It's common knowledge that Evan Longoria is the Tampa Bay Rays' best player, but he's about to get even better.
That might be difficult to believe considering Longoria is coming off a 31-homerun, 98-RBI 2011 season, which he memorably capped with a walk-off homerun on the final day of the regular season to send the Rays to the playoffs for the third time in the past four years, but it's true.
In addition to the obvious misfortune of dealing with injuries last year (Longoria missed 29 games), he was also a victim of having terrible luck when he put the ball in play. The BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) statistic illustrates this point.
BABIP has grown in popularity due to its ability to diagnose anomalous individual seasons that a player may produce. An unusually high BABIP tends to be followed by a regression, while an extremely low BABIP indicates a rebound season is forthcoming. Longoria's 2011 is a prime example of the latter.
The league average BABIP typically lands between .290 and .310. This means that for every hundred at bats in which a hitter makes contact, about thirty will result in base hits. Predictably, the better players usually have a high BABIP by virtue of consistently making solid contact. Until last year, Longoria had been one of those players. In his first three big league seasons (2008-2010), Longoria posted BABIPs of .309, .313 and .336. In 2011, his BABIP fell to .239.
In trying to keep this as simple as possible, BABIP is often influenced by the proportion of ground balls, line drives and fly balls a player hits. Fly balls produce more outs than ground balls, which produce more outs than line drives. So, the more line drives and ground balls a player hits, the better his BABIP is likely to be. Considering Longoria's BABIP fell nearly 100 points from the 2010 season to 2011, one would assume that he was hitting a lot more fly balls while producing fewer ground balls and line drives. Statistics reveal that was not the case. Although Longoria hit more fly balls in 2011 (44.7%) than in 2010 (43.1%), he also hit more grounders, too (36.6% in 2010, 37.3% in 2011). His line drive rate decreased from 20.3 percent to 18, but that is nowhere near drastic enough to explain such a large drop in BABIP.
Notwithstanding Longoria's fluky bad luck in 2011, there are other reasons to expect 2012 to be his best season to date. Despite playing in 18 fewer games than he did in 2010, Longoria drew 80 walks (his previous career high had been 72). His increase in plate discipline and power explains why Longoria's wOBA suffered only a marginal decrease (from .376 in 2010 to .365 in 2011) despite such a horrid BABIP. Further, Longoria lost 10 to 15 pounds this offseason in hopes of avoiding the muscle injuries that have sidelined him in previous seasons.
So, if Longoria's BABIP returns to even a league average figure in 2012 ( it will likely be higher), and his leaner frame allows him to play a full season, we can expect the Rays' franchise player to produce the MVP-caliber season he's capable of.
Rob Smith is a contributing writer for the Business of Sports Network. He can be reached on Twitter @RobSmithUSF or on his personal blog, http://smithersports.blogspot.com/
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