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Baseball's most irreplaceable player? The numbers (and the Rays) say it's Longoria

By Danny Knobler | Baseball Insider
Is it too late for the Rays' playoff hopes? (Getty Images)

CHICAGO -- The numbers tell a story, but you wonder if you can trust the numbers.

The numbers say Evan Longoria's mere presence in the lineup turns the Rays into basically a 100-win team. They say that the Rays without Longoria are sub-.500 also-rans.

There's no way one man makes that much of a difference. Even if the numbers are correct -- and they are -- they must be at least a little bit misleading.

Except the Rays say they're not.

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The Rays say their season really did turn on the hamstring injury that kept Longoria out from the end of April to the beginning of August. They say that the late-season revival, which continued with Saturday's win over the White Sox, really can be attributed to Longoria's return.

"If we have Longo in the lineup all year, we win 10 more games, or 20 more games," David Price insisted. "I feel we're not only leading the division, but we put it out of reach."

Ten more wins, and the Rays would have 97, the most in the majors. Twenty more wins, and the Rays would have 107, and we'd be asking about their place in history.

I'm not sure I buy 20 wins. Probably not even 10.

"Easily, four or five more wins," said manager Joe Maddon.

And even five more wins would have the Rays in first place in the AL East, instead of gasping for their playoff lives.

Longoria is never going to win the Most Valuable Player award this year, nor should he. But is there any player in baseball who was more irreplaceable this year.

Even Miguel Cabrera? Even Mike Trout?

The Angels have been outstanding since they called up Trout. But the Rays with Longoria have a better record than the Angels with Trout.

With Saturday's 10-4 win over the White Sox, the Rays are now 44-26 in the games Longoria has been able to play, a winning percentage of .6286. The only player in the American League whose team has a better record in games he has played is Oakland's Yoenis Cespedes (just a tick ahead, at .6290).

"Just imagine him out there with two good legs," Maddon said. "He's on 1 1/2 legs now."

The hamstring has remained an issue, even in the two months since Longoria returned to the lineup. There were a few days he couldn't play at all, and many more where he couldn't play in the field. There were balls he hit that would have been doubles, but where his bad leg forced him to stop at first.

It was just last week when Longoria went to Maddon and said that he wanted to play third base every day, to try to get the Rays into the playoffs.

Sure enough, he made a big defensive play Thursday night, then later hit the game-winning home run in the ninth inning.

"But Evan doesn't even have to play well for us to be better with him," Price said. "The other team knows where he is all the time. They even know where he is when he's going to get water in the dugout."

The Rays knew where he was for those three months he couldn't play. They knew that on the days Longoria didn't hit cleanup, Rays cleanup hitters hit just .217 with only eight home runs and 35 RBI (in 106 games).

They knew that on the days Longoria didn't play third base, Rays third basemen hit .246.

They knew that they had no one who could come close to doing what he did.

"The lineup works around him," Ben Zobrist said. "He's the centerpiece."

Every team has injuries. Many teams have had key injuries, losing players they couldn't really replace.

But the simple numbers tell us that the Longoria's was the season-changing injury in the American League East this year.

And in this case, the Rays tell us that we should believe the numbers.

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