4) Matt Long, 04/30/1987 -- OF, High A and AA
.299/.378/.502 with 18 HR and 34 SB. +23 bat, +1 glove, 3.9 WAR
This one takes me back to April of 2010. I'd travelled deep into Illinois to get a first-hand look at that epic 2010 Kernels club featuring Mike Trout, Tyler Skaggs, Jean Segura, Garrett Richards, Pat Corbin, and others. I arrived a little late, so was just settling in when this short, skinny little guy - seriously, he was downright puny standing next to Trout - comes up to hit in the two slot. Who's this dude? I look him up on the roster, and find him: Matt Long. Dammit. I felt a pang of mild disappointment that it wasn't Jake Rife or Richard Cates, both of whom were coming off of interesting 2009 campaigns.
Long, a 30th round draft pick, reached base like twenty times over the next three games.
He finished 2010 with an OBP second only to Trout's on the Kernels' roster. He mixed in some speed too, stealing 23 bases and knocking 12 triples. TotalZone didn't think he had much range in the outfield, which is strange for a player with those skills, but he did rack up 14 assists with his cannon arm. All in all, he a nice campaign, so he entered 2011 looking like a moderately valuable organizational guy.
Long exploded in 2011. He added distance power to his game, was better on the base paths (34 swiped bags at a higher success rate) and in the field (18 assists!). He maintained control of the strikezone throughout. Hitting in the Cal League undoubtedly inflated his numbers somewhat, but he swatted half of his HR's at power-suppressing Inland Empire. Listed at 5'11", 170 lbs, you have to wonder, could this guy's pop be legit?
I got some footage of Long in 2010. While he only knocked 4 long balls that year, you can see in the video how he generates the power that manifested in 2011:
Long has above-average bat speed and gets his hands into hitting position quickly. He has some loop to his swing, which generates uppercut at the point of contact (similar to Mike Trout, actually). He collapses his backside a little to generate even more loft, and all the while maintains that firm front leg. Those are legit masher mechanics, generating flyballs a full 50% of the time on his balls in play. While his lack of physicality caps his HR per flyball rate at a below average number, Long keeps the ball in the air and maximizes every bit of leverage possible out of his slight frame.
What I found really impressive about Long is his ability to maintain those mechanics without striking out more than 15% of the time. While his swing doesn't have much length to it in back (he doesn't extend his hands out towards the umpire before swinging, like a lot of power guys do), he relies on the loop and uppercut to build bat speed, so he makes his hardest contact out in front of his body and to his pull side, after he's dropped the bat head. That means he can't afford to let the ball travel deep in the strikezone, which would give him a longer look at the pitch, before starting his swing. Fortunately for him, he's blessed with outstanding pitch recognition skills and bat speed, so has managed just fine so far. The loop also opens a hole in his swing, making it easy for pitchers to come in on his hands (they do that in the video above with some success); but again, his pitch recognition skills appear to have minimized the consequences of the "big man" hitting mechanics.
However, the swing does impose some limits. It hasn't really caught up with him yet, but the collapsed backside and uppercut have capped Long's linedrive rate to a below average 15% the last two years while producing pop-ups at an above average rate. He doesn't hit many groundballs, which generally help guys with his speed prop up their BABIP. Despite efforts to go the other way, almost all of his success comes from pulling the ball: he hit 13 of his 18 HR's to right field, the rest to right-center and center, and managed only a .195 batting average on balls in play when he lofted a ball to the left side. He'd get into ruts in 2011 where he'd just hit lazy flyball after lazy flyball to the left fielder. Those are all factors that could limit his ability to hit for average at the highest levels.
A full year at Double A will tell us more about how Long's skills will hold up against more advanced competition. Right now, he looks like a potentially perfect fourth outfielder for the Angels, capable of playing good defense, holding down center on occasion, running the bases, and providing some much needed secondary skills at the plate from the left side.