James Loney, forever a spark plug for debate among executives, scouts, and fans alike.
Prior to the 2002 draft, there was debate as to whether he was better as a pitcher or a hitter. During his time in the minors, there was debate as to whether he would ever use his size to develop a power stroke. In the majors, he has sparked many different debates between fans, most of them revolving around his RBI totals.
Now though, there’s a different debate going on, one that revolves around his sudden improvement late in 2011 season. His monthly OPS splits tell the story, reading .489, .763, .786, .455, 1.066, and 1.091. More importantly though, why has he improved and could it mark a turning point in his career?
ESPN’s Tony Jackson seem to think so and believes the catalyst was the change in hitting coach from Jeff Pentland to Dave Hansen that occurred on July 20th.
So what changed July 20?
Well, for one thing, the Dodgers changed hitting coaches that day, firing Jeff Pentland after just half a season as the primary guy and promoting Dave Hansen to that role. Was it a coincidence?
Since then, the idea has been critiqued, pondered, and speculated upon, but rarely given the depth of analysis I think it deserved, so I thought I’d give the hot button issue a shot myself.
What’s In A Hitting Coach?
As Mike Petriello astutely pointed out, Hansen’s effect on the team as a whole is dubious, and I don’t disagree with the general conclusion that hitting/pitching coaches usually make little difference, but I did specifically want to check into Loney’s case.
As such, one of the first things that needed to be looked at were the statistical indicators and what they mean.
As you can see, Loney has undeniably thrived under Hansen, putting up an OPS that would make him a top first baseman offensively to go along with his solid defense, something that Dodgers fans have dreamed about since he debuted in the uniform.
Unfortunately, the fact that his BABIP has jumped 54 points remains an issue, as this late surge could simply be regression to the mean. While his production was justifiably mocked as overrated for much of his career, Loney was never a .647 OPS type of hitter, which would have been 76 OPS points below his career low, so a bounce back regression at some point was to be expected.
On that same train of thought though, while many have discarded the improvement as mere luck and regression, I thought it was worth looking into whether Loney actually went through a transformation, both statistically and mechanically.
Distribution Plays A Key Role
Spray charts are important, not only because it reveals the distribution of hits in terms of percentage, but it can also reveal what the hitters do with those hits.
As you can see above, despite people falling in love with the conventional wisdom that going the other way is preferable, pulling the ball is absolutely the ticket to increased power numbers, and Loney was exceptionally effective when he did so.
Unfortunately, he pulls the ball at a rate 3.7% below league average, giving him less chance to do damage. To the opposite field, Loney’s production is actually better than league average as well, but he only hits 0.7% more balls to left than the league rate. So where do the rest of his batted balls go? To center at a rate 3.0% higher than league average, and with far less effectiveness, killing his production.
Therefore, if we expect Loney to effectively change as a hitter, the Dodgers need him to pull the ball more frequently and attack the ball more aggressively to generate better power. As the numbers show, it’s not that Loney can’t hit for power, it’s that he doesn’t pull the ball frequently enough and doesn’t hit the ball to center with enough authority to use whatever power he does have in an effective manner.
One thing that would make a difference in his late surge is whether he actually started pulling the ball at an increased rate.
Loney did start pulling the ball more in 2011, at a demonstratively increased rate. Basically, all the balls he sent into center and left field at an above league average rate were distributed into pulling the ball in 2011.
From those numbers, it’s possible to conclude that Loney’s late increase in production is linked with a change in approach, but it’s not a complete analysis quite yet.
So Did The Winds Of Change Help?
All of those indicators are well and good, but Loney could have made those changes before the hitting coach switch, thus neutralizing any talk of improvement, and proving he simply distributed his mediocre production differently, so I had to look at his numbers under Hansen.
Since the change in hitting coach, Loney has been pulling the ball at quite an epic rate. Prior to the switch, his distribution to right was well below 30%, but since then, he’s up close to 37%. It marks a clear change in distribution that becomes increasingly obvious when you look at the month by month progression.
This graphic makes sense considering immediate change is a bit much to expect, as it takes time for whatever approach switch to take effect.
As a Loney skeptic myself, that’s still not enough evidence for me to truly believe, as I think that if no change was made to his setup or swing, then what’s to say that all of this isn’t just statistical noise? In other words, if Hansen didn’t actually change something in the way Loney approaches plate appearances, there’s a good chance no actual change was made and there’s no reason for increased optimism.
