Our old pal, Sternfan, has been asking a question on Twitter lately that goes something like this, “How is Evan Longoria elite?”Although Stern’s question is wry in nature, it does touch upon an important and fundamental sector of advanced analysis in explaining just why certain players are good. Hannah Ehrlich asked and answered why CC Sabathia is good a few days ago and it compelled me to try to answer Stern’s question about Longoria.
Before answering how Longoria is elite, first I want to answer how he is good. Individual value in baseball is based primarily on four factors for position players: 1) how well they hit; 2) how well they field; 3) how well they run the bases; and 4) those three aspects with regards to their position. Longoria is good-to-real good at each of those phases and that puts him in a special group of ballplayers. In the scouting circles, they call a player who excels at various abilities a five-tool player—with those tools being the ability to hit for average, power, field the position well, throw well, and run the bases well.
My colleague and editor at Baseball Prospectus, Ben Lindbergh, went in hunt of quantifying the league’s five-tool players in February. Unsurprisingly, he found Longoria to be amongst them. I want to take a different approach to the same quest, but I do not want to depress those who just wanted a bunch of value metrics thrown their way as proof. Since Longoria debuted, FanGraphs wins above replacement measure has him as the second-best position player in baseball (behind Albert Pujols), Baseball-Reference’s version has him at third-best (behind Pujols and Joe Mauer), and Baseball Prospectus’ has him as the second-best (again, behind Pujols).
What makes Longoria such a renaissance player is his degree of quality at each of the five tools. Defensive and baserunning metrics already give you the numbers relative to the league-average, but batting average and isolated power do not (meanwhile, there is no real measure for throwing strength). There are a few ways to get these numbers into forms relative to the league average. One way is to create metrics similar to OPS+, ERA+, and wRC+ (and I did: Longoria has a 104 BA+ and 143 ISO+) and the other way is to use grittier math and implement z-scores to tell you who rates well above average in both measures.
The sample pool includes every player with at least 1,000 plate appearances since 2008 and after taking the average of those z-scores, it turns out Longoria has the 24th-highest, but alas, those are just two of the four quantifiable tools. It’s safe to dispatch some of the 23 ahead of him because they lack defensive or baserunning ability. That cancels out Miguel Cabrera, Manny Ramirez, Ryan Braun, Joey Votto, Adrian Gonzalez, Prince Fielder, Mark Teixeira, Lance Berkman, Paul Konerko, Robinson Cano, Justin Morneau, and Hanley Ramirez. Alex Rodriguez probably is not deserving of being called a good baserunner anymore, either, so that leaves Longoria and nine others.
Those nine are Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, Matt Holliday, Joe Mauer, Kevin Youkilis, Nelson Cruz, Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez, and Ryan Zimmerman—i.e. the elite overall players in baseball. I don’t have enough faith in the defensive metrics to do a similar z-score analysis with those and the baserunning statistics available, but Longoria tends to fare well across the board. Ranking them across the board is rather pointless, however it is clear, through value metrics and more esoteric attempts, that Longoria is one of the better players in baseball and one with a wide-ranging skill set. And that’s why he is elite.