Evan Longoria's return could be difference-maker for Rays
It's been 14 weeks — more than half a season — since Evan Longoria last played a major league game. On Tuesday night, the star third baseman's long absence due to a hamstring injury will come to an end, as the Rays have activated him from the disabled list; he is scheduled to DH and bat cleanup against the Blue Jays. His return should bolster the playoff hopes of a team that's 56-52, in third place and seven games back in the AL East, and running fifth in the Wild Card race, two games out of a spot. The Rays certainly didn't expect to be without Longoria for so long; the initial diagnosis when he tweaked his hamstring running the bases called for an absence of six to eight weeks, but he suffered a setback during the second game of his rehab stint on June 18, and didn't play again for another five weeks.
With Longoria in the lineup, the Rays bolted from the gate, going 15-8 through April 30, but since then, they're a middling 41-44. The split based upon runs scored and runs allowed suggests the contrast isn't quite so drastic; they ran out to that great April record despite outscoring their opponents by just eight runs (106-98), while since then, they have actually outscored opponents by 11 runs (328 to 317) despite their losing record. Take those splits together and they're right on target with their Pythagorean record, though the numbers leave little doubt that they have struggled without him.
Longoria was hitting a sizzling .329/.433/.561 with four homers in 97 plate appearances went he left in the fourth inning of the team's April 30 game. At that point, the Rays were averaging 4.60 runs per game. Since then, Rays third basemen have hit a combined .236/.310/.343, and the team's scoring has dropped to 3.85 runs per game, a mark that would rank dead last in the league. Manager Joe Maddon has used no less than seven players to cover for Longoria's absence, with Jeff Keppinger (.360/.456/.480 in 90 plate appearances) the only one to post an OPS above .636; he missed five weeks himself due to a broken toe, which didn't help matters. Sean Rodriguez, who began the year as the team's regular shortstop, actually saw slightly more time at third than Keppinger, but hit a sorry .221/.256/.360 in 93 PA. None of the other five fill-ins has received more than 40 PA in that spot.
The sad fact is that the combined hitting of the hot corner fill-ins doesn't even stand out amid the meager performances the team has received elsewhere in the lineup during Longoria's absence:
Via OPS, Rays third basemen rank sixth out of the nine positions during that span, but they're just nine points out of third. More shockingly, only the team's rightfielders — mainly Ben Zobrist and Matthew Joyce — have combined for an OPS above 700 in that span. Some of that is the impact of Tropicana Field, which reduces scoring by about eight percent according to Baseball-Reference.com, but some of it is just lousy hitting. Designated hitters Luke Scott and Hideki Matsui have been so bad that they earned a spot on my Midsummer Replacenent-Level Killers squad of ignominy, with the latter drawing a pink slip in late July. Center fielder B.J. Upton earned a Dishonorable Mention for the Killers, too (the Reds' Drew Stubbs outstunk him). Carlos Pena, hitting a fairly bleak-looking .196/.322/.359 overall, has been even less effective than that since Longoria went down, while the team's various catchers appear to have been hitting with wet, rolled-up newspapers.
The impact of Longoria's loss has been felt in the field as well, at least to some extent. While pitching staff's runs allowed per game and batting average on balls in play have both dropped without him (from 4.26 to 3.73 runs per game, and from .295 to .284), the team's overall BABIP allowed is 20 points higher than it was last year (.287 versus .267), when Longoria played 133 games. Longoria's return alone won't be enough to propel the Rays into the postseason, but assuming he's healthy, it's basically the equivalent of adding a star at the trading deadline. Based upon the gap between his season-to-date performance and the collective performance of his replacements, some very rough back-of-the-envelope math suggests that Longoria would be worth an additional 30 runs — three wins — on the offensive side. A more sober accounting using his career level of performance places the gap closer to 18 runs, perhaps less if we assume Maddon will give him a bit of rest to protect the hamstring and call the defense a wash. An extra 1 1/2 wins over the final third of the season should boost the Rays' chances of reaching the playoffs via the Wild Card considerably.