March 13, 2012
Better Than Doug Mientkiewicz
For reasons I don't entirely comprehend, James Loney has been on my mind of late. His skill set is unusual for a first baseman, and although some players have parlayed similar skills into a successful big-league career, such players are few and far between.
In last week's light-hearted preview of the NL West, I quipped that Loney should star in a show called “Being Doug Mientkiewicz.” Marginally amusing one-liners aside, the truth is that Loney is a better hitter than Mientkiewicz, though this is hardly cause for celebration among Dodgers fans. Set the bar low enough and everything looks good.
Loney has had four straight seasons with an ISO less than or equal to .150. Since 1961, a total of 193 players have qualified for the batting title in a season while playing at least 80 percent of their games at first base. Of these, 77 have accomplished the feat at least four times. Of this latter group, only six—roughly 8 percent—have posted an ISO less than or equal to .150 (in descending order of OPS+):
Hernandez and Hargrove were in their primes, Parker (who came within six plate appearances in 1967 of doing it in eight straight seasons) and Rose (who managed to be at least as productive with the bat into his 40s as Loney has been in his mid-20s) were at the tail end of their careers. Only Grace and Loney were at the beginning, and Grace was a better hitter.
Six other players have met these criteria four different times, but not in consecutive seasons. Among them are Hall of Famer Rod Carew, former Dodgers first baseman Steve Garvey, and Loney's current manager, Don Mattingly. This is perhaps less informative than it is interesting, but the point is that not many first baseman have done what Loney is doing now.
Looking at larger bodies of work, how about players with at least 3,000 plate appearances and 80 percent of their games at first base since 1961? There have been 58 such players, nine of whom own a career ISO less than or equal to .150. We again sort by OPS+ to give a better overall picture of each man's offensive contributions:
This is an odd group of players, some of whom provided tremendous value despite a paucity of power. Hernandez, Hargrove, and Grace all had excellent on-base skills, which made them valuable despite their lack of punch at a position that typically demands it. Going further down the list, Loney compares well to some of these other guys. Casey and O'Brien appear as PECOTA comps for Loney, while another comp, Wally Joyner, just misses our cutoff with a career ISO of .151.
Although it is true that none of Loney's comps fell of a cliff at age 28, it is equally true that Loney isn't standing on a cliff so much as a molehill (his PECOTA for 2012 is .278/.338/.404). In other words, if he keeps producing as he has to this point, Loney doesn't serve much purpose beyond apparently attracting female fans who don't mind being condescended to by a major media network. (New slogan: “Loney is for the ladies, while Hernandez is just for men.”)
Of course, nowhere is it etched in stone that a hitter with Loney's skill set (or any skill set, for that matter) must continue producing at an established level at his age. Since Loney will play 2012 as a 28-year-old, let's see what Casey, O'Brien, and—what the heck—Joyner did at that age:
Casey rebounded from a miserable (.261/.334/.362) age-27 campaign and went on to even better things (.324/.381/.534) at age 29 before injuries slowly forced him from the game.
O'Brien enjoyed a career year, although he had shown signs in each of the previous two seasons (.161 ISO in 1984, .185 in 1985). He retained value through his age-31 season before hitting .237/.304/.371 from 1990 to 1993 and then retiring. The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract ranks O'Brien as the 96th-best first baseman in history (amusingly, one spot behind Parker). In his old Baseball Abstracts, James praised O'Brien for his defensive prowess, also a point in Loney's favor.
Joyner mashed when he first arrived, knocking 22 homers as a rookie in 1986 and 34 more the following year (when the juiced ball was in effect). Then he turned into the line-drive/on-base machine we all grew to love. At age 28, Joyner slumped due to a broken right kneecap that eventually caused him to miss the season's second half. That year, he failed to reach double digits in home runs for the first time in his career. The next year, he broke 20 for the third and final time. TNBJHBA has Joyner at 35th-best at first base.
This is all well and good, but Loney hasn't been as productive as those guys through age 27 (we'll add WARP to give a better idea of each player's overall contribution):
The most intriguing name here is Joyner, who—like Loney—enjoyed an early power display not seen again later in his career. Another similarity between these two is the fact that neither showed any punch in the minors. Loney's career minor-league ISO is .134, while Joyner's is .153. In 1985, at age 23, Joyner hit .283/.363/.440 with a whopping 12 homers in the PCL (league-average was .272/.343/.403). Danny Tartabull paced the circuit with 43 homers, while 13 others (including teammates Jack Howell, Pat Keedy, and Rufino Linares) topped Joyner's mark.
Not everyone develops power at such an early stage in their career. John Kruk, for instance, hit seven homers in the PCL in 1985 (although he was a power hitter in the sense that Joyner was, which is to say that aside from the occasional outburst, more of a doubles guy). Other late bloomers that immediately spring to mind are Jason Giambi, Shawn Green, and Ray Lankford. I'm sure you can find examples of your own.
Despite his lack of power in the minors, Loney owned a .222 ISO through his age-23 campaign at the big-league level. Granted, this is a small sample, and others who have shown such prowess at that age in a similar sample have gone on to—well, it's a pretty random bunch:
These are all the hitters since 1901 who have posted an ISO within a couple of points of .222 in 400 to 800 plate appearances through age 23. Oddly specific, I know, but stay with me.
If we expand to include guys with more plate appearances (i.e., larger sample) through that age, we add Hank Greenberg, Will Clark, David Wright, Don Hurst, and Andruw Jones. Removing Loney from the equation for now, here’s how the other eight players in this expanded sample fared as a group through age 23 vs. after age 23:
Bear in mind that two of these guys retired more than 60 years ago and four are still active. This list doesn't pretend to prove anything, but I find it interesting that as a group, these hitters essentially held value in all areas, including power. Greenberg had the highest ISO going forward (.309) despite missing nearly four years due to World War II. Hurst, the other old-timer, had the lowest (.163) and was finished by age 28.
Again, this entire group is cherry-picked. We could have expanded the ISO range a bit or done any number of other manipulations, but this gives us some sense of how hitters who started out with similar power numbers fared later in their careers. And if we compare the career totals of this group (Group A, Career ISO ≤ .150) to those of players who are like the early, slugging version of Loney (Group B, ISO ~ .222 through age 23), we get two very different lists:
The point is that Loney's current analogues are, as a group and individually, not as good as his analogues on first arriving. In other words, Loney isn't the player he once appeared to be. This may seem obvious, but as always, it is helpful to confirm our suspicions with actual evidence.
As we noted earlier, Group A comprises 58 players. Loney's .144 ISO ranks 52nd among them. Expanding to all positions, that puts him amidst Mark DeRosa, Dan Driessen, Jeff Blauser, Bob Oliver, Joe Oliver, and Bob Skinner for the career.
Players with a .144 ISO through age 27 are a bit more interesting: Amos Otis, Ryne Sandberg, and Garret Anderson. Those first two played premium defensive positions, while Anderson relied on batting average for much of his value (although he did average 46 doubles and 30 homers a year from age 28 to 31). He also spent nearly his entire big-league career in Southern California, which is something Dodgers fans would just as soon not see Loney do.
Although none of these comparisons may be encouraging to the Dodgers or their fans, Loney himself appears to be in excellent position. Thanks to a 2013 free-agent crop that includes precious few options at first base, Loney could cash in on his continued mediocrity. And if he suddenly goes Adrian Beltre on the league, some team could break the bank and give itself a case of long-term regret that would make trading for Ryan Howard seem like a good idea.