“A Tale of Two James Loneys” would be a great title for a novella, and it’s also the most apt description of Loney’s 2011 season.
Manning first in what was another season of “James Loney will finally hit for power and win a Gold Glove” vs. “James Loney will continue to under-perform, and by God we can do better”, Loney actually produced his best campaign to date. Unfortunately, it was still underwhelming, and even more unfortunately, it “earned” him another year and another chance in Dodger Blue.
Between Opening Day and the end of May, Loney’s line looked like this: .249/.292/.325/.617 with nine extra-base hits in 212 plate appearances. From June 1st through the end of the season, Loney mashed (certainly by his standards) to the tune of a .311/.365/.470/.835 slash line with 34 extra-base hits in 370 plate appearances.
The real question, of course, is what precipitated this massive turnaround, and whether it’s sustainable.
I’m not a scouting guy, and my strengths do not lie in analyzing batting mechanics and things of that nature. I’m a numbers guy, so that’s where we’re headed.
BABIP most definitely played a role, as a .337 mark helped to fuel the latter portion of James’ season, while a .263 BABIP accompanied Loney’s early season putridness (it may not be a word, but it’s as accurate a description as they come). Loney’s career batting average on balls in play is .311, so in short, he wasn’t as bad or as good as his two seasons would indicate.
That being said, all evidence points to James being more the first guy than the second half slugger.
Prior to 2011, James had put up declining numbers across the board. A two-year decline in OBP (.357/.329), BB% (10.7%/8.0%), and homers (13/10) went hand-in-hand with a four-year downward spiral in both SLG% (.538/.434/.399/.395) and wOBA (.389/.333/.332/.315), and a two-year increase in K% (10.4%/14.7%). Loney did cut down on his whiffs last year (11.5%), but he also drew even less walks (7.2%). Furthermore, since his career year in regards to value was accompanied by a .288/.339/.416 line with a .329 wOBA, .128 ISO, and 43 extra-base hits as an everyday first baseman, his status on the squad has to be in doubt.
With the leather, James had his best season, posting a 5.6 UZR/150, though for his career he has barely been an average glove man (0.1 UZR/150). Loney has never put up a WAR greater than the 2.3 he managed in ’11, and he’s averaged barely a 1.4 WAR in his six seasons in The Show (four full seasons).
Which James Loney will grace us with his presence this year, I can’t predict with 100% certainty. However, based on the abundance of data we have at our disposal (namely over 3000 career plate appearances), it is safe to say he’ll continue to not hit for power, not draw walks, and generally underwhelm immensely at the plate, while being atrocious against southpaws (.213/.254/.307/.561 in 2011, .252/.309/.368/.677 career), as he enters his age 28 season.
If Don Mattingly is wise, he’ll platoon Juan Rivera with Loney at first, move Andre Ethier to left field, and play Jerry Sands everyday in right.