Jul 7, 2014; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays third baseman Evan Longoria (3) looks on from the dugout during the sixth inning against the Kansas City Royals at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Are Evan Longoria's 2014 struggles due to his declining bat speed?

It’s hard to find an article about the Rays that isn’t lamenting the promising season they looked to have before injuries and lack of performance decimated all hopes. It’s easy to point fingers at individual players and one who has been receiving most of the blame is Evan Longoria. His down year has been hard to overlook. He’s posting career lows in OPS, wRC+ and wOBA.

FanGraphs’ writer Jeff Sullivan pointed out about a month ago that part of his dismal campaign can be explained by his sudden drop in production on inside pitches. He points out how his power production has decreased on the inner third, historically his most productive area. But looking further into the data it seems there’s a more concerning issue.

Longo is not simply not hitting inside pitches, he’s also pulling fewer of them too. Let’s compare his spray charts on inside pitches from 2012-13 to this season:

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Thanks to Bill Petti for putting together his awesome spray chart tool that made this graphic possible

The results are striking. First is the obvious, that Sullivan already pointed out, Longoria’s RunValue/100 pitches has gone down from 25.5 to -1.2. The average distance of hits has decreased from 204.9 to 174.7. His spray angle is also troubling as he’s pulling fewer pitches and sending more into center field.

There’s definitely an issue with Longoria and inside pitches this year. But his struggles on these pitches aren’t exclusive to that area. His pull rate on all pitches has dropped, seeing 73% of batted balls going to left field in 12-13 to only 61% in 2014.

What’s at fault here? His bat speed. Hitters generally start to decline towards their late 20s, sometimes earlier. Longoria will turn 29 this October and time is not on his side.

But let’s not just stop at spray angles. If we can put a man on the moon, then certainly, we must have more proxies for bat speed correct?

Correct. Thanks to technological advances in computer science we can use programs to mine the PITCHf/x data for hitters and pitchers. After a few queries there’s really not a whole lot we can’t find out. So with a little bit of computer magic let’s look at Evan Longoria’s results against pitches coming in hot, 95 mph and faster:

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No, that’s not a recording error. He literally has an Isolated Slugging of zero against high heat this season. There’s been a decline since his career best at age 26,  a season where he tore apart opposing pitching with a 146 wRC+.

It appears as though his best days may be in the past but thanks to a recent interview with Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times, Longoria has shed some light on what he thinks is causing his struggles,

“I think for me the word is when I’ve been at my best in the past … it’s more rhythmic. It’s just a smoother swing,” Longoria said. “So the added mechanics I think has maybe hindered me at times this year — that I’m trying to really focus on things that I’m doing instead of just going up to the plate and trusting that my bat is going to get where it needs to, just like I’ve done in the past. …

“What I’ve tried to go back to … is really just dumbing it down and just trusting the fact that I’m going to get into the right position to hit.”

The story Longo gives checks out. His lack of bat speed could be stemming, not from just getting older, but from some mind games as well. With a team that needs a hero, it’s been noted by manager Joe Maddon that he’s been trying to do too much for the team, is he putting an unreasonable amount of pressure on himself? Longoria’s leadership is admirable, yes, but it seems that he may need to take it down a notch.

There’s no denying a lack of bat speed is killing Evan Longoria’s value this season. It’s a trend that appears troublesome when looking at his pull percentages and success against fast pitches, not to mention his growing age. But there appears to be hope for Mr. 162, as perhaps his lack of bat speed has been brought on by mechanical and mental issues and not age. He’s put a huge emphasis on the mental side of the game in the past and maybe, what he needs, to get back to the old Evan he needs to find that mental part of the game again. There are real concerns with his disappointing 2014 season but there may still be hope for the Rays’ slugger.

Tags: Evan Longoria Tampa Bay Rays

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