact he made in 2016, this is a minor issue. If he starts to slip with the bat, however, he could really use the added production of those extra walks.
In less alarming news, Longoria also stole zero bases in 2016. While this has never been a strong point in his game, he’s also tossed in at least a couple of swiped bags to placate fantasy owners. He did attempt three steals last year, but he was caught all three times. I wouldn’t be expecting those token steals moving forward anymore.
What to Expect in 2017
Given his mostly consistent profile over the years, it’s hard to expect anything besides top-ten production at his position next season. It’s natural to expect regression in the power department, particularly if you think the league as a whole will be taking a step back as well. However, keep in mind that his changed batted-ball profile is conducive to extra homers and remained intact for essentially the entire season. He did see a bit of a rise in ground balls in September, but I’d still be looking for another year with at least 30 homers. His AVG should remain steady around the .270 mark as well, leaving the rest up to a shaky Rays lineup to help him contextually. All told, a finish right outside the top-five at his position is not out of the question.
The Great Beyond
Longoria is a really interesting dynasty player, because he can clearly help out in the short term and isn’t so old that he’s on the verge of falling off a cliff. On the other hand, those plate discipline trends are disturbing, and any downturn in his batted-ball quality will kill his overall production. There’s also the matter of him becoming too expensive for Tampa, and a trade out of Tropicana could dramatically change his value in one direction or the other. Ultimately, if I were trying to compete this year, I’d look to sell high on Longoria now not knowing what exactly his long-term future will be.
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