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The 2020 Enigma : Shed Long Jr.

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Shed Long Jr. is possibly the biggest mystery for the Seattle Mariners entering 2020

Courtesy of Shed Long Jr’s Instagram

“I’m just tryin’ to beat the odds,” Shed Long Jr. tweeted.

Those are words Long Jr. has had to live by in professional baseball. At 5-foot-8, he’s always had to create his own odds. Never the most highly recruited prep, and never the most highly regarded prospect, Long Jr. had to fight his way through Cincinnati’s farm for six years before eventually being traded to Seattle.

Considered a fringy defender by some, It’s been Long Jr.’s bat that has created the opportunities he’s currently being presented. “He’s is a bat-first player,” Baseball America writes. “(He uses) special bat speed and barrel manipulation to hit the ball...”

In his first professional season in the big leagues, Long Jr. posted impressive numbers. Running a .263/.333/.454 slash in 168 plate appearances, Long Jr. threw together a 0.7 fWAR 2019 campaign for the Mariners, cementing his name into the second base spot on the 2020 lineup card.

But like his entire career, even the bat seems to be defying the odds.

While the baseball card statistics appear favorable, the underlying numbers suggest Long Jr. was the recipient of an awful lot of luck last season.

Of 135 qualified hitters, Long Jr. ranked second to last in xBA-BA with a difference of 48 points. xBA is ‘Expected Batting Average’ — a statistic used to measure what a player’s batting average should be based on launch angle and exit velocity readings. Long Jr. may have hit .263 last season, but the outcomes of his at-bats should have resulted in a .215 average. Obviously, a much different optic.

The only hitter with more luck last season, if you want to call it that, was Fernando Tatis Jr., who benefited from a 53 point swing (.317 xBA - .259 BA).

For a guy with “special bat speed”, Long Jr. produced exit velocities that averaged 87.6 mph last season, good for the 28th percentile in baseball. That’s not to say the scouting reports are incorrect, rather last season may have simply been a blip on the radar. You don’t run into 40 extra-base hits, as Long Jr. did in 2018, by happenstance.

That being said, Long Jr.’s bat path is one of extreme loft. When he connects, majestic fly balls are often the output. Having never posted a line-drive percentage (LD%) over 23 percent at any level for his entire career, Long Jr. is a boom or bust guy at the plate, and that loft is going to sacrifice exit velocity on a number of occasions.

As a result, Long Jr.’s other outcomes are obviously more common. His ground ball percentage (GB%) has floated between 47% and 54% every year — 3 to 10 percent higher than league average. The loft in his swing creates more infield fly balls (IFFB%) than average too, averaging between 13 and 18 percent annually — 2 to 7 percent higher than average. Not squaring up the ball will, quite obviously, affect the sum of one’s exit velocities over the course of a season.

His luck doesn’t end in the batting average column. Long Jr.’s slugging percentage is also severely inflated as well. Like xBA, ‘xSLG’ takes into consideration launch angle and exit velocity, formulating what an appropriate slugging percentage should look like given a player’s performance. Long Jr. slugged .454 last season, though the numbers suggest that should have floated closer to .333. That 121 point difference is the second most fortuitous figure in the league, second to Brett Gardner’s Yankee Stadium-induced 131 point deviation.

Again, several of Long Jr.’s extra-base hits were low-velo, opposite-field shots down the line and high-arcing fly balls into short porches. One home run into the Houston Crawford Boxes was particularly egregious.

But it’s not all Midas touch miracles. xBA and xSLG are limited in that they do not take into account one’s approach at the plate. If a player is willing to use the entire field, going line-to-line, they’re going to find more success, especially in their batting average. Long Jr. is one of the best complete-field hitters in the league. His 27 percent opposite field percentage (Oppo%) ranks in the 82nd percentile in baseball. While 168 at-bats is obviously a small sample size, his 36.4 percent Oppo% over ~300 minor league games from 2017-2019 probably reinforces the narrative.

Long Jr.’s upside isn’t limited to his use of the whole field either, his speed obviously plays a huge role in his success as well. A sprint speed rated among the 70th percentile of big leaguers, the ability to run out infield dribblers and find hustle doubles will effectively be a part of his game. The BABIP, xBA and xSLG will always benefit. Hell, it allowed him to steal 19 bags in 2018.

Long Jr.’s advanced approach at the plate isn’t limited to using the whole field. He consistently runs better-than-average strikeout rates and walk rates too. His ability to lay off pitches outside of the zone, a 24.4% chase-rate (O-Swing%), is exemplary, ranking in the ~90th percentile.

There’s a lot to like about Long Jr.’s profile. The speed factor, the burgeoning power output, the goggles and chains... ohhh the goggles and chains. Personality and swag get lost in this game sometimes. The toolset and goggles are both fantastic spectacles.

At the end of the day, offensive production from the second base position is still a luxury and not a necessity in this league. Only ten second basemen posted 2.7+ fWAR last season, the precise fWAR/650 Long Jr. posted last season. Even if Long Jr. is able to post 1.5 fWAR next season, that would be an enormous coup for Jerry Dipoto in building a roster for the contending future. Anything above 1.5 fWAR would likely place Long among the Top 15 second basemen in the game, a cost-effective foundational piece for the organization.

Whether Long Jr. can continue to defy the odds in both batted ball outcomes and bantam-bodied bravado will be a fixture of the Mariners’ 2020 story with longterm implications abreast.