Late-career resurgences from former stars are fascinating to me. This is a terribly difficult game even when you are at your peak strength and athleticism; as your body declines, it only gets more difficult. Some are just unable to adjust to new circumstances, including former stars. But every now and then, you have a hitter who can make the right tweaks to adapt to their new body and changed environment. There are only a handful who do that every year; this season, Evan Longoria is one of them.
After an injury-laden 2022, the future was murky for Longoria. Last year, he went on the IL for hand surgery, an oblique strain, and a hamstring strain, and ultimately missed the last week of the season after taking a 100-mph line drive off the thumb, leading to a fracture. He had no intentions of retiring before or after the fracture, though; it was only a bump in the road that his potential new team would have to consider, since the Giants did not exercise his club option. He ended up signing a one-year, $4 million dollar deal with the Diamondbacks, where he has enjoyed his best offensive season since 2016 by wRC+ and xwOBA. It comes in a limited sample and strategic playing time from Torey Lovullo, but it’s far from a fluke. Longoria is impacting the ball as well as he ever has in the Statcast era. Here is a table detailing his jump in performance and quality of contact relative to recent seasons:
|Year||Batted Balls||wRC+||xwOBA||xwOBACON||Hard Hit%||Barrel%||Sweet Spot%|
Every single one of these metrics is a personal high for Longoria since 2015, and some by a wide margin, which is pretty remarkable for a player coming off so many injuries in the back half of their 30s. His HardHit% is fifth in the league among hitters with at least 50 batted balls, putting him in between Juan Soto and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. on that list. Pair that with great consistency in hitting the ball between eight and 32 degrees, and you have yourself an xwOBACON over .500 — also good for fifth in all of baseball among hitters with at least 100 plate appearances.
You must be thinking: how can a hitter make such a significant improvement at this stage in their career? In terms of data, there are a few ways to explain it that include plate discipline and bat path change.
|Year||Zone Swing%||1st Pitch Swing%|
I always find it intriguing when a hitter takes on a greater amount of patience after not doing so for years. Sometimes it can border on being too passive, but that theory does not apply here; it’s worked wonders for Longoria. After being more middle of the pack in recent years in terms of first-pitch swing rate, he has moved to the bottom decile this season. In the past, he had been a very good hitter on the first pitch (.448 xwOBA in 2021 and .545 xwOBA in ’22), but that has fallen off a cliff to a .298 xwOBA this year. Maybe Longoria needs time to get into his rhythm and pick a spot to attack, or maybe it’s tied to his inability last season to do as much damage in the middle of the zone as you would expect. His xwOBA in the heart of the zone in 2022 was .360, which is not where good hitters often land, but his .541 mark this year is top tier. It’s a standard case of a hitter doing a better job at picking their spots and taking A swings on hittable pitches.
One major point of struggle last year for Longoria was covering the top of the zone. Pitchers essentially peppered this area and had no concern that he could cover it, and he couldn’t: He swung at 54.9% of the pitches he saw in the upper third but only registered a .189 wOBA on those swings. To me, that’s extremely concerning to see from an aging player. But like other aspects of his game, he flipped that on its head, dropping his swing rate in the top of the zone to 47.1%; he now has a .478 wOBA (.373 xwOBA) on those swings.
Patience is obviously a piece of this, but you cannot make this sort of jump without a mechanical change. That leads us into the last piece of this puzzle. Here are a few of Longoria’s swings on pitches in the upper third; the first two are from last season, and the two after are from this season:
There are two things to focus on here: timing and directional change. As you age, you lose some twitch, but just because you lose twitch doesn’t mean you still can’t be productive with your new normal. You have to make changes to adapt to your new body. If you lose a tick of bat speed, you can compensate by starting earlier or decreasing your movements to be a touch quicker. Longoria has taken on the former: he is at the end of his hand row earlier this year than last. This has always been a patented movement for him, so to see him be able to make this adjustment is not surprising. The interesting thing is that there is more movement in the row this year, which serves as a contrast to my point about decreasing movements. There is no movement binary: you can move more and still be successful, but it has to come along with starting at a point where you can still be on time to the ball.
By adding more movement and changing the direction of his row a bit closer to his chest and further from his ear, Longoria has changed his path to better cover hittable pitches. His hand row sets up the reciprocal movement of getting his hands into the slot to whip his bat through the zone. Last year, you can see his elbow drifting forward too soon in his swing and cutting off his path. By shifting the initial stage of his row toward his body’s midpoint, he created a better setup for his hands to gain depth in the hitting zone. These small changes are the types of things we see from hitters that improve their swing path.
I’m curious to see how pitchers attack Longoria for the rest of the season. Despite his overall improvements, he has been quite susceptible to breaking balls. That doesn’t mean that he can’t improve against them during the season, but it may be a point of focus for pitchers to challenge him to fix a weakness. Even so, he will continue to get mistakes, because that is just how this game works. If he can continue to punish those mistakes, then Arizona should have itself a very productive role player as the team makes its NL West push.