Star southpaw David Price went the distance and allowed only two runs to lead the Rays to a 5-2 victory that sets them up for a date with the Cleveland Indians in the American League Wild Card game. Star third baseman Evan Longoria, meanwhile, paced the offense, going 3-for-4 with a walk, a double and a two-run homer.
The evening's most encouraging development for the Rays? With all respect to Price's excellence, I'll go with Longo's big game.
Listen, the Rays know that Price is legit. He was off earlier in 2013, but he had a 2.57 ERA following his return from the disabled list before he shut down the Rangers. There should be no worries about him.
Longo is a slightly different story. His OPS was at .930 in late June. But in 83 games the rest of the way, it regressed to .738. He's the only superstar the Rays have on offense, but he hasn't been hitting like one recently.
Also, there's this: in his last 14 postseason games dating back to Game 1 of the 2008 World Series, Longo owns a .143/.186/.286 batting line with 21 strikeouts in 59 plate appearances. After an enormous beginning, his postseason track record has gotten to be rather iffy.
But how about now? After pacing the Rays' offensive attack on Monday night, is Longo primed to pace the offense the rest of the way too? Is he ready to be a postseason hero again?
Oh, he just might be...
The first thing we have to acknowledge is that a big game on the final day of the regular season didn't work for Longo last time. If you recall his epic two-homer, four-RBI game against the New York Yankees on September 28, 2011, you might also recall that he went on to collect only three hits and two walks in 18 plate appearances in the ALDS against the Rangers.
Which is a darn shame, because it means I couldn't make this article a short one by simply writing, "Don't you see?! He's doing that one thing that he did that one time!"
No, no. We have to make this a bit more complicated by asking this: Is there more than just Longo's big night against the Rangers that says he's ready to get hot in October?
It turns out that there is. The numbers aren't as definitive as I would prefer, but they'll do for positive signs.
The first thing we're going to do is take a look at some month-by-month and half-by-half splits for what Longo's actually been doing at the plate. That means walks and strikeouts and batted ball types, as well as BABIP and home-run-per-fly-ball ratio (HR/FB).
Courtesy of FanGraphs:
Rather than leave you to figure all this out on your own, I figure it's better if I'm not a jerk. Let's break down the trends individually:
- Walks: Longoria's walk habit peaked in June and July, a time when his BABIP went south. His walk rate in September is actually more or less in line with what he was doing earlier, which isn't a bad thing.
- Strikeouts: Longo racked up tons of strikeouts in July, in part because he K'd in 22 of 55 plate appearances (40 percent) following the All-Star break. He's been a lot better since, which is obviously a good thing.
- Contact Types: Longo couldn't buy a hit in June and July, and that's no coincidence in light of what happened to his line-drive habit. It's back up now, which is good, and cashing in some fly balls for grounders isn't bad. Grounders are more likely to go for hits.
- BABIP and HR/FB: Since the liners and grounders have been there for Longoria in September, it's no wonder his BABIP is back up to where it needs to be. And while his HR/FB rate for September is not ideal, it's a good sign that he's hit fewer fly balls in the second half while elevating his HR/FB. That's more efficient home run hitting right there.
So on the whole, things are looking pretty good. More walks would be nice, but it's good that Longoria has cut down on his strikeouts while adopting contact habits that are more BABIP-friendly. And while his fly balls are down, his home run power clearly isn't.
If we dig a little deeper into FanGraphs' number pool, we also find that Longo has patched up his plate discipline:
Note: This is Baseball Info Solutions data, not PITCHf/x.
If you don't know the terminology, "O-Swing%" is the percentage of pitches outside the strike zone Longo swung at. That would make "Z-Swing%" the opposite of that.
At any rate, there's more good stuff here. Longo spent the bulk of the first half using a very disciplined approach. He proceeded to spend much of the second half getting away from that approach, but has been snapping out of it in September.
Longo has gotten back to doing something else in September, and that's crushing fastballs.
Crushing fastballs is, of course, Longo's specialty. Look up his pitch type values on FanGraphs, and you'll see that he's generated more runs above average on fastballs than he has on any other pitch and that it's not even close.
Brooks Baseball can provide a closer look at what Longoria has done against fastballs, and this season he collected 20 of 31 homers on either four-seam or two-seam fastballs. For much of the season, he's been doing his usual thing against fastballs.
But something funny happened after the All-Star break. Take a look at this:
In the first half, Longoria murdered both four-seam and two-seam fastballs. Though he was still getting his hits on four-seamers, his power against heaters declined in the six-week(ish) period immediately following the break. But in September, the power against heaters has made a comeback.
It helps that these numbers have already been updated to account for what happened against the Rangers. MLB Advanced Media (via Brooks Baseball) says Longo's homer on Monday night against Martin Perez was on a two-seamer. So was his first-inning single.
As for Longoria's sixth-inning double off Alexi Ogando, that was naturally off a four-seamer. And when he walked against Jason Frasor in the seventh inning, he was able to lay off a couple sliders out of the zone and didn't bite on some fastballs inside meant to jam him.
Who do the Rays need to succeed more in the postseason?
To a certain extent, Monday night's game was a microcosm of the things that Longo does well when he's on. He crushed some fastballs and laid off some tough pitches outside the strike zone. His ability to do these things has always had a tendency to come and go, but he teased throughout September that he was getting right again, and...well, you saw what happened Monday night.
Because the numbers in his favor aren't exactly eye-popping, I'm not 100-percent convinced that Longo is about to go on a tear that will help carry the Rays to the World Series. He didn't end the regular season on any kind of hitting streak or power binge, after all.
However, the signs are there that he's feeling good at the plate these days, and that's not what the Indians and whoever else might be next want to hear.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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