Personally speaking, before I got swamped with work during last off-season, I had planned on writing a piece revolving around Loney’s swing mechanics and why they prevented the big and strong first baseman from putting up the power numbers that were always expected of him. One of the biggest reasons I was always skeptical (since he was a prospect) about him fulfilling his potential was his inability to consistently pull the ball with authority, so if that has changed, maybe hope has indeed sprung.
April Versus August
While comparing his mechanics from April to August, there are a number of changes in Loney’s setup and swing that have emerged.
The difference in his initial setup is easily recognizable in the pictures.
For one, he’s more closed off in August than April, preventing him from firing his front shoulder and hips early, sapping his power. You can partially see the effort to keep his weight back as well, as he aims to load on his back foot more in August than April.
Secondly, he’s bent at the waist at a more acute angle. Generally speaking, I find this change a matter of comfort and preference, but when you make this switch, it helps the hitter remain more compact and keeps the swing shorter to the ball.
Lastly, these pictures are taken right before Loney starts his leg kick. What’s important to notice is where the pitchers are in their respective motions. In April, Jaime Garcia hadn’t even broken his hands yet and Loney was already starting his kick. In August, Greg Reynolds is two frames from releasing the ball and Loney had just started his kick. This makes it obvious that there’s a drastic difference in when he starts his approach to the ball.
In April, there are four frames between start of Loney’s leg kick to his peak leg kick, and there are four frames between peak leg kick and Garcia releasing the ball. As you can see in the picture, Garcia has the ball in throwing position as Loney reaches peak leg kick.
In August, there are two frames between start of his leg kick to his peak leg kick (two frames less than April), and there are negative 1 frames (reaches peak leg kick before ball is released) between peak leg kick and Reynolds releasing the ball (five frames less than April). As you can see in the picture, Reynolds has already released the ball as Loney reaches peak leg kick.
Given the change in his setup, Loney is unsurprisingly in a more crouched position at footstrike in August than April. Additionally, there are a solid three frames between footstrike and Loney initiating his swing in April. In August? About 0.5 frames.
What that change means to me is that the August swing is on time and in rhythm, while the April swing is early and prone to prematurely opening. If the footstrike occurs too early in the approach, and the hitter has to wait and wait and wait until starting the swing, there’s a tendency to pull away from the ball. However, when the timing is on point, the hitter has no choice but to open his hips aggressively in order to get the bat head to the ball, which is exactly the scenario Loney has been forced into.
The analysis of this picture is less scientific in approach and more about my own opinion.
In April, it seems that Loney was doing exactly the same as he had done over the majority of his career, prematurely opening his right shoulder and leaking his hips earlier than necessary, which then led to an upper body dominated swing, which saps the batter of all relevant power.
In August, Loney stays closed longer due to better timing and is far more compact in his approach. Therefore, instead of bleeding power while he waits for the ball to get to him, he can fire his hips immediately and thus actively recruits his lower half into the swing, which is important since the core is where the power lies.
As a result, fly balls that are hit on the sweet spot but ended up as lazy flies (“Loney-esque” is honestly how I would describe them to Dodgers fans) in April are now being bombed into the bleachers and off the wall in August.
Note: I didn’t just take two random swings and break them down. I looked at almost all of Loney’s plate appearances in which he pulled the ball in April and August, then made a conclusion off of what I saw, as I told Mike yesterday morning. Hell, I even made GIFs for more swings, but this is not my job and I honestly can’t spend 90 hours describing every swing, so you’ll just have to trust me or go look at the video yourself. It’s all up on MLB.com.
What fans want to hear is that Loney has simply flipped a switch and will now pull 35% of balls and put up an OPS near .900 going forward. While I wish my analysis could guarantee that, it’s simply not a feasible conclusion to reach.
What is clear though is that Loney has changed his approach and swing over the last two months in a way that has drastically affected his hit distribution and production. As such, the possibility does exist that his numbers could improve significantly in 2012 if the changes he has made carry over on a consistent basis.
That said, all of my findings are subject to the usual sample size critiques, which is precisely why nothing about this is a sure thing. However, I have shown that Loney’s change under Hansen has absolutely happened, and looking at the free agent list at first base for 2012, unless the Dodgers can get Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, or Lance Berkman, I’d rather give Loney another shot if he comes at a reasonable salary (4-6 million?) even though I had previously preferred signing Carlos Pena (probably more expensive).
When talking about baseball players, hope is part of what makes the game so fun to follow, but it can also be a dangerous thing, especially when that hope is invested in a 27-year-old first baseman with a .749 OPS/103 OPS+ over four full seasons. Still though, as of now, I’m more willing to take a chance on Loney than ever before.
I hope I’m right.