Is Giants' Evan Longoria allergic to walks? Inside his strange early-season numbers
Longoria has recovered from a slow start, but there are still questions worth asking about his performance
Longoria has recovered from an 0-for-15 start, and he entered Wednesday hitting .244/.267/.481 -- marks good for a 102 OPS+, a higher figure than what he managed last year. The unsightly on-base percentage is hard to get over, though, as he's walked four times in 161 plate appearances, or 2.5 percent of the time. Longoria's walk rate has waned since his early years, when he reeled off five consecutive seasons of 10 percent or better, but there's a wide gulf between that and having as many walks as Pablo Sandoval has in 100 fewer trips to the plate.
Bill James once theorized that teams should be cautious whenever a batter's walk rate jumps late in his career. The thinking being that if a hitter is acknowledging their decay -- in bat speed, pitch recognition, hand-eye coordination -- then pitchers will catch on sooner than later, too. What about the inverse? Does Longoria's spiked walk rate suggest he's nearing the end? Has his batting eye and command over the zone eroded? Is he never going to walk again, aging bat got no rhythm? A deeper dive suggests a different George Michael song provides a more apt reference: there's reason to have faith in Longoria walking more as the season progresses.
Some of that declaration is common sense. It's hard for a batter to go through a season walking 2.5 percent of the time. Last year, only two qualified hitters did it -- Tim Anderson and Alcides Escobar. Longoria figures to avoid that distinction, in part because he isn't doing what hackers do. A player refusing to walk would be swinging more often, especially early in the count and on pitches outside of the strike zone, and would be making more contact, offering fewer chances for count advancement. None of the above accurately describe Longoria's situation.
According to data provided by Baseball Reference, Longoria's first-pitch swing rate is down to 26.7 percent, three percentage points lower than either of the last two years, and lower even than the league average. The idea that Longoria isn't going up there and swinging at everything is further supported by metrics housed at Baseball Prospectus. According to BP's numbers, Longoria is swinging less often than he did in 2017; expanding his zone less often than he did in either of the previous two years; and making contact about as often as his career rate. Basically, none of the telltale signs of a walk-allergic hitter apply here.
So, what is going on here? Most of the effect seems to be a quirk of a (relatively) small sample. The numbers do suggest that pitchers are challenging Longoria more often, however. BP tracks "zone percentage," or the ratio of pitches seen within the theoretical strike zone. Of the pitches Longoria has seen this season, about 51 percent have been located in the zone -- the highest rate he's encountered since 2012. At the same time, that figure doesn't necessarily mean much. To wit, his zone rating was 51 percent or higher in each of his first three seasons, and four of his first five -- a range encompassing the bulk of his most productive years.
Perhaps, then, the most pressing question is not whether Longoria will begin to walk more, but, rather, if he can continue to hit with such authority. Should he prove up to it, the Giants are going to be delighted with their decision to trade for him.
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