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September 19, 2011
The Loney Island
In 2007, James Loney hit .331/.383/.538 (good for 2.1 WARP) and was a valuable fantasy asset to those who took a chance on the rookie first baseman that season. Loney has spent most of the time since disappointing both Dodgers fans and fantasy owners as Loney was barely over replacement level talent in 2008 and 2010 and still has not had a season of at least half the value he had in his rookie year. Even more frustrating for anyone with a vested interest in Loney is how everything was trending in the wrong direction as both his batting average and his slugging percentage had experienced four straight years of decline coming into the 2011 season.
The declining slugging percentage is quite troubling for someone at his position since the average first baseman at least hits for power. In 2011, first basemen have a collective slugging percentage of .453—a rate Loney has not seen since that 2007 season. The start of the 2011 season seemed to be more of the same disappointing Loney as he ended the first month of the season with just two extra base hits and a .210/.241/.248 slash line in 112 plate appearances while walking just five times and striking out 16 times. May was a bit better as he rebounded with seven extra base hits and walked more than he struck out while posting a .293/.350/.413 slash line in 100 plate appearances. June saw yet another step up in his batting average as he hit .337 that month, albeit with just four extra base hits and OPS that was once again below .800. July was his worst month of the season, hitting an ugly .176 with a .455 OPS as both he and the Dodgers had a bad month.
As July became August, Loney had but a .256/.302/.325 slash line, and he and his .627 OPS were found on barely any mixed league rosters at that point. If you were one of the select few people that held onto Loney because you had no other options or were able to pick him up out of necessity at the beginning of August, you’ve had one of the hottest hitters in baseball. Since August 1, Loney has hit .355/.426/.623 with 22 extra base hits and 28 runs driven in over just 158 plate appearances, going from a must-cut candidate to a must-have player down the stretch.
The concept of sample size is not a foreign concept to anyone reading here, so the recent run of success for Loney has to be taken with a grain of salt. After all, we are still talking about a player hitting .283 with just a .744 OPS on the season. When looking at a player like this to see where this recent change really came from, I find it helpful to look at the player in buckets of 100 plate appearances and peel the layers of the onion to find the meat of the player.
Over his last 1000 plate appearances, Loney’s overall slash line is an unacceptable .268/.329/.392 for a first baseman. Even over his last 500, .287/.342/.413 is barely replacement level for his position. However, once we get to his last 400 plate appearances, Loney starts to look more attractive and has obviously been a gem over his last 100. Note that during the hot stretch over the last 400 plate appearances, his walk to strikeout rate has improved nearly every step of the way.
In 2009, Loney walked in 11 percent of his plate appearances while striking out in 10 percent of them but strayed from that disciplined path in 2010 and in the first half of 2011 as he tried to hit with more power. If we look over his monthly splits this season, Loney’s walk rate was between five and seven percent until August came around, and he has been walking in 11 percent of his plate appearances since that time while maintaining his career strikeout rate at the plate.
A look at his batted ball profiles shows Loney finally hitting the ball with some authority as his HR/FB rate was 19 percent in August and 11 percent so far in September; Loney’s HR/FB has not been higher than seven percent since the 2007 season. Most of the rest of his batted ball profile is right in line with his career rates, but his batting average on balls in play has been at .382 since August first after monthly totals of .233, .294, .377, and .200 leading up to this recent hot streak. The only variance in his profile is his flyball rate, which is at a career high 33 percent this season after fluctuating between 26 and 30 percent over the past four years.
The last 400 plate appearances have been encouraging, but many a fantasy player has been burned by Loney in the past, so I do not expect his 2012 draft day value to change much given the skepticism people will have toward him. On August 1, it was all but certain that the Dodgers would non-tender Loney, but this performance down the stretch may just be enough to keep him in that bad ballpark for another season, which is unfortunate because a move to a more neutral park would certainly help his fantasy numbers next season. If you buy into the theory that players grow into their power primes in their late 20’s, Loney turns 28 in early May next season, and that would lend some credence to this new-found success with his HR/FB ratio.
The Loney we’ve seen over the last 100-200 plate appearances may not be sustainable, but the one we have seen over the last 400 plate appearances is nothing to turn your nose up at.